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Wild Dreams: Anonymous, Arne Duncan, and High-Stakes Testing

Last night I was re-reading a terrific little book from 1976 by Don Martin, George Overholt, and Wayne Urban: Accountability in American Education: A Critique. The book brings so many elements of the current edu-mess into focus, while giving a long view of history. What is evident in re-reading this book is that the threats to democracy that the authors feared in 1976 from the encroaching accountability juggernaut have become much scarier and much more real since then. Some would say inevitable.

The book reminds us of some of the history behind the stealing of the language of learning by social control behaviorists and the takeover of the knowledge definition by epistemological thugs who define what knowledge is and how it is measured. These moves have had crushing effects on humane pedagogy and schooling, while strengthening and centralizing the administration of schools far beyond what are now the minor functionaries of principals, boards of education, and even superintendents.

A story in a Texas Tribune story yesterday, in fact, that includes the recent epiphany by the current Texas State Superintendent, indicates clearly that he is one of many who sees the writing on the wall, and it wasn't written by him. His years of loyalty to the accountability cause have simply worked to make his job insignificant or disposable as power is moved to the ultimate corporate level, which in the end in not national but international--corporate socialism without boundaries--a fascism beyond nation states.

The three main criticisms of education accountability in Accountability. . . are now evident on a steroidal level:

Based on abstracted, or radical empiricism. Not only has the distinction disappeared between knowledge and its poor proxy of a test score, but observable experience has been reduced down to a test score measurement that now is even used to predict future earning in adulthood by examining what adults earn who had high test scores. As if standardized tests were not designed to maintain power by the privileged whose families had money and test scores to begin with.

Elitist and conservative in nature. These standardized tests, even going back to the first IQ tests, have been used as "scientific" confirmation of elitist assumptions that even precede social Darwinism. History tells us that those who are in controlling power positions are there because of a divine, an evolutionary, or a psychometric reason, and the modern the testing system has been devised to reward the privileged and the elite and to punish everyone else by keeping them in their places. (The current value-added fad adds a balm for the liberal conscience by at least acknowledging that the poor who will always be behind can at least receive smiley faces for making "progress"). Oh yes, progress.

Based on maintaining inequality. Based on a hypocritical and self-serving notion of meritocracy that embraces institutional inequality, the most able are identified as those who have the resources from birth that are needed to grow or buy the highest scores through whatever means necessary, whether it is a 30k a year pre-school, a 40k a year private school, thousand dollar tutoring sessions for the SAT, or just daily doses of an unending supply of the cultural and social capital that provide the needed boost when occasion requires it.

Decisions now about school curriculum and student assessment are handled by national consortia composed of hired academic and technical guns paid by corporations and their foundations to shape what is taught in schools based on the stupid and arrogant conceptions of a handful of oligarchs and the CEOs of the Business Roundtable. To enforce the teaching of this emerging national curriculum and national test are teachers whose jobs will depend upon how well their charges do on these tests. This is called teacher evaluation, or half of it, anyway. The other half is based an instructional catechism designed and place in a rubric (scoring guide) to incentivize the creation of miniature and identical autocracies in every classroom of America, where learning to handle knowledge (test scores) is Job #1.

And so I was thinking about all this as I drifted off to sleep last night, and I had the craziest dream. I dreamed that the hacker group, Anonymous, had shut down every data port that handles test score data and had posted these demands on the Arne Duncan's Facebook page and on every state department of education webpage:

  1. Stop using test data to keep students from receiving their diplomas or moving to the next grade
  2. Stop using test data to evaluate teacher effectiveness in any way
  3. Stop using test data to close down public schools
  4. Stop using SAT or ACT test data to make admissions decisions for college
  5. When students graduate from high school, all test scores and collected psychometric data will be handed to each student and all other records will be expunged from the data system.
  6. If these demands are met, your data systems may continue to operate. If these demands are not met, your data systems will be made useless. You have until summer vacation to make these changes at state and national levels. Welcome back to the real world.

Wow, what a dream!

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Jim Horn

Jim Horn is Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matter @ the Chalkface and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education. With co-author, Denise Wilburn, his new book, The Mismeasure of Education, was published in July 2013.

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