U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan touched off a torrent of criticism last November when he told a group of state school superintendents that opposition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was coming from “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.”
White suburban moms, among many others, have certainly played an important role in organizing resistance to high-stakes tests in actions that have led to important victories in Texas, New York, and beyond as they fight to defend their children from abuse by a multibillion-dollar testing industry that is homogenizing education and draining resources from cash strapped school districts. The obsession with data and testing is driving the professionalism out of teaching and the joy out of learning.
But Duncan’s “white suburban moms” comment and the resulting media coverage—portraying this as another inelegant choice of words by a bumbling cabinet official—obscured two essential facts: The high-stakes standardized testing attack has always exacted the highest toll on communities of color. And activists of color are playing leading roles in the movement to curb these abuses.
In the name of closing the achievement gap, entire communities of color in cities around the country have seen classrooms converted to test prep centers, where the time spent on studying strategies for eliminating wrong answer choices has pushed out inquiry, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, the arts, and culturally relevant pedagogy. Two clear examples of standardized tests supporting institutional racism are Chicago and Philadelphia, where the tests are being used to label schools in communities of color as “failures” and then shut them down at unprecedented rates.
A Sordid History
The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists whose pseudoscience promoted the “natural superiority” of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a “mental ability” gap and now an “achievement” gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.
Fortunately, in the wake of a decade-long barrage of standardized tests unleashed by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now the Common Core, a movement of resistance has emerged around the country in the last year. This uprising had important antecedents, but reached new levels when educators at Seattle’s Garfield High School refused to administer the MAP test in the winter of the 2012–13 school year. The defiance of Garfield educators inspired others throughout Seattle, and then around the nation, in what came to be known as “Education Spring.” Many hundreds of parents in Long Island opted their children out of tests; students walked out of high-stakes standardized tests in Portland, Chicago, and Colorado; and rallies in Texas helped roll back 10 of 15 required tests for graduation.
In downtown Providence, Rhode Island, pedestrians were startled when a troop of ghastly looking youth—complete with blood-spattered clothes and deathly pale complexions—gathered at the state department of education building, where one student stepped forward to announce:
We are here to protest the use of high-stakes standardized testing, and the zombifying effects it is having on our state’s young people. To base our whole education, our whole future on a single test score is to take away our life—to make us undead. That’s why we’re here today, in front of the Rhode Island Department of Education, as the zombies this policy will turn so many of us into. We’re here to say: No Education, No Life!
A Movement Gathers Steam
As a new barrage of CCSS tests come online, the creativity, dynamism, and power of Education Spring show no signs of abating. Parents at Castle Bridge Elementary School in New York City overwhelmingly opted their children out of a standardized test that ultimately had to be canceled due to the lack of participation. California placed a year-long moratorium on the use of Common Core exams to make “accountability” decisions, a modest step that drew threats from Duncan to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education aid. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers won contract language that reduces classroom time assigned to test prep and testing. The Portland, Oregon, teachers’ union’s new contract “bars the use of student performance on standardized tests as a basis for involuntary transfers, layoffs, placement on the salary schedule, and/or disciplinary language.” In Chicago, 100 percent of the teachers at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy voted to boycott the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, backed by the full support of the Chicago Teachers Union, which called it “an obsolete test [that] has no use to educators or administrators . . . and serves no purpose other than to give students another standardized test.” The boycott vote followed on the heels of a press conference by Chicago parents representing a reported 500 parents who have opted out districtwide.
And yet, for this movement to truly fulfill its potential, it needs a deeper understanding of how different communities are being affected by these tests. If the power of solidarity is going to reclaim our schools, more affluent, predominantly white activists will need to develop an anti-racist understanding of the movement against standardized testing and the barriers that communities of color face to joining—including the very real fear from parents of color that their children’s schools will be shut down if they don’t encourage them to score well on the tests. In some instances, parents of color have expressed support for standardized tests as a way to hold school systems accountable for the education of their children, who have far too often been systematically neglected, disproportionately disciplined, and left to cope in the most under-resourced schools.
In this context, it is critical for the opt-out/boycott movement to be consistent and clear: Not only do these tests narrow the curriculum, kill creativity, and degrade the quality of education for everyone, they also funnel black and brown youth into prison in unprecedented numbers. As Michelle Alexander noted in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “More African Americans are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslved in 1850.” The school-to-prison pipeline is a major contributor to that atrocity. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study The School-to-Prison Pipeline Exposed reveals that increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams are linked to increased incarceration rates.
So it’s no surprise that activists of color have played major roles in advancing some of the most prominent struggles against standardized testing. To name just a few examples: Castle Bridge Elementary PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols helped lead their school—which serves 72 percent students of color—in the successful opt-out revolt. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, has spearheaded the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing there. High school teacher and Rethinking Schools editorial associate Jesse Hagopian was one of the leaders of the Seattle MAP boycott, which was vigorously supported by the local NAACP.
A multiracial fightback against the testing industrial complex—one that is explicitly ant-racist and takes up issues of class inequality—has the potential to change the terms of the education reform debate and envision a world where authentic assessments are used to support students as they engage in classroom inquiry about how to achieve social justice.
Clear Goals, a Wealth of Strategies
Because the stakes attached to these tests are different for different communities, this new movement against standardized testing would do well to embrace a multifaceted approach. Opting out and boycotting tests can be exemplary individual actsof resistance. But this tactic becomes most powerful when it grows beyond individual to collective action and becomes part of a mass movement of resistance and protest that includes many entry points and expressions. Other possibilities include encouraging politicians to “opt-in” by publicly taking the exams, holding community film screenings on testing, refusing to teach to the tests, and using social justice pedagogy in the classroom to help students think critically about the ugly origins and abuse of standardized testing.