One of my newcomer Guatemalan students comes from a Mayan community that observes an old Mesoamerican tradition of dental beautification – he sports gold decorations in his front upper teeth that have been carefully drilled in. The decorations are pretty, and quite unique – he shared with me that two of them form the shape of his initials. As a high school student, he is notoriously good-humored, adolescently forgetful, and a bit lost in his new land, but he has come a long way since January when he wasn’t sure if he should come to school at all.
I engaged the newcomer students this semester with a unit on Pre-Columbian civilizations that included geography, systems of knowledge, cultural practices, art, science and writing. We connected the foods that we eat now to the foods that were produced and eaten up to 2000 years ago, read about the Popol Vuh, created artistic representations of our birthday symbols according to one of the two Mayan calendars, analyzed the demise of the Aztec, Incan and Mayan civilizations, and studied important historical dates and figures in the Spanish conquest. One of the assessments I gave was a typical rote memory exam of key information learned in class. Unfortunately, like several of my other newcomer students, this student had misunderstood every historical “fact” examined in class: on his test, he said that the first people in the Americas were from Europe, Columbus was the ruler of the Aztecs when their empire fell, and that the major cause of the deaths of the Indigenous Americans after the Europeans arrived was due to not fighting hard enough.
As a teacher who has often taught newcomer students with very little formal education, I had to laugh and get some perspective about the absurdity of this white dominant American culture woman teaching a surviving member of the Mesoamerican culture about a timeline and history of his own people and how my people came to dominate politically and economically. I retaught the material, gave him a chance to memorize this teacher’s version of historical fact, and he retook the test with much better results. And I gave him credit for referring to Francisco Pizarro as “Pizza”, which will go down as one of my most favorite linguistic student errors of my career, as pizza is the dominant food offered at American public schools.
In Oklahoma, I had friends at public school whose parents were taken away from their homes as children to live in Indian Boarding Schools. In these schools, the children were expected to acculturate to the white way, unlearn their home languages and acquire an unyielding respect for authority. These schools were frought with child abuse and nightmares. They scarred yet another generation of Native Americans with lasting emotional wounds. As a teacher, I work in a field that is part of the process of cultural assimilation, and I must reckon with its implications and effects, for good or bad. As a teacher, I serve the public interest of helping students to integrate and assimilate into the dominant culture. Thankfully, current best practices indicate using culturally responsive teaching methods, and require inclusion of the histories and perspectives of non-dominant groups, and no longer remove young children from their family homes, or forget their cultural practices and home languages. But I constantly wonder and ask myself, as a cultural interpreter and representative of the culture of power, how I, and my lessons, mold a student’s feelings toward herself, her power, her culture and her language. And I wonder how the institution of school itself and its practices can be harmful to the development of a person, and their identity of worth and value to society.
Which brings me to standardized testing, and its use as a new tool of oppression.
I often reflect on whether the intense focus on standardized testing in public schools is akin to Indian Boarding Schools. Perhaps a stretch, but perhaps not. Two stories have come out this last week about the cultural educational space occupied by minorities in our society. One story is about the militaristic exercises employed by a group of schools that serve minority students. The other is about the locking up of a large group of African American teachers for a cheating scandal involved with mandatory standardized tests. In both stories, standardized testing is used to indoctrinate minorities to a certain displacement and comparison with the dominant culture of power. In order to access such power, extreme measures are put into place with the promise that power can be gained via improvement on such tests.
The first story was published on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. The article details and questions the “success” of the Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City. A very disturbing story about the experiences of minority youth enrolled at the schools is told: students are shamed and humiliated, forced to sit, stand and learn in certain postures, given constant extrinsic rewards and punishments, made to practice standardized tests for months in lieu of more holistic or engaging instruction, and are prone to wetting their pants out of fear and anxiety. The students at these schools are primarily African American, Latino and poor, and, as such, are regarded as needing such a strict and humiliating environment for their own good. The teachers seem to be overwhelmingly white, new to teaching, and likely to quit within one or two years, after extreme stress, mental and physical exhaustion, and deep reflection about their core values. Indian Boarding Schools come to mind.
There are some who argue that test taking skills are important because so much of a child’s educational prospects depend on it, and that the poor performance of poor children, African American children, Latino children, Native American children and children with special education can be remedied by spending much more time at school practicing test taking skills. However, it was also reported in this same article that none of the graduating 8th graders managed to get a high enough standardized test score to enable them to enroll in a New York City magnet school. So, the years of racial isolation from wealthier and whiter students, high teacher turnover, and intense test prep were still not enough to allow them to enter into the world of the academically elite and culture of power.
The second story is about the conviction of 11 teachers in Atlanta sentenced to 20 years in prison for changing students’ test answers on standardized tests. The context of this story is common throughout urban centers and children of color. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high stakes standardized tests repurposed many public schools as test prep centers. Students’ test scores had to increase each year in order for teachers to maintain their ratings, receive bonuses, and to ensure continued funding for their schools and students. The teachers and the students caught in the school scandals of Atlanta are primarily African American. However, the primary cause of the rampant system wide cheating were the effects of the impossible improvement targets from the NCLB mandate that all students and schools test at 100% by 2014. Without yearly improvements, Atlanta schools risked losing their funding, their teachers and their local control. Many educators are speaking out about the damaging effects of standardized tests on the educational circumstances of our most vulnerable youth, and some are speaking out about a system that is oppressing minority youth and jailing their minority teachers, much more eloquently that I. Last summer, the New Yorker published an article about Damany Lewis, an African American teacher who was caught up in the Atlanta cheating scandal. Damany’s story is incredibly moving, and I empathized with him as a teacher working hard to serve his students. The story humanizes each “criminal” step Mr. Lewis took in order to protect his students and to keep teaching them, in spite of the miserable atmosphere of testing and sanctions.
Much has been written over the last years about the demoralizing effects of No Child Left Behind standardized test mandates. Teachers are leaving the profession. Parents are looking for alternative schools that still allow time for art, the humanities, and play. Schools in urban areas are more segregated than ever because public schools have a hard time attracting heterogeneous groups of students when test scores and test preparation overshadow every other program that a school might be able to offer with its dwindling supply of public dollars for a well-rounded education. Although California has had a reprieve for two years from the high stakes standardized testing, without ill effect on our students and teachers, we are now entering into a new oppressive regime of web-based Common Core SBAC tests, in which teachers and students, particularly minority students and their teachers will be judged harshly once more.
And, just yesterday, at the national level, ESEA (otherwise known as No Child Left Behind) was re-authorized by the Senate, but in a very different form. Parents and teachers have been writing letters to change the scope and vision of the federal education program, and some of what we have been demanding has gained traction. Much more power is restored to the states to determine which tests to use, and how to evaluate their teachers and programs. However, the requirement of yearly testing between 3rd and 8th grade and in the junior year of high school remains, despite the years of research that show the punitive and damaging effects that such tests have on all our students, our teachers and our public schools.
Tomorrow I will teach my newcomer students again, I will laugh and learn with them, I will enculturate them with kindness and test “do-overs” to encourage them to learn, endure and succeed in our system. I may even judiciously shame them if they are rude or unambitious in class. And, I will wonder about their value as new citizens of our country, a country in which we use standardized testing to determine a child’s worth. Is this what we want? Is this how we evaluate people’s potential contributions to society? Mandated standardized testing for public school students is enshrined in law and governed by big business. And I say no.
Here are a few articles and posts about the new version of the Federal Education Act and Standardized Testing, current Common Core tests, Opting Out and some historical context:
A review of The Test, a new book by Anya Karmenetz, on “how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.”
Thank you for reading.
“…you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” James Baldwin
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein