Take the Tests, Decisionmakers!

In case any of you missed this at f(t):

A school board member in Orange County, FL had the guts to sit for his state’s high-stakes test, the type of test a lot of decisionmakers are all in such a rush to have students’ futures and teachers’ livelihoods resting on.

Kate is asking her readers to call on NY Governor Cuomo to do the same thing.

This is effing brilliant. I say we take it up a notch. If you live in the US, pick an elected or appointed government official or purveyor of “education reform” who is rushing to rest more and more human futures on the results of a test, and call on them to take the test. I am not trying to be an organizer right now; I suppose it would be smart to make some strategic choices about whom to contact and via what medium (Kate: Cuomo / Twitter), but that’s not my style. I do have some nominations:

Arne Duncan
Bill Gates

Because these folks are operating at the national level, it’s not obvious which test to tell them to take. I want to say all of them, but maybe that’s just cuz I’m pissed off. Abnegating my role as organizer I’ll let you call it. Here’s one that’s easy:

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Take the NY Regents, mayor, and make the results public. I don’t care how you do, but I want you to know what you’re talking about when you make policy, and I want you to be willing to be scrutinized as you are insisting that students, teachers, and schools be.


Here’s what I love about this.

The last few years have felt to me like American schools are riding on top of a malfunctioning robot that is careening inexorably toward more and more insane school policy. The robot is being driven by an inflated sense of the importance and automatic legitimacy of numerical data. For a decade, a chorus of voices (many of people directly involved in the practice of education) have been crying out that this is madness,[1] but the robot has only sped up.


During the same decade, and especially in the last few years before this fall, the language used by national political figures advocating for justice and progressive change has felt more and more tepid to me. The clearest instance of this is the way that Democrats and even some progressive advocacy groups have latched onto the phrase “middle class.” Y’all are giving up the fight, guys. If you feel you are not allowed to advocate for working people or (God forbid) poor people, that in order to be a legitimate public interest your cause has to be sanded down and shellacked with a patina of educated white-collarness, then the folks who are only looking out for the interests of rich people have already prevailed.

My mood in relation to this language was not unlike my mood when beholding current debates about education: the feeling that justice and sanity are speaking, but being ignored; and they cannot find the language that will make the powerful listen.

So, imagine my thrill when this fall a new language took over: the 99%. Whatever you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you have to give it credit for a complete reshaping of the vocabulary available to discuss economic inequality. It seemed like everywhere I went this fall, somebody was talking about either “the 99%” or “the 1%” or both. This is just what I was missing: a way of talking about economic justice that feels powerful and relevant. That interrupts the inexorable slide into tepid lameness that characterized the national discourse till now.


What I’m getting at here is that we need ideas to interrupt the inexorable careening of the malfunctioning education reform robot, and Kate may just have found one. In the words of Rick Roach, the Orange County school board member who took the Florida tests,

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the FCAT in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

You know I don’t love the word “accountable,” the way it is thrown around these days. But these are the folks who do love it. So if they love it so much, let’s make them accountable. What I really mean is this: the public defamation of public schools and teachers, and the concomitant policy initiatives, have been based on numerical data from tests whose contents are public, but this is the only public thing about them. Most critically, their development is opaque, the way the data is used is opaque, and the way that decisions get made about how the data is used is therefore not subject to legitimate public scrutiny, or even, in all probability, based on any real understanding of the tests. The decisionmakers don’t even know what taking the tests is like!

So, decisionmakers, take the tests! You are willing to force students to take them, to scrutinize the results, and to make important decisions about students, teachers, and schools on their basis. Finding out what you’re actually forcing on them, and opening yourself up to the same scrutiny, is the least you could do.

[1]One of these voices was the television show The Wire, which aired well before the latest and most intense phase of this insanity, but which in spite of this develops a beautifully articulated critique of numbers-driven accountability in municipal institutions. Schools are included, but the brunt of the criticism is aimed at the police department and the city government. However, the essential problem is the same in all cases: when you demand numbers from people who are supposed to be doing a job requiring creative problem-solving and perseverance, you divert their attention from their actual work to the problem of giving you what you’re asking for. If you’ve never seen the show, you can get the whole thing from Netflix. You won’t be sorry. If you think I shouldn’t be citing a fictional television show regarding public policy, let me quote Mathnet: the names are made up but the problems are real. Not convinced? Read this.