10/30/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Professing and Parenting to the Test: Education Reform and the Testing Madness

Last week I asked my class of 30 plus first-year students a simple question in review for an upcoming mid-term: In what year did Mexican and U.S. authorities sign the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo? Almost immediately, the sound of ruffling papers permeated the classroom air, with students flipping back to their lecture-discussion notes for the answer. After a few moments, hands began to rise and I called on the first one I saw. "1848!" a young woman declared. "Very good," I responded, "Now tell me why? What 'war' (ahem: invasion) led to this treaty? Why was it fought? What did it mean for Native Americans and Mexicans now colonized by the U.S.?" I proceeded. A student raises her hand: "But there are many ways to answer these questions." Delighted with the observation, I asked: "So, what are your answers?" The student, now puzzled, "but don't you expect one right answer?"

For the past seven years, I've taught at a public university where a large segment of students hail from the New York City or neighboring county/state public school systems. Our more recent "traditional" entrants, first- and second-year students, are arguably amongst the newest waves of undergraduates partially educated under Race to the Top (RTTP), the Obama-era extension to the Bush administration's test-happy No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate. RTTP, predicated on neo-liberal market-based concepts of "choice" and "competition" while further emphasizing accountability through "performance-based" measurements (e.g. more tests!), is designed to award states points (hence monies) based on a weighted set of reforms they undertake. These can include enhancing "performance-based" measurements (to which teachers and administrators' jobs are tied), "turning around" low-achieving schools (shutting them down and re-opening them with new personnel), expanding charter school contracts and creating data banks to measure the aforementioned "progress." In essence, the right to a quality education is predicated upon a constant set of threats and pressures, punitive policies where the "public good" stands on constant alert. If you don't "perform," principals, teachers, students and their communities are told, we'll send in the efficiency (read: inequality) of the market to fix you.

Long before its inception, New York City had been serving as an experimental base for the neo-liberal practices that would eventually be embedded in the larger-scale RTTP. While some of my students never had to worry about school closings or losing a favorite teacher due to their inability to "teach-to the-test," other students who hail from the segregated and wealth-deprived communities of Brownsville and Bushwick, Harlem and the South Bronx, have firsthand experience of the Bloomberg administration's "turn-around" policies and in some cases come from the very overcrowded co-located schools now at center of debate in NYC's upcoming mayoral election (see here.) Since standardized testing was the measure to which their high school environment was determined, research papers and group work designed to encourage critical thinking and collaboration in my college classrooms often receive mixed reaction. In some cases, open-book, open-ended exam questions seem welcome yet daunting, while exam-free seminars often yield the common whispered question: "Really, no tests?" While I am in no way suggesting direct causality, it is in these moments that I have to remind myself of the environment to which many of our students come: They're used to a standardized test-centered curriculum -- it's what they've lived and breathed, nevertheless expect from their teachers.

And then it came home. While sitting alongside our kindergartener as he did his homework (it's optional, but still, five-year-olds have homework?), we came across a dubious exercise in his newly-minted practice booklet designed to adhere to the new Common Core curriculum. This new curriculum, in its early stages of roll-out in New York City, is supposed to raise the bar on (test-based) standards states failed to meet under NCLB (see here.) In this particular exercise, pupils were asked to circle the things that "belong together" and "tell a friend why" between a series of pictures including that of a dog, a cat and a mouse, and in another section: a car, a bus and a flatbed truck. "The car fits in the truck," our five-year-old stated with certainty. "That seems logical," mom nodded supportively, given that he used to fill his truck with cars and others toys when he was younger. When I showed a photo of the exercise to fellow educators, responses ranged from the instructive and critical to the confused and comical. One colleague suggested it was a poorly constructed exercise designed to encourage critical thinking, another argued it was to teach pairings by size, while another joked that her PhD should be rescinded and that she should head back to kindergarten. However confusing the exercise, it is no secret that the practice booklets are designed to coincide with a series of multiple choice tests he's going to start taking in three years -- that's right, third grade. Nevermind that the country that ranks first in most international standards (Finland) doesn't test until high school, the reformist-minded folks at the New York State Education Department are so excited about these tests that they are now having schools try them on four and five-year-olds. Reported results are astonishing (see here.) Kids, who could barely hold pencils, struggled to bubble in answers, while teachers, whose ratings are tied to student performance, were forced to stand idly by in frustration.

Despite the Common Core's highly prescriptive teach-to-the-test model, education reformers, led by a "data-driven" rationale, have pulled out all the stops to ensure that teachers and principals buy into the multi-billion dollar curriculum. Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from Long Island, has written about this extensively, arguing that "an unhealthy obsession with testing is producing a toxic mix" parents and children increasingly feel (see here.)

Deceptive and inaccurate right-wing films like Waiting for Superman don't help either, placing teacher unions as the primary explanatory variables of poor student achievement, while hailing charters as the panacea of all things public education. Such arguments not only ignore the closely drawn intersections of wealth inequality and racism that surrounds students' lives, but also diverts responsibility away from the very high stakes test-heavy curriculum that only accentuates, not closes, the racial achievement gap "choice" models are argued to alleviate (and that ironically, many charter school chains have now embraced). Colleagues William Darity, Jr., Darrick Hamilton and I have referenced some of the disturbing empirical evidence on the effects of high stakes testing on stigmatized groups for the Huffington Post here (see here), findings that reform-minded policymakers seemingly ignore. Perhaps these very education reformers, those who send their own kids to private schools with superior resources free of testing mandates, should send their children to very public schools where kids or parents have no "choice" in such curricular matters.

But there is good news amidst the testing toxicity. This past week a group of parents in Washington Heights, New York City decided to take matters in their own hands, voting collectively to "opt-out" their children from Common Core testing (see here.) This is a worthy, inspirational effort, part of a growing movement that will undoubtedly spread across the nation as states and localities intensify their implementation of Race to the Top directives. But opting out or not: the problem remains that the new Common Core curriculum remains heavily test-focused, essentially furthering the commodification and intellectual mechanization school children have been exposed to since No Child Left Behind. This is among the reasons why a group of 120 children's authors and illustrators including Maya Angelou and Judy Blume recently expressed their concern to the Obama administration in an open letter (see here), calling for "authentic performance assessments" and the immediate "reversal of the narrowing of curriculum." For that to occur, I would argue, the moral imperative of public policy should be an immediate and indefinite moratorium on high-stakes testing and the Common Core curriculum. If you want us to teach effectively in the college classroom, we need a curriculum free from "teaching to the test" in the earlier years. Our children deserve better.