Op-Ed: Occupy Movement Should Set Sights on Standardized Testing

November 14, 2011 at 4:00 am

Author: Dan Brown
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Publication Date: Sept. 2011

For much of the past decade, the New York City Department of Education has engaged in a variety of reform efforts, which have undermined public participation in the city’s public school system. I was glad to see teachers, parents and students protesting with Occupy Wall Street on the doorstep of the Tweed building — the Department of Education’s headquarters — last week. This movement belongs at the Department of Education. However, I think the outraged citizens have a real opportunity to shine a light on the root issue by heading uptown, to the McGraw-Hill Building, where standardized tests are created.

Reshaped by No Child Left Behind mandates and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s zeal for testing, students and teachers operate under unprecedented pressure to deliver rising scores on standardized tests. As a teacher in the Bronx, I saw these warped priorities play out on the ground with distorted curricula, burnt-out students and a creepy mechanistic atmosphere.


Teachers, students and parents against privatized education join Occupy Wall Street. Video courtesy of the REALNews Network.

Earlier this week, protesters gathered outside the Department Of Education Building. Standardized testing was a hot topic among protesters. Photo courtesy of New York Collective of Radical Educators.

A small handful of major corporations have cornered the market for producing standardized tests, McGraw-Hill being one of the largest in the country. The actual tests are only the tip of the iceberg of private profits gained from public education. The test prep industry is the new wild west in the education marketplace; the lack of regulation enables eye-popping carpetbagging. Standardized testing brings hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the handful of corporations that produce the tests, grade the tests and supply materials to raise students’ scores on the tests.

With sky-high stakes increasingly attached to standardized testing, many states and districts are desperate to spend on virtually anything that promises to help boost the data — a practice aggressively pursued by Bloomberg and former schools Chancellor Joel Klein — and replicated across the country.

For a firsthand account of the incompetence and outright corruption in the testing industry, check out “Making the Grades,” Todd Farley’s very funny and unnerving memoir about his 15 years working at every level of the for-profit testing world.

A Hidden Curriculum Teaches Students Business Ethos

No one has laid out the nefarious rationale behind the policy shift towards high-stakes testing more clearly than writer and education critic Alfie Kohn in his 2002 article “The 500-Pound Gorilla.”

According to Kohn, the cozy relationship between education policy makers and business leaders is guided primarily by profit at every step:

  • First of all, standardized testing “screens and sorts students for the convenience of industry (and higher education)” and fosters a “corporate-style ideology, which comes to be seen as natural and even desirable.”
  • This leads to an educational environment “in which assessment is used less to support learning than to evaluate and compare people — and in which the education driven by that testing has a uniform, standardized feel to it.”
  • As a result, Kohn continues, “when many students perform poorly on these tests (an outcome that can be ensured from the outset, and then justified in the name of ‘raising the bar’), these results can be used to promote discontent with public education.”
  • This makes it easier to point a finger at under-performing public schools and paves the way for privatization in the form of vouchers and for-profit charter schools. In other words, mission accomplished for those wishing to subject schools to the marketplace all along.

Participants of the Occupy Wall Street movement representing the 99 percent who are sick of narrow corporate interests dictating how schools run need to hop on the R train, ride to 49th Street, hoof it to 1221 Avenue of the Americas, and scream it loud: “We know what you’re up to. You can’t get away with the looting of public education!”

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of “The Great Expectations School.” He also blogs for the Teacher Leaders Network and the Huffington Post.

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