The Atlanta cheating scandal and growing White middle-class anger over the explosion of Common Core tests have more in common than you might think.
From Black teachers being imprisoned for forging answers on tests and Black parents being jailed for “stealing” a better education for their kids, to White middle-class parents organizing a nationwide revolt against standardized testing, we are seeing a repudiation of our failed educational policies. Many might see these as totally separate issues, reflecting the power of race and class, but each represent varied responses to an immoral national strategy that had its major impact on inner-city communities more than a decade ago and has now targeted suburban schools.
The architects of this policy, men with deep pockets like Bill Gates helped by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, decided to use standardized tests to achieve education “equity” despite their racist origins and character.
And even more strangely, many civil rights groups and leaders promoted testing by selling it as the answer to eliminating the notorious achievement gap, and encouraging their constituents to embrace this new form of oppression. So desperate to have some policies to promote equity when the country was turning conservative, civil rights leaders forgot their historic opposition to high stakes testing, with tragic results. And some groups became poverty pimps and virtue rackets that sold out for corporate money. At the end of the day, the rhetoric of civil rights set the stage for the educational holocaust in communities of color, and for the Atlanta scandal.
Where were the civil rights leaders when the Atlanta educators were arrested? Where were they when they were being given sentences worse than people participating in organized crime?
Historically, standardized tests have been the basis of narratives claiming the genetic and cultural inferiority of Black children. Throughout the early 20th century, these tests provided the “scientific legitimacy” for segregation, prompting widespread opposition from Black psychologists and sociologists who identified them as a White supremacist scheme.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision did not result in an abandonment of racially biased testing. Testing data has since rationalized funding disparities, the achievement gap, and policies resulting in the cradle-to-prison pipeline. It would be akin to using Jim Crow to facilitate integration, or the KKK to bring about law and order. Oh, wait …
No Child Left Behind changed the whole testing landscape in Black and poor communities. Despite claims that testing will set us free, America’s great testing experiment has left Black and Latino kids behind.
The test results measure student achievement but also can be used in teacher evaluations, overall school report cards, and as high-school graduation requirements. Opponents say the exams distract from real learning, put added stress on students and staff, waste resources—especially in poor urban districts—and contribute to the privatization of public education. Schools that score badly are sometimes shuttered, turned over to management companies, or become charter schools.
If the goal of testing was to improve educational outcomes, the results have been as transparent as Dick Cheney’s racism toward President Obama. The testing industrial complex is not improving outcomes for Black children, teachers, schools, neighborhoods, communities or our nation. It is NOT making the U.S. more globally competitive. And it definitely will NOT prepare tomorrow’s workforce to thrive, unless of course the point is to train students to become compliant low-wage workers.
Consider a report released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which analyzed more than a decade of data on young Black males. Their prognosis: “Too little progress and evidence of recent deterioration. Despite stated intentions of federal education policies, gaps in scores in reading and math tests on the National Assessment of Education Progress between black males and their white peers continue to be wide. Nationally, 38 percent of white males scored at or above proficient on the 2013 NAEP assessment in reading, but only 17 percent of Latino males and 12 percent of Black males did. In math, 13 percent of Black males scored at or above proficient on the 2013 NAEP Grade 8 math assessment, while scores were 21 percent of Latino males and 45 percent of White males.”
And it’s no surprise that graduation rates suffered: The Schott Foundation reported that “of the 48 states where data were collected, in 35 states and the District of Columbia, black males remain at the bottom of four-year high school graduation rates. (Latino males were at the bottom in 13 states.) We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it.”
These failures were predictable, leaving one to consider if the goal was not improved educational success but instead privatization, and a systemic effort to dismantle and destroy public education within inner city communities. Schools were closed; teachers were fired; and culturally appropriate curriculum was left by the wayside. Kids were scapegoated for the failures of school districts while Black and Latino communities were terrorized with pressure to raise test scores under threat of additional school closure, lost jobs, and elimination of communal control.
For the first time, the test results were not just penalizing students who didn’t do well—teachers, administrators, and entire schools were punished. Since NCLB, thousands of schools have been closed around the country. Huge numbers of teachers of color have been removed. So what you have is a racial and ethnic cleansing of teachers of color in places like Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C. because of pressure to raise test scores. And then they were replaced by a revolving door of young White inexperienced teachers with no ties to our communities, or connection to our culture and our children.
This is where Atlanta comes in.
The culmination of this history, from Jim Crow testing to standardized testing, has been on full display in Atlanta, as 11 public school employees face up to 20 years for widespread cheating on standardized tests. It’s impossible to look at their Black faces and not see a broader history at work: the systemic criminalization of the Black community, which rationalizes and justifies persistent inequality. The system has set up these teachers and students to fail, and then blames them when the results are not met. From NCLB to Teach for America, from a racist testing culture to funding disparities, the history of American education has been one where Black and Latino kids have been cheated over and over again. Yet, the architects of these policies and the nation’s leaders have never been held accountable. Instead, a group of teachers were put on trial and charged with racketeering, normally reserved for organized crime syndicates.
These teachers in Atlanta are scapegoats for a punitive approach to education in poor neighborhoods and communities of color. It all has to do with the stakes attached to testing. What were they supposed to do? The tests embody racial inequities and biases, yet don’t account for the disparities within the nation. You can’t raise test scores with kids who are homeless and hungry, sleeping with three in a bed, the lights cut off, who fear going to and from school in unsafe neighborhoods. Teachers and administrators are being told to raise these kids’ scores, or else.
Why wouldn’t they cheat?
But we know that it’s impossible to cheat and win against White supremacy because it makes the rules, enforces, and arbitrates what is allowed in its game. When people of color try to “cheat” White supremacy—defying its logics and controls—the consequences are devastating. Meanwhile, White people being screwed by the same schemes get to “opt-out” and organize massive revolts without going to jail.
In our structure, the tests have become the fulcrum of national education policy. Making an example of the Atlanta teachers sends a message to Black educators—if you challenge this system, we are going to come down on you so hard that you better not even think about it.
The notion that if those teachers and administrators had only tried harder, been more like the baseball-bat-wielding Joe Clark in Lean On Me, or Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, or any of the other inspiring real and fictional examples of teachers who turn broke-down inner-city hellholes into testing champions, is a large part of the problem. But in criminalizing a bunch of middle-aged Black teachers, the possibility of any real and sustainable solutions becomes as likely as me watching Morning Joe without wanting to kick my TV.
The national silence, from the Obama administration to Bill Gates, from civil rights leadership to the Democratic Party, is revealing since each supported the policies that compels cheating. Sadly, the Atlanta teachers will be joining so many Black and Brown youth, who have been pushed and pulled into America’s cradle of injustice.
As with so many policies, the rise of America’s testing regime has been felt, albeit differently, across different racial and classed communities. To maintain the illusion of post-raciality and equity, the reach of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the grips of assessment and standards have crept into every community, from New Orleans to Manhattan, from Beverly Hills to the West Side of Chicago.
In recent years, after having closed down hundreds of inner city schools, America’s policy elites have turned their attention to suburban schools. Armed with their tests, and their No. 2 pencils, the testing regime has found difficultly infiltrating Becky and Todd’s neighborhood.
Once exempt, those suburban and high performing White schools are now feeling pressures of the unholy trinity of standardized tests, assessment, and benchmarks. Under the Obama administration, the federal government started linking test scores to teacher performance as a condition for receiving federal funds.
Enraged White parents, who moved to the suburbs to avoid anything from the inner city, are now forced to confront these very policies; those who never said shit as Black children were made guinea pigs for the tests. Those White parents never thought the education policies would apply to their precious children and schools. Now that they are creeping into generously taxed suburban school districts, those formerly silent parents are in an uproar, wailing about how standardized testing damages their children and attacks their rights, their status, their privilege.
Part of me—most of me—has no sympathy. Stop your crying. Welcome to our world!
First, experiments in education entrepreneurship—especially charter schools and consulting firms specializing in “turning around” failing schools—went haywire in Black and Latino communities. Now these corporate monsters see new markets in the suburbs—White middle-class youth—are now cannon fodder for the test industry, consultants, charter organization entrepreneurs and their experiences are being turned into constant test prep and they are now being labeled failures. How does it feel to have your children stressed by testing, enslaved to damning statistics, and told that they’re not the natural-born geniuses the world has always assured them that they deserve to be? How does it feel to see your kids being turned into commodities, monetized, and sacrificed to the corporate gods? Did you cry when Black teachers were being fired in the Bronx, or when schools were closed in Philadelphia or Chicago? Were you outraged and organized when teachers used recess time for tests? Are you outraged when teachers are locked up for cheating or parents are sent directly to jail for merely trying to get their children a better education?
Though these injustices and voices of protest didn’t seem to constitute a chorus worthy of national or media attention, Black grassroots activists have been speaking out against the destructive impact of high-stakes testing for DECADES, with little interest or sympathy from Whites, whether in cities or suburbs. When inner-city schools are closed because of low test scores there’s silence from the suburbs. Now the draconian test and evaluation machine directed against inner-city schools has sprawled to the suburbs, and a national movement has evolved.
Black parents have been lodging complaints over the years about the cultural biases and harms of tests, and many White people didn’t give a damn because they believe that the tests were “proofs” that their children were superior to children of color. White people didn’t give a damn, because in their bubble of entitlement, it didn’t relate to or threaten them. Their futures weren’t in jeopardy. Their aptitude for greatness was never challenged. White people were blind, deaf and silent as Black and Latino children were being denied civil rights and basic decency because many Whites thought the corporate fuckery would stop there. They believed there was a line between “us” and “them” that protected their family, which ensured better and brighter futures for those in their tax bracket and Zip code.
The always-being-late-to-the-game is telling; the narcissism is by definition White privilege. A growing chorus of parents and educators is speaking out against high-stakes standardized testing, how they lead to program cuts for other learning enrichment programs; the increasing “teaching to the test” their children are experiencing; about the narrowing of curricula to allow more test drilling in language arts and math; and the rising stress these parents and their kids are experiencing because of widespread test mania.
These parents and teachers have called for reform: They want to limit the number of hours spent on standardized test prep. They want test companies to report their profits and political contributions. And they want parents to be given the right to refuse letting their children take tests. The question will be: Are these demands for all children? Or just those who “don’t need” such inconveniences?
In New Jersey, for instance, the group NJ Kids and Families offers resources for parents to organize and take acting against high-stakes standardized testing and information on how parents can opt their children out of testing. The Massachusetts Teachers Association called for a moratorium. Parents in NYC hit the streets in protest; in Park Slope, Brooklyn, they did the same.
Organizations like Fairtest and Time Out From Testing have sprung up. And the movement to opt out of standardized testing altogether is gaining steam: Thousands of Colorado high school seniors walked out on new state-mandated science and social studies tests in the Fall 2014. Middle-school teachers have published opened letters calling state officials “bullies” for warning students of wide-ranging consequences if students sit out exams. At least 93 students at a single Philadelphia middle school are declining upcoming tests in a city that saw only 20 students district-wide sit out the exams last year.
Meanwhile, education and other political officials are going in the opposite direction, doubling down to insist that high-stakes assessments are crucial to evaluating student progress and competitiveness.
The growing chorus of White outrage is especially ironic, given that Black parents—most with less wealth and fewer resources to express their displeasure in the kind of organized way that attracts media attention and support—have borne the brunt of this testing, starting under the Bush administration with “No Child Left Behind.” It wasn’t news that Black and Brown and poor students, primarily in inner cities, that increased use of test was yet another tool of a rigged system. Nobody seemed to notice the stress or pressures of those students, teachers or their families. The parents of these students—often too stretched out economically and stressed out from just working to survive—weren’t heard or paid attention to when they said the exact same things that these more privileged White parents are saying.
The expressed outrage and activism of Black and Latino parents, educational scholars, activists, and community leaders have been ignored for years. White silence has been as predicable as the Oscars.
Yet, the White Revolt against testing might actually change the entire landscape. White outrage might contribute to de-emphasis of testing across the board; an abandonment of a culture of assessment, benchmarks, and standardization. It has the potential to lead colleges to de-emphasize the role of standardized testing in admissions. All of this could inadvertently help Black and Latinos students who would otherwise be excluded from educational opportunities due to these tests.
What’s lost in all of this is education being focused on students learning, gaining knowledge to help them throughout their lives. What’s destroyed is any sense of training young brains for the critical and analytical thinking required to flourish in the 21st century, in a global marketplace where the stakes are higher than ever before.
What’s being sacrificed in this circus of insanity is the very lives of ALL our children and the future of our nation. It’s easy to see why the White parents have joined Black and Latino parents, on the frontlines; the scourge of this madness is finally knocking at their door, too. They might have the resources to effect some level of change in their communities, but the chances of them slaying the Goliath of the Gates Foundation, the federal government, and so many other entities in collusion to ensure the destruction of so many lives and futures seems a long shot.
I’d wish them luck, but knowing that they are never likely to consider the fate of those children who don’t look or live like their own, all I can say is Welcome to the Terrordome.