Standardized Tests as Social Control

Judy Depew


It is a fact that one of the first identifiable groups to sign up for Hitler's Nazi Party in noticeable numbers was the schoolteachers of Germany. When they hear this, most teachers - social studies teachers especially - are shocked. However given the events which are unfolding in my state and my school district, this does not surprise me. 

Two weeks ago, I attended our district's Social Studies Curriculum Council meeting in my capacity as one of our building's representatives. I had served last year as well, so I knew what to expect. On the high school level, my colleagues and I had been fighting to keep a measure of autonomy for teachers in the face of what is arguably the job of anybody assigned with overseeing curriculum - alignment and standardization. Our first meeting of the year saw the fascist element of this body stronger and more vocal than ever. Although the stated reasons for aligning and standardizing curriculum are thought to be benign, in its essence, the issue is one of social control. 

Our meeting opened up with the announcement of training for teachers in how to teach the economic principles that will be tested on Michigan's standardized test, the MEAP. Some of these teachers had been for training over the summer and training for all elementary and middle school teachers interested, would be organized by the district. I did not say anything about the biased nature of this training - as evidenced by my conversation at the first meeting I attended with a member who had been through the training. When she said that the culmination of the hands on economics instruction for students was an activity where students were able to decide what they wanted to make and how they wanted to make it..."You know, just like a real-life work experience." I had to jump in and disagree strongly with this statement. "How many people do you think really have that much control over their work?" I asked. Answering my own question, I said, "Very few." Ironically, teachers are among some of the few in our society who do have a large measure of control over the work they do and how they do it. 

Unfortunately, although understanding our economic system is fundamental to understanding our society, teaching political economy is something that most teachers are uncomfortable with. And traditionally, economics has not been integrated into the teaching of social studies - this is a  failing. It can be argued that the MEAP, insofar as it is testing for economic knowledge, is raising the economic knowledge of teachers and students. However, it is clear from the exchange above that, in the scramble for high MEAP scores, teachers who have very limited understanding of various economic systems are being trained to preach the principles of the current system uncritically. 

Where does the push for this training come from? The easiest and most obvious answer given current events in Michigan, is our standardized test, the MEAP. But why the MEAP? It is important to understand where the push for standardization comes from and then perhaps the push for teaching uncritical acceptance of the current economic system will become clear. Standardized tests are being pushed as the magic bullet that will improve our public schools, not just in Michigan but across our country.  The idea behind this is that "what gets tested, gets taught". In Michigan, this results in an odd political unity of President Bill Clinton, Republican governor John Engler who has taken over the Detroit Public Schools, and the leaders of both education unions. What unites these forces is their common stake in enforcing a system that needs to mask the fact that it requires poverty and racism as fuel. 

There is great social pressure put on districts to keep their standardized scores up in order to keep the wolves (school takeovers, vouchers, and capital flight) at bay. This, in turn, forces teachers to teach to the test, increasing the time teachers and students are cramming or learning the test and decreasing the time that is spent on meaningful learning. There is little time left for teachers to devote to actively  engaging students' minds through in-depth study of issues, hands-on experiences, debates, simulations, and inquiry. The result of all this is students who are being trained not to be creative, critical thinkers, but cooperative unthinking employees and citizens. 

This social pressure and its effects have a greater impact in poorer urban and rural districts where there is already a problem with capital flight and the threat of school takeovers and voucher systems. Therefore, standardized tests further the segregation of students by class and race.  Those students who live in more affluent districts where there is less pressure to perform, benefit from local control which values and responds to their unique needs and strengths. Those students who live in less affluent districts are fed a steady, mind-numbing diet of test prep booklets, texts, and practice tests. Most importantly, if students in less affluent districts do not perform well, the blame can be diverted to the students themselves. The real and politically uncomfortable issues such as inadequate and inequitable funding; control of budgets, staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and assessment; and broad involvement of parents and community in the school can be ignored. 

Back to my curriculum council. Are these bad people? Yes. Because they are unwilling to think critically about the work that they are doing, and to whom they are about to cede any control over their work. But this is more than worrying about academic freedom; it is fear for the ability of  children to comprehend and take a role in changing the world they live in. This is impossible if they are thinking uncritically. Ironically, the MEAP is touted for its requirement that children be able to think critically. Unfortunately, the teachers who are trusted with the task of helping children become Bloom's higher order thinkers, are not thinking critically about their role in pushing this standardized curriculum - their role in social control. 

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