What We Can Know and When We Can Know It: 
Education Reform, Testing, and the 
Standardization Craze

By Kevin D. Vinson and E. Wayne Ross

There are few surprises in the sweeping education plan George W. Bush submitted to Congress his first week in office. Bush’s plan carries important earmarks of conservative education causes—vouchers and a phonics-based literacy program—and the centerpiece of the plan is mandatory student testing. Bush’s national plan is based on the education reform model used in Texas, with former Houston school superintendent Rod Paige in control at the US Department of Education to assure that the so-called “Texas Miracle” spreads to the other 49 states.

Democrats, while wary of Bush’s voucher plans, have already heartily endorsed much of the new president’s education package. The current Congressional bipartisanship on education policy is to be expected. Of all important public policies issues, education is the one on which Democrats and Republicans have most agreement, vouchers notwithstanding. In recent years, politicians and education reform advocates from across the political spectrum have rallied around education policies that rely on high-stakes tests as the engine for what is known as standards-based educational reform. Indeed, US public education is in the midst of a standardization craze. Standardization advocates are working to produce, promote, and implement a host of standards-based policies, which coupled with mandatory, high-stakes tests effectively police the classroom work of teachers and students (as well as the involvement of parents in educational decisions). This standardization craze poses a further threat to parents, teachers, students, and local community members by undermining their efforts to define their own interests and desires.

The Liberal-Conservative Consensus on Standards-Based Education Reform

Standards-based educational reforms should be understood both within the context of neoliberalism and against the establishment of such present-day novelties as the “compassionate conservative,” the “new Democrat,” and the Blair-Clinton project of a neurotically “centrist” Third Way. In each case historically liberal and conservative principles coalesce, morphing into a nearly indistinguishable “muddle in the middle”—a singular caricature of democratic political machinations and populist rhetorical ideals.

A hallmark of the standardization craze is its remarkable capacity to unite seemingly disparate individuals and interests around the “necessity” of national and/or state educational standards—the standardization imperative. Ostensibly strange bedfellows, including for instance E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, Gary Nash, Bill Clinton, IBM chairman Lou Gerstner, the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA), most if not all state departments of education, and a majority of governors (Democratic and Republican), join to support standards-based reform and its concomitant “need” to implement systems of mandated, high-stakes testing. Somehow these “divergent” educational leaders manage to pull together around standards-based reform as the medium for “real” public school improvement.

(In the past two years the Education Excellence Partnership, which includes the AFT, NEA, The Business Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce, National Alliance of Business, Achieve Inc., National Governor’s Association, and US Department of Education, have sponsored over 50 full-page advertisements in The New York Times promoting the standards agenda and, in particular, the use of high-stakes tests as means to both “motivate achievement” and retain children in grade. It should also be noted that the use of tests in these ways contradicts what we know from a large body of educational research, which tells us that grade retention only damages children’s chances to succeed educationally and that high-stakes testing reduces students’ motivation to learn.)

Education policy is being crafted in a milieu distinguished by the pro-standards consensus among an array of both liberal and conservative players. Accordingly, the commitments of the political-pedagogical right—public school privatization, the reduction of national financial support for public education, the promotion of US global corporate hegemony, “creationism,” socio-cultural homogenization around a few dominant “moral” themes, anti-immigration, the assault on organized labor, school prayer, and so on—blend with those of the left—equality, expanded democracy, economic opportunity, social justice, diversity, and so on—to create a clever though fundamentally confusing admixture of multiple contradictions and inconsistencies. (Consider for a moment the mind-boggling implications of an [oxy]moronic assertion such as standardized diversity within a setting of White-European-Christian-Capitalist-centrism.)

Nevertheless, the pro-standards bandwagon rolls on, though undoubtedly it has been relatively more successful in some content areas than others—compare, for example, the broad-based and generally favorable cohesion of educators around the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ math standards to the deep-seated and heated divisiveness of the national history standards. The tendency among the educationally powerful has been to rally around a few key official pronouncements by professional education groups, academic societies, and teacher unions, and by such “reform-minded” states as Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and New York. Over time these various frameworks (and the textbooks with which they develop a mutually reinforcing relationship) fuse so as to constitute in essence a nationally standardized curriculum. 

At its core the pro-standards consensus can be characterized by its commitment to a relatively few defining principles. Advocates argue first that standards-based reform is necessary vis-à-vis school improvement because the current educational “crisis” is rooted in the inability or unwillingness of “failing” schools to offer the same “high quality” programs provided by more “successful” schools. Since the identified purposes, selected content, teachers, and modes of evaluation must be better in some (usually wealthy and majority white) schools than in others (usually less wealthy and majority Latino/a and African American), the implications are unmistakable. Elite educational leaders and policymakers are saying that “other” schools can indeed improve, but only to the extent that they become more like “our” schools. Hence, the one-sided standardization imperative and the subsequent normalization of whiteness, wealth, and exclusionary forms of knowledge. 

In short, the standardization alliance argues, in most cases without any evidence, that: (1) today’s students do not “know enough” (no matter how know enough is defined); (2) curriculum and assessment standards will lead to higher achievement (although arguably many students achieve highly now—they just do so differently or in ways not easily quantified); (3) national and state standards are crucial in terms of successful US-corporate-global economic competition; (4) standards-based reform should occur with federal guidance yet be implemented under local control (thus keeping both big government liberals and New Federalist conservatives happy); and (5) “higher” standards/standardization will promote equal educational, thus economic and political, opportunity.

Race, Class, Test Scores, and the Myth of the “Texas Miracle”

The primary justification for the imposition of standardized curricula and/or the seizure of local schools by the state/corporate alliances (such as occurred in Detroit) has been poor test scores and high drop out rates, even both are less a reflection of student ability or achievement than a measure of parental income. For example, Peter Sacks’ book Standardized Minds presents data showing that students taking the SAT can expect to score an extra thirty points for every $10,000 in their parents’ yearly income. A study of the state testing program in Michigan (MEAP), conducted by the Detroit Free Press found that as the level of poverty goes up in school districts MEAP scores go down. In addition, the Free Press study found a number of other factors impacting MEAP scores: the percent of single parents in a district; the local unemployment rate; school funds per pupil; the percent of students who speak English as a second language; and the percent of households where no one is a high school graduate (see “Testing MEAP” available on-line: http:www.freep.com/news/meap/main_test.htm).

Last year, Ohio became the 35th state to institute a system of classroom “accountability” based on student test scores. To determine who will move from fourth to fifth grade and who will graduate from high school, officials will use a single test score—a practice long condemned by testing experts and reiterated recently in a report by the National Research Council. Based solely on the Ohio Proficiency Test (OPT) scores of fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-graders, Ohio officials have concluded that 5% of the state’s school districts deserve top grades, while fully a third have been declared in academic danger. A study of the OPT results by Randy L. Hoover, a professor at Youngstown State University, suggests that OPT scores are so significantly related to the social-economic living conditions and experiences of students that the test has no validity as a measure either of academic learning or teacher effectiveness. (Hoover’s study is available on-line at: http://www.cc.ysu.edu/~rlhoover/ClassConnections/OPT/index.html) As the Cleveland Plain Dealer opined, the OPT determines “whether state officials applaud an individual system, or prepare to invade it.” 

George W. Bush and other standardistos (both Democrat and Republican) have claimed that introduction of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in 1990-1991 produced a near miraculous turnaround in educational achievement in the Lone Star State, reducing dropouts, increasing student achievement and reducing the test score gaps among white, African American and Latino/a students. Recent studies by researchers at The University of Texas, Boston College, The Rand Corporation as well as Rice, Rutgers, and Harvard Universities, however, have raised serious questions about the validity the reported test score gains in Texas. 

A study by Walt Haney, professor of education at Boston College and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, found that the TAAS actually contributes to retention in grade and dropping out. He reports only 50% of minority students in Texas have been progressing from grade 9 to high school graduation since in the initiation of the TAAS testing program (and evidence suggests that slightly less than 70% of all students in Texas actually graduated from high school in the 1990s). Across the past two decades, there has also been a steady rise in the rates at which African American and Latino/a students in Texas have been required to repeat grade 9; by the late 1990s nearly 30% were “failing” grade 9. Grade retention rates for African Americans and Latinos/as in Texas are nearly twice as high as for white students.

As test scores on the TAAS have soared, researchers have failed to find similar improvements in other, more reliable, measures of Texas students’ achievement (e.g., SAT scores and the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP). Indeed, as measured by performance on the SAT, achievement of Texas high school students has not improved since the early 1990s; SAT-Math scores have deteriorated relative to students nationally, reports Haney. The Rand study found that the dramatic reading and math gains indicated by TAAS results were not reflected in the NAEP. Instead, NAEP results indicate only small increases, similar to those observed nationwide. Moreover, according to the NAEP the test score gap between whites and students of color in Texas is not only very large but also growing. There is an expanding consensus among researchers that the miracle test score increases on the TAAS are the result of intensive test-prep activities that undermine substantive teaching and learning. In Contradictions of School Reform: The Costs of Standardized Testing, Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University in Houston, reports that many schools in Texas are devoting tremendous amounts of time to highly specific “skills” intended to improve students’ scores on the TAAS. McNeil reports that after several years in classes where “reading” assignments were increasingly TAAS practice materials, children were unable to read a novel intended for students two years younger. 

The other way Texas schools have improved TAAS scores is by increasing the number of students excluded from taking the test. In 1999, Texas tested 48% of its special education students, down from 62% in 1998—that is an additional 37,751 students not taking the test. Those exemptions include 13% of Latino/a, 12% of African American, and only 5% of white students. The Haney study reports that a substantial portion of increases in TAAS pass rates in the 1990s is due to such exclusions and prompts him to conclude “the gains on TAAS and the unbelievable decreases in dropouts during the 1990s are more illusory than real. The Texas ‘miracle’ is more hat than cattle.” 

Regulating Education and the Economy

It is clear that scores on high-stakes standardized tests as well as dropout rates are directly related to poverty, and none of the powers demanding school standardization or seizure appears seriously prepared to address this condition. Paradoxically, though perhaps unsurprisingly, states instead have increasingly sought to punish low-scoring (read less wealthy) schools and districts by cutting funding that might help them raise their all-important test scores and become more “like” (via smaller classes, greater resources, increased staffing, modernized facilities) wealthier (read high-scoring) schools. Bush’s plan for US schools would use vouchers—tax money to reimburse families for tuition at private, including religious, schools—as a punishment for “failing” schools.

Although the established pro-standardization position has been hit with at least some degree of criticism (notably both from the Right, which sees standards-based reform as imposing on local school district autonomy, and from the Left, which sees it as racist, sexist, and classist), one fascinating feature of the consensus view remains its willingness to take such criticism seriously yet still maintain that it can satisfactorily be accommodated by and/or assimilated within the prevailing framework. Thus while particular positions may differ marginally on the specifics (the devil is in the details), the demand for standards-based reform itself—the standardization imperative—goes unchallenged, at least among the alliance of conservative and liberal politicians, corporate elites, chief school officers, and teacher union leaders.

Ensconced within this alliance is an insidious move on the part of elite stakeholders toward the corporate/state regulation and administration of knowledge, a move that enables what Noam Chomsky calls “systems of unaccountable power” to make self-interested decisions ostensibly on behalf of the public when, in fact, most members of the public have no meaningful say in what or how decisions are made or in what can count as legitimate knowledge. This, of course, is purposeful and involves the coordinated control of such pedagogical processes as goal setting, curriculum development, testing, and teacher education/ evaluation, the management of which works to restrict not only what and who can claim the status of “real” knowledge, but also who ultimately has access to it.

Moreover, these consensus elites are among the same powerful few who make decisions about and promote such neoliberal policies and institutions as GATT, NAFTA, and the WTO as good for the American public. What exists here is an unambiguous, power-laden connection between the regulation of knowledge on the one hand and the regulation of the economy on the other, a joint effort by the politically, culturally, and economically powerful (nominally on behalf of the public) designed to stifle democracy while simultaneously enhancing the profits of multinational corporations and the ultra-rich. It is a reproductive and circular system, a power-knowledge-economics regime in which the financial gains of a few are reinforced by what can count as school (thus social) knowledge, and in which what can count as knowledge is determined so as to support the financial greed of corporations. 

A conspicuous example is the social studies curriculum where, as John Marciano in Civic Illiteracy and Education argues, “students are ethically quarantined from the truth about what the U.S. has done in their name.” This is particularly true with regard to US perpetrated and sponsored aggression abroad, which is most often represented to students as unfortunate or accidental by-products of essentially humane policies that serve the “national interests,” while what constitutes the latter remains unexamined. Those who administer the economy in their own self-interests are those who regulate the production and dissemination of knowledge and vice versa, all the while working superficially in the public interest but intentionally excluding any authentic public involvement.

Teachers and local school communities are left without the authority to bring their collective resources to bear on a matter as important as the education of their children. The people who know children best—families and teachers—must give way to tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in the classroom or even from the community. Despite rhetoric linking standards-based reform to benefits for all within the vast constituency of public schools, the cold fact is that those who regulate both knowledge (through standardization) and the economy are working for their own political and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

From a progressive perspective standards-based reforms fail on a number of related levels. Inherently anti-democratic, such efforts oppose, for example, John Dewey’s two “democratic criteria,” exemplified in Democracy and Education, of “more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest” and “freer interaction between social groups,” both of which weigh heavily on the origins and evolution of US public schooling. Further, standards-based education reforms are oppressive, illustrating in practice not only the late radical educator Paulo Freire’s widely read and influential concepts of “banking education” and “prescription,” but also contemporary political theorist Iris Marion Young’s notion of the “five faces of oppression” (namely exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence). In sum, standards-based reform privileges certain images of education (for instance, those media critiques of schooling based upon test scores, which David Berliner and Bruce Biddle so effectively debunk in The Manufactured Crisis) over the authentic experiences of everyday classroom life. Too frequently such images themselves end up promoting the “corporate good” at the expense of any reasonable understanding of the “collective good,” particularly problematic since the extension of the collective good is why we have public schools in the first place.

By not vigorously resisting standards-based reform concerned citizens simply capitulate to the government-sponsored corporatization of public knowledge. Still, one might be optimistic given that in many states and school districts students and teachers themselves have spearheaded the opposition. Student-led and teacher-supported protests in Michigan, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois, for example, involving organized boycotts, walkouts, refusals to take tests, faking and accepting intentionally low scores have demonstrated the potential effectiveness of subverting the demands of the powerful in favor of those of the apparently powerless. The standardization craze in education is a cause for either optimism or pessimism, depending, of course, upon how we ultimately make sense of the potential for concerted public action. We are optimistic.

Author Note: Kevin D. Vinson is a professor of education at the University of Arizona. E. Wayne Ross is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Binghamton.


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