By Anthony Cody
When critics such as myself point out the very bad effects the Common Core tests are having, as they label more than two thirds of our children unready for college and career, we are accused of “conflating tests with standards.” UFT president Michael Mulgrew was making this argument on the AFT convention floor, when he threatened to punch in the face anyone who might try to take “his standards” away from him. He said, “Let’s be clear the history of standards. Standards are our tools. Those are the tools of teachers. And we understand that No Child Left Behind, when they started comparing one state to another, the teachers said it was unfair, and we needed a common set of standards which we should all be working off of.” According to Mulgrew, teachers ought to own standards and tests, as they are part of our professional tools. And our task is to implement them well so as to fulfill their promise.
Overlooking his bellicosity, let’s take a deeper look at the history of standardized tests, because I am not so sure we ought to take ownership of them at all, given their impact on the lives of our students.
One of my heroes was the late Stephen Jay Gould, who devoted his life to exploring and explaining the intricacies of evolution. In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, he reveals the roots of standardized testing in the work of Lewis Terman, who brought to us the first widely applied tests, building on the work of Binet, who had pioneered intelligence tests for inductees into the Army during World War 1.
Gould explains how Terman saw these tests being used.
IQ of 75 or below should be the realm of unskilled labor, 75 to 85 “preeminently the range for semi-skilled labor.” More specific judgments could also be made. “Anything above 85 in the case of a barber probably represents so much dead waste” (1919, p. 288). IQ 75 is an “unsafe risk in a motorman or conductor, and it conduces to discontent.” (Terman, 1919). Proper vocational training and placement is essential for those of the “70 to 85 class.” Without it, they tend to leave school “and drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents” (1919, p. 285).
This “science” of measurement was also connected to a movement called “eugenics.” It was seen as undesirable for the less intelligent to reproduce, since their offspring would be inferior, and thus a burden to society. And there were heavy racial implications as well. Terman wrote:
The writer predicts that when this is done there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture. Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view because of their unusually prolific breeding.
And there was a rather circular argument used to suggest that this measurement is in line with societal outcomes. Terman argued:
After all, does not common observation teach us that, in the main, native qualities of intellect and character, rather than chance, determine the social class to which a family belongs? From what is already known about heredity, should we not naturally expect to find the children of well-to-do, cultured, and successful parents better endowed than the children who have been raised in sums and poverty? An affirmative answer to the above question is suggested by nearly all the available scientific evidence. (1917, p. 99).
Studies have found that IQ tests are not a reliable or valid way to measure cognitive ability. Terman’s work laid the foundation for the modern industry of standardized testing, even though testing proponents are not likely to claim this lineage.
The modern movement for higher standards has its roots in the Nation at Risk report of 1983, which warned of the “rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened to envelope out educational system. The cure for this was “higher standards,” and tests to ensure those standards were being met. In 2001, No Child Left Behind put in place sanctions for schools that failed to make growth on standardized tests. And as Michael Mulgrew pointed out, among the problems with NCLB was the fact that different states used different standards and tests to measure student learning.
So Common Core was brought forward, to ensure a single set of standards and tests could be used, so as to be “fair.”
But the Common Core arrived with a whole additional agenda. These standards were designed to be more “rigorous.” They were designed to determine who is “college and career ready.” And as we see the way the test scores have dropped, we are finding an eerie connection to the roots of the testing project, because just as Terman believed that tests could tell us if someone was destined to be a barber or a brain surgeon, we are imbuing these tests with an awesome power.
Those who have promoted the tests as some sort of guarantor of opportunity seem to only focus on the students who are successful. But with Common Core tests, for every student who is labeled ready for college and career, two students fail to earn this stamp of approval. Look closely, and in many facets of modern education reform, there are junctures where students have been ranked and sorted into those worthy of opportunity, and those whom we must discard. Philosophically, this fits in with the “strict father” mentality described by George Lakoff. So we have a redesign of our school system so that some charter schools are set up to “serve the strivers,” and allowed to jettison the rest to be absorbed by the public system.
The Common Core is a part of this ranking and sorting system. As Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis pointed out when announcing their local’s resolution against the Common Core,
We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.
We have seen this coming true as Common Core tests are given around the country. Test scores fall, and the achievement gap widens.
We are being told that somehow it is a good thing for poor students to get low test scores, because this will “shed light” on how far behind they are and this will somehow spur action to improve their schools. We have had a dozen years of this practice under NCLB, and we still see the underfunding of schools attended by poor students, Latinos and African Americans. The favored solution of closing schools and shifting students into semi-private charters is doing more harm than good to these communities. And there is another effect – those tests are being used to judge these students, and even determine if they receive a high school diploma or not.
There has been a loss of trust between those designing tests and standards, and those of us – educators and students, who are subject to their effects. We are told that our schools must prepare ALL students for college and career, yet the Common Core aligned tests used to make this designation are declaring the majority of our students not ready.
The chief financial backer of the Common Core, Bill Gates, in a recent interview, said this:
Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.
And the jobs promised to those now attending college, even in supposedly high demand STEM fields, seem to be evaporating.
It may well be that corporate employers need fewer, not more, college graduates. And fewer workers of any sort, as technological advances eliminate jobs. In this context of shrinking opportunity, is it a coincidence that corporate education “reform” results in a shrinking number of students considered “ready” for such opportunities?
Michael Mulgrew is correct that we should be clear about the history of standards. But their history does not suggest that they are the tools of teachers. Nor does it seem likely that they will deliver fairness or equity when enforced by standardized tests, as has been promised.
In a debate with Terman, Walter Lippman offered this cogent observation:
If it were true, the emotional and worldly satisfactions in store for the intelligence tester would be very great. If he were really measuring intelligence, and if intelligence were a fixed hereditary quantity, it would be for him to say not only where to place each child in school, but also which child should go to high school, which to college, which into the professions, which into the manual trades and common labor. If the tester would make good his claim, he would soon occupy a position of power which no intellectual has held since the collapse of theocracy. The vista is enchanting, and even a little of the vista is intoxicating enough.
This vista has proved irresistible to the modern-day testers. They eschew the use of the term “IQ” and instead insist they are measuring what students have learned. But there is no humility in the “rigor” with which they are prepared to consign a large number of students to the discard pile as “unready” for college and career. Such confidence is unwarranted. The Common Core is far more likely to expand inequities than remedy them. Students who fail to meet the “rigorous” standards will be the ones left behind, and those most affected by poverty and segregation will be hardest hit. Michael Mulgrew is welcome to clutch these standards forever. But teachers would be better off tossing them in the dustbin with previous efforts to rank and sort their students.
What do you think? Should teachers attempt to reclaim or redeem the Common Core standards? Or should we toss them in the dustbin?