Where to Start With the Problem of Standardization and Testing – Part 1

This article is the first in a two part series. 

Ryan Davis

In my previous piece I wrote that the forces of standardization and testing, and the belief systems behind them, are the root of many of the problems we face today.  Taken as a stand-alone issue, I don’t know many educators who would disagree with the claim that, on the whole, standardized testing has had more negative than positive impact on our students.  So then, the question must be asked, if their failings are almost universally acknowledged, why do standardization and testing still persist? I think the answer is what may be a slightly awkward family conversation: it’s us.

It is perhaps easy to rationalize away our culpability.  Certainly, there is the tangle of moneyed privateers and politicos, the circling coven of corporate profiteers, and the self-advancing, education bureaucrats that enact real and formidable power.  But, there are more of us than there are of them. And while such concentrated and aligned power will ultimately only be brought down through major collective action, we have much groundwork to do before we can be ready for this final step.   

The fact is that many in the public, and probably a fair number of our colleagues, tacitly support the beliefs and theories that make standardization and testing a logical inevitability.  Through our often well-intentioned actions we perpetuate a culture in which standardization and testing seem like a natural and necessary, or at least acceptable, part of schooling. Thus, concerns we voice, no matter how loudly, about the injustices of such systems will always be drowned out by our own decisions to use the tools, methods, and metaphors of those systems to shape the experiences and directions of our classrooms.    

In one way, our complicity stems from the fact that educators, like anyone, attempt to counter systems of injustice through two approaches: the assimilationist approach which seeks to overcome oppression by adopting the values and ontologies of the dominate system with the hope of then succeeding within it; and, the revolutionist approach which intentionally and actively transgresses against the system, naming its inequities, and empowering all to see and create a different world.  

The assimilationist approach asks us to train students to fit the mold of standardization and testing so that they may garner some opportunity from it (I emphasize ‘may’ because oppressive systems always only provide the illusion of merit as a basis for entry and acceptance, and will establish or rearrange barriers to maintain their exclusionary ends).   The revolutionist approach would ask us to help students name the unfairness they see and experience and then empower them to take action to reshape the world.  

In practice, the assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous.  The lived realities of a student who must both confront the system while also being subjected to it require that we hold both approaches in tension.  The unfortunate truth, however, is that every enactment of an assimilationist approach only valorizes and strengthens the system of oppression. Thus in addition to a sympathetic pull to help students succeed as much as possible within a system that, for now, still exists, the system itself also exerts a self-preserving pressure to enact assimilationist approaches.  Moreover, this unintentional complicity only supplements the innumerable ways that forces of power compel schools to explicitly support and implement standardization and testing.  

And so, if we are honest, a great deal of what happens in schools today is either shaped by the forces of standardization and testing or falls along an assimilationist response to those systems.  But, if we are serious about dismantling the systemic forces of standardization and testing, we must find more ways to act in a revolutionary manner. Otherwise, the balance of our actions ultimately serves and supports this unjust and inequitable system, especially to non-educators looking in.   

Such revolutionary politics doesn’t begin with protesting or even voting.  There is an everyday politics of nudging wider the narrowing way of the world through small, but courageous, acts of divergence.  Such acts slowly pull on the window of what is considered within the realm of accepted discourse in our schools and communities. Such acts prepare the ground in which a larger revolution can flourish.  Part 2 will brainstorm some ways we can live further into the ordinary work of revolution.  

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