Where to Start With the Problem of Standardization and Testing – Part 2

Ryan Davis

The article is the second half of a two part series.  Part I details the theory behind how and why we, as educators, are complicit in supporting the forces for standardization and testing, and how we must take action to counter this.  Such action does not begin with protest and demonstration, but must start with ordinary acts of revolution. If we don’t, we ultimately create an appearance of support for the systems of standardization and testing, perpetuating a culture that in turn sees standardization and testing as aligned and reasonable companions to our work, thus making it more difficult, if not impossible, to dismantle the system. 

So, I began to brainstorm a list of ways that we may more actively lean into revolutionist transgression against the system.  Many of the ideas were inspired from the wisdom and actions fellow educators. For me, much of this list is an aspirational challenge as I try to step further into this work.   This list is meant to be neither exhaustive nor prescriptive. Unity does not require uniformity, so every point may not resonate. But, I hope our shared commitment to making even small deviations from the norm will build momentum and challenge each other in ways that will roll into a larger movement.  So, some actions to consider:

  • Don’t celebrate “victories” in standardized test scores.  Soon results from the state accountability system will be released.  Celebrating “progress” based on those or any other standardized measures lends them validity.  It can be exciting to see “growth”. But, if we truly believe the system is fundamentally flawed, then that growth is equally flawed.  Such celebrations are then not only built on a faulty premises, but also likely expense of someone else.  
  • Challenge those who do celebrate such “victories”.  Silence is complicity. Be the voice that questions whether such “growth” is meaningful. Or, even suggest it may be harmful.  
  • Admonish any rankings, rewards, stars, medal, ribbons, etc… given to schools.  Most are based on a system of standardization and testing, so celebrating them again reinforces for ourselves and for non-educators that such systems must have some validity.  They also create division where we should be unified and only incentivize the enactment of more assimilationist approaches. It’s difficult not to share a recognition your school has earned because we want our schools to be seen and noticed for the good they do.  But, such recognitions are more badges for adherence to an oppressive system than they are signifiers of what is actually good at your school. Point instead to stories and experiences that showcase unique and empowered students. 
  • Don’t ask students to reflect on standardized test scores and make a plan to improve.  First, the norm referencing in most standardized tests would mean asking for a mathematical impossibility.  Secondly, asking this of students obscures for them the truth that racism, classism, power dynamics, homogenization, etc… are the inherit basis of standardization and testing.  At worst, it instills a belief that such tests are accurate measures of their worth and capacity, and that a lack of success it is due to a lack of effort and not institutional bias, present and historical oppression, and a systemic filtering out of difference.  As with any of these points, there is nuance. The assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous; they are dialectical. So, this is not to say we abstain from helping individual students who have a goal to improve a test score. We must assuredly do so, but also help them develop lens for interrogating what they are doing.  There is a vast difference between imposing this type of reflection and planning on all students and empowering students as individuals to think and act in an unfair system. 
  • Speak the full truth to students.  Students know or at least intuit the unfairness, injustice, and painful absurdity of standardization and testing.  We know they are stressed and anxious because of it. Help them name the systemic bias of these forces and take a critical view of the power dynamics at play.  Continue to help them understand their worth and value is not dependent on their ability to justify themselves to an external system. Empower them to move from being objects of the system to agents who decide and act in their own assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic.   
  • If ACT or other test prep must be done, also make sure to engage students in dialog about the power dynamics and exclusionary forces at play.  Help them understand that test achievement is not solely a function of effort in test prep, but more a result of systematic inequities. Be clear that test prep is not a neutral form of learning, but the practice of imitating the values and expressions of a culture that may not be their own. 
  • Speak the full truth to parents.  Help them be agents within an assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic as well.     
  • Stop using standardized measures in the classroom.  Too often we accept a standardized measure as just another data point, but all others seem to collapse around it.  We need to start reclaiming our space as professionals. We have the capacity to help our students show what they know and what they can do.  We can do so better and more fully than a standardized data point. Right now, the forces of standardization and testing are so powerful that the gravity of one point can out weight all the others.  We have to reject what holds us back if we are to move forward. Black holes do not illuminate; they hold in light.   
  • Question articles and “experts”.  The swirling blur of “research” and advice is a form of power through authority and confusion that often distorts the value, validity, and assumptions behind the work.  The quick-fix instructional practice is often not actually research based, but is at best based on an interpretation of research and at worst only anecdotal. Moreover, when there is actual research it often uses outcome measures based on standardized assessment and not holistic, edifying, and humanizing views of students. If we accept these articles and practices, even the ones that seem harmless, we empower their underlying values.  Enacting these beliefs and practices in our classrooms makes it more difficult to argue against their companions of standardization and testing. Specifically, we must ask more, what is the actual research? What are the assumptions of that work?
  • Don’t proctor the ACT on a Saturday.  If we are agents of the system on the weekend, it is more difficult to advocate for its destruction during the week.  
  • Remind each other, explicitly, that we do not teach subjects or standards – we teach students.  The more we center our work and conversations on them, as people, and stirring the brilliance and brokenness in every soul, the more we move away from the mechanistic systems that sort and fit and filter.  

There are, without a doubt, countless other ways to push back.  There are just as many reasons not to do so. We are all restrained by the heavy and comforting inertia of the status quo, by the discomfort of causing awkwardness, and by the rationalization that it’s not that bad.  These are often the more difficult acts to take than joining in a major collective action. But, they are the necessary things to do before such an action can be successful. 

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