The PARCC: We cannot fix what we do not measure

As we all know from our unimaginably wealthy and powerful education reform overlords, failing American children need to be brought up to speed with a more challenging curriculum–the Common Core State Standards, and be tested using much harder tests–the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests, currently in their second administration since March.

Typically the problem is presented as a matter of national security or maintaining our global economic edge. But this week we’ve been hearing a new note in the urgency of testing.

It’s not just military security or our global financial standing that is at stake. Now we are told  that the very ability to take the tests themselves has surged to the fore as a civil right.

It’s a civil right. And the federal government won’t let shortsighted, selfish, nay, racist people stand in the way of civil rights.

CCSS tests have been a hard sell. Parents and students all over the country won’t be subjected to them, are walking out on them. In New York State close to 200,000 refused the CCSS tests in March. In Seattle entire schools, whole grades are boycotting tests. Huge boycotts are happening in Florida and New Mexico, and Delaware is on its way to approving an opt out bill.

Yet earnest Arne Duncan desperately wants everyone to take these tests. He’s tried coming alongside parents like a patient father, he’s tried insulting parents for being delusional soccer moms who need to deal with the fact that their little middle class white Boopsie is not as smart as mom thought, and now the approach seems to be showering parents with guilt: if you refuse these tests, you are setting the clock back decades on civil rights.

Reform folks have come blasting out of cannons all week with the civil rights argument. A whole list of civil rights groups issued a pro-testing statement this week; several bloggers from a Broad-funded education website all wrote to refute John Oliver’s snappy little take-down of standardized testing.

They say the same thing, these people. I mean the exact same thing. It’s like a mantra. Whenever I encounter it anew I get a little crickly feeling up the back of my neck.

We cannot fix what we cannot measure.

We cannot fix what we cannot measure.

We cannot fix what we cannot measure.

They say that now, for the first time, we have a measuring device that can show us how to fix things. In the past, no one was holding all our lazy poor-child-hating teachers accountable, and they simply did what they wanted and ignored society’s marginalized children–poor minorities, disabled children.  Now we are holding teachers accountable; now marginalized children are finally for the first time getting attention. We can now see by our testing, definitively and objectively, that they are failures.

Wait a minute, I’m not sure that’s what the spokespersons of the reform overlords are intending to say.

But that’s what they more or less are saying.

Because those test scores that we have now–our measurements? They will be used not by the teacher to help that marginalized child. That marginalized child’s difficulties will be used to punish the teacher. That’s what the largely discredited, yet still overlord-approved VAM rating of teachers does–uses test scores of struggling parts of the population as a club to hit teachers with.

The kids get whacked with the same club. Because when the scores are in the tank, that’s when the overlords take action. (“Somebody has to step up and be brave enough,” as we have heard our own local overlord tell us so many times.) And by action I mean firing teachers, cutting budgets, and closing schools.

Whose teachers are fired? Whose school budgets are being slashed? Whose schools are shut down? Whose entire districts just close early because there is no more money left?

The very most vulnerable children who need the greatest resources in their schools. The very most vulnerable children who depend on the consistency of their teachers and their staffs. The very most vulnerable children in communities whose school provides an anchor. Children of color  in poverty-stricken neighborhoods that have not simply been cast aside by the dominant white culture, but whose disinvested neighborhoods have been intentionally crafted into this shape.

I should say schools in these communities used to provide an anchor. Here in Chicago we have seen this quite closely. We saw 50 schools in disinvested and impoverished neighborhoods shuttered before our eyes with poor plans for the future. For the empty buildings there was no plan, and for the schools absorbing all the kids shuttled into them like game pieces, CPS plans were deficient at best.

Once again in Chicago we are being shouted at until we cower that the CPS budget deficit is now $1.5B, and we’re preparing to see our teachers pensions not honored and their pay cut, as well as see the ones from low-scoring schools get fired or their schools closed or turned around. PARCC test scores will determine the where’s and the who’s. You know, for civil rights.

It’s for civil rights that we need to support these tests. Because of measuring.

If measuring is really so important, I want the measurers to measure more.

I want to know who will measure how high the dandelions and uncut grass will get at an elementary school that has been left with inadequate janitorial services based on a terrible contract with Aramark? Who will measure whether and to what degree that makes children at that school feel like no one cares about them enough to mow the school lawn?

Who measures the effect on children as a result of their cafeteria being closed for weeks at a time based on a roach infestation that, prior to the Aramark contract, was unthinkable?

Who will measure the number of priceless WPA art works children won’t see anymore from our 50 shuttered schools? Who will measure the long term cost of gutting art curricula from schools that can no longer afford the time or money because of the importance of the tests?

What kind of instrument will measure the increase in stress in children at Mollison Elementary who now get social and special services in the halls and under the stairs because there are no actual rooms for these things?

Who will measure how much good it does to place children’s names on classroom “data walls” or neck lanyards with their scores? What test determines the effect of seeing one’s name on a bulletin board in sorted color bands with excellent at the top and special ed at the bottom?

What will measure the loss to the communities that have had their schools surgically removed like a vital organ? Or, like Dyett, that have been starved over a decade, killed by their own school superintendents, slowly–retributively–experimentally?

What is the connection of school budget cuts to skin color? To poverty? Is there a test to discern the links between violence in a community to its schools limited resources?

What is the test to determine the long-term implications of whole communities of children being labeled as failures? I wish we had one!

Oh, wait. We do.

There is actually very good science on this point.

Jesse Hagopian cites studies that closely examine many data points at high schools with exit exams–standardized tests that students must pass in order to graduate.

The only data point definitively linked to the prevalence of exit exams was increased incarceration rates.

Hagopian convincingly links the test refusal movement to Black Lives Matter because the tests are but one more manifestation of the sorting and separating that has been going on since testing was invented by early 20th century eugenicists, so optimistic about improving the gene pool in a white direction.

The reform overlords and their spokespersons insist on a circumscribed effort at measuring by means of their standardized tests of choice (Pearson) to ensure social justice and civil rights, because, as they say, we cannot fix what we cannot measure. This despite evidence on many levels that standardized tests measure accurately one data point that no one should be bragging about, and continue to sort and separate our children into communities marked by what they have been and will continue to be stripped of, not by what they offer. Standardized testing data used in its present punitive manner measures communities, schools, and children into privation and appears to be purposive about this.

I think what reform overlords mean to say is, we will not fix what we do not measure–or see.


For further reading:

This look at the civil rights groups that condemned the opt-out movement reveals that most of them receive significant funding from reform overlords the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.

For more on the connection between modern school reform ideology and the early 20th century eugenicists, read this excellent analysis from Scientific American.  

Read this for an examination of the particular cost of art education loss on children in poverty.  

A very good summary of studies on how standardized testing may in fact not be equivalent to civil rights.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the deep, majority-culture imposed roots of violence in Baltimore.

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