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  • Published in Book Reviews

More Than A Score is a collection of articles that show the creative anger of those defending public education against the relentless, neoliberal, corporate assault, writes Adam Tomes

More than a score

More than a Score, the new uprising against high-stakes testing, ed. Jesse Hagopian, (Haymarket books, 2014) 303pp.

More than a Score is a collection of essays, poems, interviews, speeches that are heartfelt and personal accounts from those on the front line of public education in the USA. They are drawn from a wide range of individuals including well known educational practitioners, teachers, students, parents and administrators. Across the range of voices, the reader gets a sense of the anger, the creativity and the bravery of those who have the courage to take on the ‘testocracy’ (p.10). And whilst this collection is a must for those who are passionate about the US public-education system, it has invaluable lessons for those working in public education in the UK. There are so many clear parallels between the systems and, in many ways, this book acts as an insight into the neoliberal educational nightmare that lies ahead and provides the inspiration to resist.

The testocracy

In the excellent preface, Jesse Hagopian provides an excellent oversight of the proliferation of high-stakes, standardised bubble testing in US public education. This has come about as the result of the No Child Left Behind Act of George W Bush, which has been built upon by Obama through his Race to the Top programme and the Common Core Standards. These standardised tests are high stakes as they are the key decision making tool to decide the future of schools, teachers and students. The objective is to reduce living, breathing students and teachers with all their potential, their personal stories and their flaws into a single number – ‘a score’. This score is used to ‘sacrifice education … by denying students promotion or graduation, firing teachers, converting schools into privatised charters, or closing schools altogether’ (p.10). This is education reform in the USA and it is education reform in the UK under this ConDem Coalition. And it is an educational and moral disgrace.

The question is then, who is the ‘testocracy’ driving this reform? Hagopian defines the testocracy very clearly. It is made up of testing conglomerates, which make profits from the standardised tests, and the textbook and training industries that grow up around tests. This includes Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill who will see most of the $1 to $8 billion it is estimated that the new standards will cost, on top of the estimated $20 to $20 billion the industry is said to generate annually. Further to that are the ‘elite stratum of society that finances and promotes competition and privatisation in public education’ (p.10) such as the Gates Foundation. These groups feel that the US, and indeed the UK, is falling behind and the educational reforms will create a ‘competitive edge’ so that the ‘business community will be better prepared to face the challenges of the international market-place’ (p.19) according to a sidebar of the Common Core website.

The truth is there. It is not hidden. It is clear. It is nothing to do with education as a public good that allows our young people to develop their many and varied capacities to become skilled in collaboration and critical thinking. It is ‘arrogance’ and the ‘profit motive’ (p.21). The educational reformers understand exactly what they are doing and this is clearly reflected in that Bill Gates, President Obama and Secretary for Education Arne Duncan all send their children to schools that do not use the Common Core standards or sit the Common Core exams.

The flaws of standardised testing

There are so many flaws with standardised testing, it is an amazing feat that Jesse Hagopian can describe them so succinctly. The key flaw identified is that a norm referenced, standardised test compares each student to the rest with the score reported as a percentile. It means that half will fall below the median and 10% of those taking the test will be in the bottom 10%. This allows the elite stratum to reinforce the ‘mythology of meritocracy in which those on top have achieved their position rightfully’ (p.15). Their superior intelligence and dedication and hard work lead to them rightfully to produce the best scores. In essence, it just proves their access to resources and so these tests only seek to ‘exacerbate racial and class inequality’ (p.15). Much the same could be said of the ConDem Coalition’s reforms of GCSE and ‘A’ levels, which are clearly designed to give the illusion of meritocracy and rigour whilst reinforcing the class divide.

Hagopian here is right to point out that teachers do not oppose assessment of students. Teachers utilise them all the time to help understand the thought processes, progress and intellectual obstacles faced by their own students. What teachers want, what teachers advocate, is rigorous but meaningful assessment. This would be performance based, probably built around a portfolio of work developed over a period of time that would be discussed and defended by the student in front of a panel of experts. This type of assessment empowers ‘teachers and students in the classroom, fosters critical thinking’ (p.17), but perhaps most importantly, it is very hard to profit from. Hence it will never be considered by the neoliberal education reformers.

Teachers

The first segment of the book is dedicated to the articles of teachers within public education. They are for the most part inspiring and thought provoking. They act as a practical handbook for activism that could be discussed in any staff room here or in the US. They also have wider implications for the establishment of all social movements. In the story of Rosie Frascella and Emily Giles, there is a real discussion of what solidarity means. At the International High School, there were seven staff who were planning to refuse to give the test. As the discussions grew across the community in the school, there is recognition that some were in a better position to stick out their necks than others.

Critically there was a real democratic sense of ‘giving people space to participate in whatever way they are comfortable’ (p.130). As the staff signatures to the letter refusing to give the test grew to all but four of the staffroom, a decision was taken to keep the then untenured teachers names off the letters, given the precarity of their position in the workplace. Yet the untenured teachers still stood on the platform at the press conference, which is a sign of the solidarity produced by the democratic approach the staff took. The drive to create precarity in education in the UK has led to a divided workforce between permanent staff and part-time variable hours staff. This example from the US is an object lesson in how to create unity and cohesion in the workforce.

At the same time, the sharing of information and support across different schools amongst activist groups opposing the tests was a key source of ‘strength and inspiration’ (p.128). Here the web and social media played a key role in disseminating successful strategies, providing community and a sense of being part of a wider movement. This was critical often where the union officialdom abandoned teachers or distanced themselves from the action of deliberately refusing to give tests. The best example shown here is when teachers in Florida sent pizza to the entire staff at Garfield High in Seattle in support of their test defying action. This changed how Mallory Clarke saw the world and is a brilliant way of ensuring that teachers who often feel ‘isolated in our classrooms battling against an unseen corporate reform agenda’ (p.53) start to feel part of a larger and vital movement. There is strength in numbers.

The final element that is worth considering here is the way standardised testing is used to control teachers. In many states, standardised testing allows for the use of Value Added Measures (VAMs) to assess the quality of teaching. The tests themselves do not measure education and VAMs do not measure teaching. The American Statistical Association points this out, landing two critical blows on the whole process: VAMs ‘do not directly measure potential teacher contributions towards other student outcomes’ and ‘typically measure correlation, not causation’ (p.16). These measures are used to value performance, pay and the award of contracts. In the most inhumane and brutalising approach, the Los Angeles Times published the test results of the 6,000 teachers in LA ranking them from most effective to least effective.

Students

The next set of articles is from the students affected by standardised testing and is of a very high quality. It reminds me as a teacher of the huge potential, resourcefulness and sharp intelligence I see every day in the young people that I work with. A great example is ‘Testing Assumptions’, which describes the organisation of the Providence Student Union in resisting high-stakes testing in Rhode Island. Their motives are clearly set out – they believe high-stakes testing is taking away the life and vitality of young people by turning them into simply a ‘score’. They see it as an issue of equity, and that the high-stakes testing ‘puts low-income students, students of color, students learning English, and students with disabilities at high risk of being denied a diploma’ (p.136).

Their target is also clear – the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school board and the elected officials. These bodies target students and teachers as being ‘too dumb’ and ‘too lazy’, and makes them the root cause of wider educational failings (p.136). This total lack of honesty fails to mention years of cutting educational budgets and social services whilst handing out tax breaks for the wealthy. The authors point out that one in five of the state’s children live in destitute poverty.

The tactics adopted by the students are creative and thoughtful. The first was to hold a ‘Take the Test’ event getting as many successful and talented people as possible to take a version of the NECAP (the standardised test in Rhode Island), which became a media sensation. The results were incredible, with 60% of all the professionals taking the test failing to get the necessary score to graduate in Rhode Island, thus giving lie to the idea that the tests will give America a ‘competitive edge’.

The second creative event tied into the massive resurgence of Zombie culture and movies (see Evan Calder WilliamsCombined and Uneven Apocalypse). The students organised a mass protest outside the Rhode Island Department of Education, dressed as Zombies with the slogan ‘No Education, No Life!’ (p.135), which captured the media and public imagination. The postscript reveals that the state legislature has passed a three-year moratorium on the use of the NECAP for graduating.

Parents

This section is perhaps the most heartfelt and is a reminder that education as a public good is not just the preserve of students and teachers. The first line of the story of Jeanette Deutermann, will strike a chord with every parent, ‘I would rather die than go to school’ (p.185). These are the words of her eight-year-old son. Over the period of the third grade, Jeanette tells the story of a child whose whole personality and demeanour changed. The final straw was a school offer of Academic Intervention Services to give two, one hour sessions for two months to prepare for the standardised tests. This drove her investigation of the tests and the decision to organise an opt-out campaign in Long Island. Again, the sense of solidarity clearly shines through, working with other parents and students within the state and across states. The use of social media and the connections it brings were clearly invaluable as was the ability to work together and respect each other. They see their weapon as ‘intelligence and truth’ (p.194) but that is also allied to incredible will power.

Perhaps the most incredible and eye opening articles relate to the use of standardised testing within kindergartens. In Chicago, kindergarten children are expected to pass fourteen standardised tests, which is ‘impossibly cruel’ (p.198). It is startling that a kindergarten teacher was written up by her administration after a poor lesson observation where the key criticism was that one of her students was seen ‘playing’ in the lesson. This constant preparation for tests pushes out play based learning, which both psychologists and simple, common sense tells us is the best and only way for young children to learn. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that hugely profitable standardised testing is what is driving this.

Administrators and advocates

The final section covers the most varied set of responses to the culture of over testing. The advocates clarify the core objections to and highlight ‘the core hypocrisy’ of the corporate education reform movement (p.282). This education reform is backed by both the main political parties, business leaders, philanthropists and both major teaching unions. Yet the reforms are ‘alienating parents, teachers, students and administrators from public education’. Nonetheless, it is this very act of alienation that is providing us with ‘a meeting ground for all of our communities’ and provides the ‘possibility for community dialogue and collective action based on the needs of our children and society’ (p.283).

It is a way to involve ‘parents, students, teachers and community members’ in strong, creative actions that will ‘energise participants’. It will create shared experiences and will help educate ‘one another, policy makers and the media’ (pp.248-9). Most importantly it will shine a light onto the core idea that test scores ‘correlate most strongly with family wealth.’ This means that to tackle education, we must tackle the ‘lack of adequate housing, food insecurity, inadequate access to healthcare – all things connected directly to poverty,’ and that the real crisis is ‘massive disinvestment in state and social services and massive socioeconomic inequality’ (p.283). This story is just as true in the UK as it is in the US.

Afterword

This book has much to recommend to the educator, the student, the parent and the activist. It reminds all of us of the need to defend ‘public education from these corporate raiders’ and provides us with a practical blueprint for action. Education is a public good and provides us with the space to bring people together to rebuild both our society and our schools in ‘radically democratic, humanistic and equitable ways’ (p.284).

Tagged under: Neoliberalism Education
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