By Margot Pepper
Source: Monthly Review, November 2006
“I feel like a bad person.”
“I feel like a snail without a shell whose heart has been stepped on.”
These feelings were jotted down in Spanish by my second graders during the four weeks of standardized tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The educational policy was instituted on the heels of the September 11 attacks by President George Bush, backed by both Democrats and Republicans. My students are required to take tests in Standard English, though half have yet to make the transition from Spanish to a second language in my immersion classroom.
One afternoon, while an instructional assistant was administering make-up tests, my students persuaded me to help them use their poetic musings on testing to write a class poem. They know that because of my training with California Poets in the Schools, my former students’ poems have appeared in textbooks, television, and newspapers as far away as Canada. They believe that if only adults knew the tests were harming them, they’d stop requiring it of them.
At lunch time I translated their poem for a colleague, Cassandra. To my surprise, she began to cry. “I didn’t know anyone else felt like I did,” the teacher’s aide said, explaining that she had missed the essay section of a new test for instructional assistants and was worried that she would be fired after ten years of service if she didn’t pass the second time around. She had recently landed a second job at Federal Express just in case. The test had forced many of her overqualified Latina and African-American colleagues out of the profession, even though public school districts are sorely in need of teaching professionals who mirror the cultures of their student populations.
The test Cassandra must take is also part of the NCLB mandate. The backbone of the program, allegedly designed to hold schools accountable for academic failure, is standardized state testing for students and educators. Little known by the taxpayers footing the bill is the fact that for over a century, such norm-referenced test results have been misinterpreted in the United States to support a myriad of immoral campaigns from slavery to the abolition of Head Start. Some scholars have identified this historic pattern as a product of internal colonialism to amass capital at the expense of an expendable minority. Like the inappropriate use of the Intelligence Quotient or IQ tests, NCLB standardized tests are being used to lend legitimacy to policies which lead to cheap labor and large profits in the private sector.
Tests like those associated with NCLB have been discredited in the past for their socioeconomic and linguistic biases. Five years after the institution of NCLB, there is statistical evidence that NCLB and its programs are actually damaging students and contributing to maintaining an uneducated labor force. The development of this cheap, unorganized labor for the service industry suggests NCLB’s failure may be deliberate. We will see further evidence of this below, particularly when we examine McGraw-Hill’s record profits and its cozy relationship with the Bush family.
For over a century, such norm-referenced test results have been misinterpreted in the United States to support a myriad of immoral campaigns. In the three decades prior to the Civil War, a precursor to the IQ test was used to justify slavery by claiming that the slaves were of inferior genetic stock. Since that time, one of the most misleading tests still employed is the IQ test, first invented in 1904 by Alfred Binet, a professor of psychology at the Sorbonne. In 1910, Henry Goddard, translated the Binet test into English and put it to use assessing the intelligence of immigrants on Ellis Island in 1917. The study concluded that 83 percent of Jews, 79 percent of Italians, and 87 percent of Russians were “feebleminded” adults with a mental age of under five years. Goddard’s test was used to help stem the immigration tide, adding fuel to the eugenics movement’s efforts in suppressing immigrants.1
Then, in the late 1960s, IQ tests were used as a retrograde argument against such measures as forced integration of schools, the passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, affirmative action, and forced busing. In 1969, University of California Professor Arthur Jensen claimed to have determined that African-American children had average IQs that were significantly lower than those of Euro American or white children, and that it was therefore wasteful to spend educational dollars on them. Jensen’s so-called findings about African-American inferiority were used as an argument to dismantle the government’s compensatory education programs such as Head Start. These campaigns were often employed effectively to disenfranchise large numbers of African Americans and immigrants from the political system by denying them access to government services, equal educational opportunities, even voting, perpetuating their unfavorable class status.
Ronald Bailey, a former fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and Chicano Scholar Guillermo Flores have identified these deliberate historic campaigns to exclude people of color from the political process as a product of “internal colonialism.” “Internal colonialism,” they write, “is nothing more than the domestic face of world imperialism which saw the U.S. and other capitalist countries dominate the world in fulfilling the imperative of capital accumulation through appropriation of the world’s human and natural resources. The use of racial minorities brought surpluses to white society that contributed to the growth of monopoly capitalism.” In other words, cheap labor and raw materials led to huge profits for U.S. monopolistic firms, which today have become supra-national corporations.2
Now, just like the inappropriate use of IQ tests, the standardized tests that are part of the NCLB campaign are being used to lend legitimacy to policies that lead to a cheap, uneducated labor pool and increased profits in the private sector. The effect of NCLB has been to dismantle public education by funneling public tax dollars directly to corporations through penalties, private tutoring companies, and vouchers. Once more, the populations paying for this policy are students of color and the poor, since according to Ben Clarke in CorpWatch, the poorest schools with limited resources comprised primarily of such students perform the worst on the tests. The schools are then reconstituted by the school district, outsourced to private companies like Edison, or a portion of their federal funding is diverted to “parental choice” tutoring programs. Public school money was thus diverted to the company Educate, which runs the Sylvan Learning Centers, whose revenues, Clarke states, “have grown from $180 to $250 million in the past three years [2001–04] and whose profits shot up 250% last year.”3
And since the introduction of NCLB, sales of printed materials related to standardized tests nearly tripled to $592 million, draining money from the public schools since Bush provided no extra funding for the increase in expenditures.
This drive to privatize the public schools—led by conservative foundations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and the Olin Foundation—includes a history of union busting to lower wages and decrease accountability, reported Henry A. Giroux. According to Giroux, privatization advocates are unwilling to acknowledge that school failure is a product of “the political, economic, and social dynamics of poverty, joblessness, sexism, race and class discrimination, unequal funding, or a diminished tax base. Rather, the failure of poor minority-group students, is often attributed to a genetically encoded lack of intelligence….There is a shameful element of racism and a retrograde Social Darwinism that permeates this discussion.”4
Children in private schools are spared this discussion; private schools are excluded from state assessments and the penalties, since in general they do not receive federal funding. Only those who can afford the high cost of private schools attend and the schools are primarily comprised of whites. This means the wealthiest, whitest sector of the population is spared NCLB’s damaging policies.
“Education today, like health care 30 years ago, is a vast, highly localized industry ripe for change,” says Mary Tanner, Managing Director of Lehman Brothers. “The emergence of HMOs and hospital management companies created enormous opportunities for investors. We believe the same pattern will occur in education.”5
Giroux describes the public schools as “a local industry that over time will become a global business. As a for-profit venture, public education represents a market worth over $600 billion dollars.”
“Bush’s proposal for national standardized testing is helping to pave the way for these EMO’s” says Project Censored. “While the aptly named Educational Management Organizations or EMOs are being promoted as the new answer to impoverished school districts and dilapidated classrooms, the real emphasis is on investment returns rather than student welfare and educational development,” Project Censored states.6
The EMO model has already dismantled the New Orleans public school district. Reporter Amy Goodman documents, “Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Louisiana state legislature voted to take over most of the city’s public schools and effectively fire the 7,500 teachers and employees who work in them. Control of many schools is being given to private charter organizations,” which are earmarked to receive $24 million dollars in federal aid—aid which is apparently not available for New Orleans public schools.7 African-American students comprise 95 percent of the New Orleans school district.
Now that five years have passed since NCLB was instituted, studies are showing that EMOs have been less successful than their public school counterparts. After conducting their own study, the Austin Independent School District came to the “firm conclusion that Edison Schools Inc. has a poor track record of improving academic performance, particularly for students of need.” The district cited “poor achievement at the Edison schools relative to the rest of the district and comparison schools.”8
Other studies about NCLB support Lutton’s statement that student welfare is being sacrificed for profit. Before examining those results, however, it is useful to review the track record of norm-referenced tests in general. Many cognitive scientists have reiterated the fact that the only thing measured by intelligence and standardized tests is how well a subject performs on that specific test at that specific point in time. Other opponents have proven economic, cultural, and linguistic biases inherent in such tests.
It has always disturbed me that in my classroom, gifted, impoverished Latino students have performed poorly on the state tests, while failing Euro-American middle-class students have passed with flying colors. An influential study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert in 1962 found that the higher the economic status of the subjects, the higher the scores were likely to be.9 Similarly, higher achievement scores on the NCLB tests have been predicted according to zip codes, used by economists to sort by economic status. Randy L. Hoover and Kathy L. Shook note that a study of 593 Ohio School Districts show the district’s high stakes tests “to correlate with Social Economic Status to such a high degree as to virtually mask any and all actual academic achievement claimed to be measured by these tests.” They observe that the students in the study were “visible victims of sorting by socio-economic status…by high stakes tests that fail to meet recognized, scientific standards of test validity.”10
One factor that violates scientific standards in administering the test is the variable of English. As early as 1927, Margaret Mead found higher IQ scores both as a function of the amount of English spoken at home and as a function of the length of residence in the United States. This language handicap invalidated the Stanford-Binet test whose results were supposed to be independent of external factors.
The Standard English test materials associated with NCLB put immigrants and African Americans at a disadvantage, since the majority of African Americans in the public schools don’t speak Standard English at home. Most speak Ebonics, a dialect the Oakland District recognized is as much in need of federal Title VII bilingual funding as Spanish. Cassandra notes that the instructional assistants who are having the most difficulty with their tests are her Latina and African-American colleagues for the same reasons. Contrary to the proponents of “English as an official language,” linguists from Ferdinand de Saussure to Roger Brown have argued that no language is superior to any other but is rather “an arbitrary system of symbols.”11
Jack D. Forbes, of the University of California, Davis, pointed out that, “To give English-speaking children a head start by empowering their linguistic capital is to grant them group preference,” adding that it is illegal.12 Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs, including the public schools.
Given these glaring problems with high stakes tests, it is not surprising that a June 2006 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University details the failure of NCLB to meet its educational objectives. The study found that the successes reported by NCLB proponents “simply do not show up on an independent national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the ‘nation’s report card.’” Further, “substantial disparities in educational opportunities among racial and socioeconomic groups within states have not been adequately addressed.” The study predicted that according to NCLB guidelines by 2014 “less than 25 percent of Poor and Black students will achieve proficiency in reading, and less than 50 percent will achieve NAEP proficiency in math.”13
A comparison of public high-school graduation rates over the course of the implementation of NCLB seems to confirm that the policy is actually damaging African-American and Latino students. The public high- school graduation rate for African Americans and Latinos nationwide has sunk from 56 percent and 54 percent respectively in 1998—before NCLB policies took their toll—to about 50 percent in 2005, according to a March 2005 report by Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. The authors, Dan Losen and Johanna Wald, point out that “because of misleading and inaccurate reporting of dropout and graduation rates, the public remains unaware of this educational and civil rights crisis.”14
And in California, looking at the inverse—or dropout rates—according to statistics provided by the California Department of Education and published by Ed-Data, in the 1999–2000 school year, before NCLB policies took effect, the range of high-school dropout rates for the twenty worst-faring districts in California spread from 5.9 percent to 10.4 percent. After five years of NCLB policies, the range spread from 6.5 percent to 18 percent with predominantly African American and Latino districts faring the worst. The four-year dropout rate for the entire state of California during those five years crept up from 11.1 percent to 12.7 percent, with dropout rates for African Americans increasing nearly 4 percentage points from 18.1 percent to 21.8 percent. Latino dropout rates also increased from 15.3 percent to 16.6 percent during that same period.
Another abysmal NCLB failure is McGraw-Hill’s Open Court, a phonics program which, according to presenters in its initial year, was specifically designed for learning disabled children. NCLB policy requires any district wishing to qualify for government funding to implement “scientifically based” reading instruction. Only “approved” reading curricula will be funded by the government. McGraw-Hill’s Open Court has a majority of these contracts. A large number of urban districts throughout the nation, largely comprised of poor students of color, have made the program mandatory and employ “Open Court police” to make sure educators are not resisting its implementation, according to Clarke. Their policing is understandable, since no properly trained educator would consent to implementing a program which harms his or her students. According to a study by Margaret Moustafa and Robert E. Land at California State University in Los Angeles, “schools using Open Court are significantly more likely to be in the bottom quartile of the SAT 9 assessment than comparable schools using non-scripted programs.” The study concludes that “Open Court limits what children are able to achieve in reading” relative to other programs.15
Elizabeth Jaeger lost her job at an elementary school in Oakland, California for speaking out against Open Court’s shortcomings. In an article for Rethinking Schools (Spring 2006), Jaeger observed, “Advocate for your students and you will be silenced.” She added that more poor children and children of color are being left behind than ever before.
Open Court has become mandatory in Oakland, where African Americans comprise a majority of the student population. The fact that an educationally bankrupt curriculum for learning disabled students is mandatory in so many urban areas devoid of a majority white middle- class student base, such as Oakland School District, echoes Jensen’s discriminatory ideas. Some critics believe the failure of these programs is deliberate in order to produce a pool of cheap, uneducated labor.
Giroux pointed out that while an increasing number of students of color may not graduate under NCLB, their failing public schools are more than willing to provide them with “the appropriate attitudes for future work in low-skilled, low-paying jobs.” Business Week reported that thanks to partnerships with businesses such as McDonald’s in under-funded schools, students “learned how to design a McDonald’s restaurant, how a McDonald’s works, and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald’s” (Pat Wechsler, June 1997).
Could it be that as in the past, the conclusions of a norm-referenced test are being used to justify internal colonialism? Endorsers of NCLB have argued that finding malevolent motives for a policy allegedly designed to hold schools, teachers, and students accountable is conspiratorial. And in fact, the majority of high stakes testing supporters may indeed have altruistic motives and actions. Unfortunately these findings are no more conspiratorial than is the historical structure of colonialism or the desire for profit, as exemplified by educational corporations like McGraw-Hill.
According to Clarke, testing has played a crucial role in amassing McGraw-Hill’s $1.4 billion education-related income: “McGraw-Hill lobbyists used the statewide results on their own California Achievement tests to convince the state legislature that California schools needed the McGraw-Hill Open Court and Reading Mastery program to improve students’ reading performance.”
Yet given reports of its failure four years ago, why is Open Court the program of choice for schools afraid of NCLB penalties? Stephen Metcalf elucidated one possibility in the Nation (January 28, 2002). The article states that the McGraw-Hill and Bush family connections go back three generations, “beginning when President Bush’s grandfather Prescott and the McGraws were among the founding bluebloods of the original Jupiter Island [Florida] money circle in the 1930s.” Neil Bush, George W.’s brother, also used his political influence to solicit contributions for his educational software company, Ignite. “In February 2004, the Houston school board unanimously agreed to accept $115,000 in charitable donations from businesses and individuals who insisted the money be spent on Ignite. The deal raised conflict of interest concerns,” reported Cynthia Leonor Garza in the Houston Chronicle (March 23, 2006). More recently she added, former first lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with specific instructions that the money be spent on Ignite.
Perhaps a more apt name for Bush’s NCLB is No Corporation Left Behind, particularly if that corporation has strong ties to the Bush family.
In spite of the corruption and profiteering by the current administra tion, the failure of NCLB and standardized state assessments should not be an excuse to abolish all assessments. The Berkeley School District has been extremely effective in employing its own teachers to author reading, writing, and math assessments that are challenging and culturally appropriate. The mandatory quarterly assessments measure my students’ mastery of state-mandated educational objectives, helping to pace my curriculum and keep expectations high. The only information the NCLB standardized tests provide me with is the socioeconomic and English level of my students. And I receive this data long after my students have graduated from my classroom!
Back in class, my students struggled with an ending for their poem. Then Cassandra walked in. I summarized a watered-down version of what had transpired in the lunchroom for my students.
“Your poem has given me hope now, and I just wanted to thank you,” Cassandra told them. “Thanks to you I have strength to take this test I have to take this afternoon. I’ll be thinking of your poem.”
“Si se puede!” the children all chanted spontaneously, confident that their poem would somehow enable Cassandra to pass her test—which she did.
With that, they finished the last two lines of their poem.
NO CHILD AHEAD
(Translated from the Spanish by Margot Pepper*)
ALEJANDRO, ANTONIO, BRIAN, CLAIRE, CYNTHIA, DANIEL, DAVID, DELPHINA, DYLAN, EMILY, FELIPE, HASSANI, KIMBERLY, PABLO, RAQUEL, RICKY, THAMAR, YAREDT (STUDENTS OF MARGOT PEPPER’S 2005 SECOND GRADE CLASS AT ROSA PARKS ELEMENTARY, BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA), & MARGOT PEPPER
We’re tangled in a month of state testing
like insects trapped in the president’s spider web.
As we take it, we feel like bad people,
like birds without wings nor bones,
like snails without shells
whose hearts have been stepped on.
But then we tell ourselves, our second grade progress is excellent;
besides, we’re stupendous poets,
and, as César Chávez says, ¡Sí se puede!
But then we look around
and see a classmate about to drown
in a sea of tears
because she doesn’t know the language well enough
and we can’t throw her a life jacket.
¡No se puede!
No we can’t!
Like a month of dark, endless rain,
the test is long and boring;
We’re not learning a thing.
Kids in private schools don’t have these exams
as though they were royalty
and we, the indigenous.
But then we remember
that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
also suffered seeing their people mistreated,
separated from the rest in unequal schools
and that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
was tormented by not being allowed into college.
And we remember that because of their struggles
our lives are better today.
Well, we too can fight to improve the lives of others
this little poem.
*Some of the Spanish vocabulary learned by these students, such as indigenas in a unit on the conquest of the Americas, translates into sophisticated English. I’ve opted to simplify some literal translations to convey the true level of the students. For example the Spanish word, interminable, has been changed to “unending,” instead of “interminable.” (The students often employ the word terminar—to finish.) Nonetheless, studying poetry, conducting Internet and literary research, and engaging in critical thinking all year did produce some astonishing writers in the class. Many went on to publish their own poems in Street Spirit newspaper and won awards from Cody’s Books.
Born in Mexico City, Margot Pepper is a bilingual educator, journalist, and author whose work has been published internationally by the Utne Reader, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Hampton Brown, and others. Her memoir, Through the Wall (Freedom Voices, 2005), was a finalist nomination for the 2006 American Book Award.
Use of IQ tests to justify slavery is documented by James Starkey, “Race, Class, IQ and Economic Success,” unpublished paper. Remarks about Goddard by Stephen J. Gould, Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 166.
Ronald Bailey & Guillermo Flores, “Internal Colonialism and Racial Minorities in the U.S.: An Overview,” in Structures of Dependency, Frank Bonilla & Robert Girling, eds. (Stanford University, 1973), 149–60.
Ben Clarke, “Leaving Children Behind,” CorpWatch (September 3, 2004).
Henry A. Giroux, “The Business of Public Education,” Z Magazine (July/August 1998), http://zena.secureforum.com/Znet/ZMag/articles/girouxjulyaug98.htm.
“Corporations Promote HMO Model for School Districts,” in Censored 2003, Project Censored, eds., (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003).
“Corporations Promote HMO Model for School Districts.”
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, June 20, 2006.
Rethinking Schools 16, no. 4 (Summer 2002).
Kenji Hakuta, Mirror of Language (New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1986), 33–35. The original study by Elizabeth Peal & Wallace Lambert was conducted at McGill University of Montreal in 1962.
Randy L. Hoover & Kathy L. Shook, “School Reform and Accountability: Some Implications and Issues for Democracy and Fair Play,” Democracy & Education 14, no. 4 (2003): 81.
Roger Brown, Social Psychology (New York: Free Press, 1965), 443, 450.
Jack D. Forbes, “Does Prop. 209 Deliver a Knock-Out Blow to ‘English Only?’” University of California, Davis, (September 1977), http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/humnet/linguistics/
Jay Lee, “Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome Trends,” (Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006), http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu.
Dan Losen & Johanna Wald, “Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California,” Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, March 24, 2005; 1998 national graduation rates were provided by Jay P. Greene, “High School Graduation Rates in the United States,” Civic Report, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, November 2001. California statistics provided by Ed-Data and the California Department of Education, http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us.
“The Reading Achievement of Economically-Disadvantaged Children in Urban Schools Using Open Court vs. Comparably Disadvantaged Children in Urban Schools Using Non-Scripted Reading Programs,” in 2002 Yearbook of the Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, 44–53.