THE EDUCATION report card for my home state of Nebraska in the spring of 1999 was mixed, according to Education Week. While children in the state ranked among the top 10 nationally in most academic categories, Nebraska nonetheless garnered only a C. Why? Largely because it does not administer statewide, standardized assessments and so is “lagging behind” in accountability. Both those reporting this verdict and most of the state and local officials receiving it seem to be resigned to it as a sure but unsurprising sign that we have more work to do to “catch up” with the rest of the country. It does not seem to strike most observers as odd that, although students’ performance is high, the state’s marks are only average. Until Nebraska develops statewide tests, it will continue to receive low grades, irrespective of what our students are doing. This kind of press may well propel the state to abandon its long-held commitment to local assessment and fall in line with the national movement toward state standardized tests.
This report and its handling demonstrate the extent to which educational tests have become “common sense.” To use a term proposed by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, educational testing is “hegemonic” — that is, it manufactures consent by presenting itself (or being represented as) “obvious.” Although standardized tests came under intense fire for a short time in the 1970s, we have returned to this practice with a fervor perhaps greater than at any other time since schools in the United States began making extensive use of standardized tests in the 1930s. Even many educators who have long understood the limitations and outright injustices of standardized testing and the testing industry claim that the time has passed when resistance to testing is useful.
I think it is dangerous to be too sanguine about the prospects for reforming the assessment community and disrupting the commonsense script for education reform, in which schools are cast as damsels in distress, remote experts are cast as heroic saviors, and teachers are written out of the production altogether. We need to confront the fact that, finally, the persistence of the “crisis in education” is attributable in large part to two factors: the profit margins of the testing industry that maintains the crisis and the cultural distrust of teachers that the testing industry, along with the political and education establishments, endorses.
But the testing industry has been able to secure a spot in our cultural imagination and our stock exchanges not only because of the business acumen of its leaders (though that is part of it), but also because it plays to and plays up our cultural distrust of teachers. The corporate establishment, led by the political Right, works hard to create a “public” of concerned taxpayers: those who want to be sure that their “investments” in children pay off. Neoconservative columnists play to this audience constantly, stoking the fires of educational crisis and inspiring suspicions about the competence of our public school teachers…. This distrust is carefully nurtured to keep the present educational power structure intact: remote “experts” (the capitalists) develop educational tests and prepackaged curricula and send them off to school administrators (the managers), who then ensure that teachers (the workers) faithfully execute those plans. Students (the products) are thus shaped to the specifications of experts whom they will never meet and who may never have set foot in a classroom.
In other words, whatever the gains of movements like the one for authentic assessment, the prevailing wisdom about education reform has it that reform must be top down, not inside out. Underlying our embrace of the assessment industry and our cultural distrust of teachers is a fundamental belief that what’s missing in education today is “efficiency” and that the best way to ensure efficiency is to set up a corporate structure in which teachers are held accountable to corporate CEOs. What’s good for General Motors . . .