The Data That Nourishes

Brian Jones Feb 22, 2013

Data from high-stakes standardized tests is the lifeblood of corporate education reform. In the body, as blood flows to different organs, it brings essential, life-sustaining nourishment. So too does the flow of test data, which nourishes every aspect of the movement to privatize our public schools.

As all teaching and learning is increasingly measured by standardized tests, there must be more and more tests to generate data. This ever-expanding need for data sustains the profits of the companies that make the tests and the test preparation materials and analyze the results. Pearson, the largest publishing company in the world, has a five-year testing contract with New York that is worth $32 million; its contract with Texas is worth nearly half a billion dollars. Between the demand for more tests stimulated by President Obama’s Race to the Top program and the streamlining of test materials due to the implementation of the Common Core Standards nationwide, Pearson is likely to be the single greatest beneficiary of both changes.

The flow of data serves the attack on public schools by providing quantifiable “proof” that they are failing. The data thus facilitates the closing of public schools and, in many cases, their replacement with for-profit charter schools. In 2008, the publication of emails between Joel Klein, then New York City Schools chancellor, and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of a charter-school chain, revealed that, in several instances, Klein decided to close specific public schools that Moskowitz was eyeing as potential new sites for charter schools. As charter schools gain “market share” in cities nationwide, the logic of competition forces all schools to act competitively — and test scores are increasingly the coin of that competition. With so much at stake, it was entirely predictable that corruption and cheating would follow.

Teachers’ unions represent perhaps the single greatest obstacle to privatization. Privatization demands that unions’ solidarity, job protections and influence over school governance be weakened, if not outright eliminated. Educational leaders at the highest levels have therefore made it a top priority to assign students’ test scores high stakes — for teachers. Complex mathematical formulas promise to reveal the “value added” by an individual teacher to his or her students’ standardized test scores. Doing so, privatization proponents hope, lays the ideological groundwork for weakening job protections such as tenure and disrupts the premise of collective bargaining. The data stream also, by providing mathematical “proof” of bad teaching, nourishes the public relations campaign against teachers’ unions.

Standardized testing also allows the privatization agenda to hide behind promises of racial justice. Ever since the No Child Left Behind legislation forced schools to disaggregate their test score data by race, the “reform” movement has equated rising test scores with racial justice. This is a highly ironic claim, given that standardized testing is rooted, historically, in the eugenics movement — the attempt to generate scientific evidence that people of color were intellectually inferior. Today, standardized test scores persistently correlate with socioeconomic categories — especially race and income. The “miracle” schools reformers often highlight are not miracles; they either find a way to remove the neediest, lowest-scoring students or they raise test scores by extreme “drill and kill” methods — and in doing so deprive the neediest students of the opportunity for genuine intellectual development. In New Orleans, for example, where schools compete by test scores in order to be allowed to exist, even those who favor privatization have admitted that the new system has recreated the old hierarchy of achievement and opportunity.

The movement against high-stakes testing has now moved into a direct-action phase: teachers and students in some areas, notably Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash. (see page 8), are refusing to administer or take high-stakes standardized tests. Cutting off this blood supply will directly endanger all of the organs of privatization at once. The profits of the testing companies will be threatened. The excuse for closing schools will be removed and the competition between schools diminished. The rationale for targeting individual teachers and weakening their union protections will no longer have the allure of scientific validity. Finally, as the movement raises calls for authentic assessments that are organically connected to real teaching and learning, we may actually see some justice — including racial justice — for the students who need it the most.

Brian Jones has taught elementary grades in New York City’s public schools for nine years, and is a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers).