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Test Mania: Preparing Students for Life Under Modern Capitalism

Bertell Ollman Apr 10

The psychologist Bill Livant has remarked, “When a liberal sees a beggar, he says the system isn’t working. When a Marxist does, he says it is.” The same insight could be applied today to the entire area of education. The learned journals as well as the popular media are full of studies documenting how little most students know and how fragile their basic skills are. The cry heard almost everywhere is, “The system isn’t working.” Responding to this common complaint, conservatives in both parties have pushed through packages of education reforms — “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top” and “Common Core” — in which increased testing occupies the central place. The typical liberal and even radical response to this has been to demonstrate that such measures are not likely to have the “desired” effect. The assumption, of course, is that we all want more or less the same thing from a system of education, and that conservatives have simply made an error in the means they have chosen to attain our common end. But what if students are already receiving — more or less — the kind of education that conservatives favor? This would cast their proposals for “reform” in another light. What if, as Livant points out in the case of beggars, the system is working?

The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that if you make children get on their knees every day to pray, whatever their initial beliefs, they will end up believing in God. It seems that a practice repeated often enough, especially if it includes particular movements and emotions, can exercise an extraordinary effect on how and what we think. Didn’t Marshall McLuhan warn us in the early years of T.V. that “the medium is the message”? What applies to praying and to watching T.V. applies to taking exams. If you make students at any rung of the educational ladder take lots of exams, the process of doing so will have at least as much influence on what they become as the content of the tests. In short, exams, especially so many exams, teach us even more than they test us. To grasp what it is they teach us is to understand why our system of education already “works” and in what ways conservative proposals for reform would make it “work” still better.

Tests as Teachers

Complaining about exams may be most students’ first truly informed criticism about the society in which they live, informed because they are its victims and know from experience how exams work. Students know, for example, that exams don’t only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve forced isolation from other students, prohibitions on talking, walking around and going to the bathroom, writing a lot faster than usual, physical discomfort, worry, fear, anxiety (lots of that) and often guilt. Students are also aware that exams do a poor job of testing what they actually know. What student hasn’t griped about at least some of these things? But it is just here that most of their criticisms run into a brick wall, because most students don’t know enough about society to understand the role that exams — especially taking so many exams — plays in preparing them to take their place in it.

In reality, exams have less to do with testing us for what we are supposed to know than teaching us what the other aspects of instruction cannot get at (or get at as well). To understand what that is we must examine what the capitalist class, who control the main levers of power in our society, require from a system of education. Here, it is clear that capitalists need a system of education that provides young people with the knowledge and skills necessary for their businesses to function and prosper. But they also want schools to give youth the beliefs, attitudes, emotions and associated habits of behavior that make it easy for capitalists to tap into this store of knowledge and skills. And they need all this not only to maximize their profits but also to help reproduce the social, economic and even political conditions and accompanying processes that allow them to extract any profits whatsoever. Without workers, consumers and citizens who are well versed in and accepting of their roles in these processes, the entire capitalist system would grind to a halt. It is here — particularly as regards the behavioral and attitudinal prerequisites of capitalist rule — that the culture of exams has become indispensable.

Well, what does sitting for so many exams, together with the long hours spent and anxiety involved in studying for them, and the shame felt for the imperfect grades obtained on them, “teach” students? Here’s the short list:

1) The crush of tests gets students to believe that one gets what one works for and that the standards by which this is decided are objective and fair, and therefore that those who do well and those who do badly deserve what they get. Students then bring this attitude to what they find in the rest of society, including their own failures later in life, and it inclines them to “blame the victim” (themselves or others) and feel guilty for what is not their fault.

2) Exams are orders that are not open to question — “discuss this,” “outline that,” etc. — and taking so many exams conditions students to accept unthinkingly the orders that will come from their future employers. As with the army, following lots of orders, including many that don’t seem to make much sense, is ideal training for a life in which one will be expected to follow orders.

3) By fitting the infinite variety of possible answers on exams into the straitjacket of A, B, C and D, students get accustomed to the standardization of people as well as of things and the impersonal job categories that will constitute such an important part of their identity later on.

4) Because their teachers know all the right answers to the exams, students tend to assume that those who are above them in other hierarchies — at work and in politics — also know much more than they do.

5) Because most tests are taken individually, striving to do well on a test is treated as something that concerns students only as individuals. Cooperative solutions are equated with cheating, if considered at all. The model implies that this is how students should approach the problems they will confront later in life.

6) With the Damocles sword of a failing — or for some, a mediocre — grade hanging over their heads throughout their years in school, including university, the inhibiting fear of swift and dire punishment never leaves students. The very number of exams also tends to undermine students’ self-confidence and to raise their levels of anxiety, with the result that most young people remain unsure that they will ever know enough to criticize existing institutions, and feel physically uncomfortable at the thought of trying to put anything better in their place.

7) Exams play the key role in determining course content, leaving little time for material that is not on the exam. Among the first things to be omitted in this “tightening” of the curriculum are students’ own reactions to the topics that come up, collective reflection on the urgent problems of the day, alternative points of view and other possibilities generally, explorations of topics triggered by individual curiosity and indeed anything that is likely to promote creative, cooperative or critical thinking. But then our capitalist ruling class is not particularly interested in dealing with workers, consumers and citizens who possess these qualities.

8) Exams also determine the form in which most teaching goes on, since for any given exam there is generally a best way to prepare for it. Repetition, forced memorization, rote learning and frequent quizzes (more exams) leave little time for other more imaginative approaches to conveying, exchanging and questioning facts and ideas.

9) Finally, multiple exams become one of the main factors determining the character of the relation between students (with students viewing each other as competitors for the best grades), the relation between students and teachers (with most students viewing their teachers as examiners and graders first, and most teachers viewing their students largely in terms of how well they have done on exams), the relation between teachers and school administrators (since principals and deans now have an “objective” standard by which to measure teacher performance) and even the relation between school administrations and various state bodies (since the same standard is used by the state to judge the work of schools and school systems). In short, exams mediate all social relations in the educational system in a manner very similar to the way money — that other great mystifier and falsifier — mediates all relations between people in the larger society, and with the same dehumanizing results.

Once we put all these pieces together, it is clear that the current craze for increasing the number of exams for students at all levels has less to do with “raising standards,” as the popular mantra would have it, than with developing more extensive control over the entire educational process. This control, which will allow the ruling class to streamline its necessary work of socialization, is the overriding aim of the government’s current passion for more exams, and it must be understood and criticized as such and not as a misguided effort to “raise standards” that is unlikely to work.

Globalization and the Classroom

The question that arises next is — why now? It is clear that while exams have been with us for a long time, it is only in recent years that the mania for exams and still more exams has begun to affect government policies. The short answer to the question is globalization, or whatever one chooses to call this new stage of capitalism. What, then, is there in globalization that calls for more and more standardized exams? The proponents of such educational “reform” point to the intensified competition between industries, and therefore between workers worldwide, and the increasingly rapid pace at which economic changes of all kinds are occurring. They say that surviving in this new order requires people who are not only efficient but have a variety of skills (or can quickly acquire them) and the flexibility to change tasks whenever called upon to do so. Thus, the only way to prepare our youth for the new economic life that awaits them is to raise standards of education, and that entails, among other things, more exams. On this view, exams are there to help students get and keep good jobs.

A more critical approach to globalization begins by emphasizing that the intensification of economic competition worldwide is driven by capitalists’ efforts to maximize their profits. It is this that puts all the other developments associated with globalization into motion. Thus, while capitalists in this new age of globalization certainly need workers with the right mix of skills and knowledge to operate their businesses, what they need every bit as much — and I believe even more — is people, particularly in the working class, who will accept their worsening conditions and accompanying fears and anxieties without making waves. And with our current economic crisis giving no sign of ending any time soon, the growing inequalities that have captured most people’s attention are only the tip of the iceberg.

Naturally, if changes in education alone could produce the desired effect, the capitalists would be very pleased. But if — and where — they can’t, the capitalists and their government (as well as their media and their cultural, educational and social institutions) are quick to supplement them with other tactics. The current rage for more exams, therefore, needs to be viewed as part of a larger strategy that includes the obscene stoking of patriotic fires and the chipping away of traditional civil liberties (both rationalized by the so-called “war” on terrorism), the promotion of “family values,” restrictions on sexual freedom (but not, as we see, on sexual hypocrisy) and the push for more prisons and longer prison sentences for a whole range of minor crimes. Simply put, the “Man” is worried about loss of control at a key turning point in the development of capitalism when the growing disruption in people’s lives is going to require more control than ever before.

Not a Test Score

More than 60,000 schoolchildren across New York State opted out of participating in last year’s state-mandated high-stakes exams. More are expected to boycott this year’s tests when they begin on April 14. Similar opposition is expected to occur in a number of other cities and states across the country. For more, see changethestakes.org and unitedoptout.com.

— Indypendent Staff

Is there also a connection between the explosion in the number of exams and the current drive toward the privatization of public education? They appear to be quite separate, but look again. With new investment opportunities failing to keep up with the rapidly escalating surpluses found in practically every sphere of production (a periodic problem for a system that never pays its workers enough to consume even most of what they produce), the public sector has become the latest “last” frontier for capitalist expansion. And given the size and profit making potential of public education as compared to state prisons, public utilities, public transportation and other public services — most of which are also undergoing some degree of privatization today — the biggest battle is being fought over public education. But how to convince the citizenry that companies whose only concern is with the bottom line can do a better job educating our young than public servants who are dedicated to the task? What seems impossible could be done if “education” were redefined to emphasize the qualities associated with business and its achievements. Then, of course, by definition business could do the “job” better than any public agency.

Enter exams, especially standardized exams, and especially so many of them, with easily quantifiable results and the willingness to reshape all intervening processes to obtain them. Businesses exist to make a profit, a sum of money that can be quantitatively measured at the end of the year, and all their activities are organized accordingly. Increasingly, the forces most responsible for the education system in our society have begun to impose this model on exams and the grades students receive on them.

How long does it take for what is still a model for how to deal with education to become a new definition of what education is (and can only be) about? When that happens, and to the extent it has already happened, putting education in the hands of businessmen who know best how to dispense with “inessentials” becomes a perfectly rational thing to do. In this manner the introduction of more and more exams prepares the ground for the privatization of public education.

Taking Action

What is to be done? Or, more to the point, what should students do about all this? Well, they shouldn’t refuse to take exams (unless most of the class gets involved), and they shouldn’t drop out of school. Given the relations of power inside education and throughout the rest of society, that would be suicidal, and suicide is never good politics. Rather, they should become critical students by learning more about the role of education — and of exams in particular — in capitalism, and then helping to raise the consciousness of their fellow students on such matters.

Nowhere does the contradiction between the selfish and manipulative interests of our ruling class and the educational and developmental interests of students stand out in such sharp relief as in the current debate over exams. In opposition to the “reformers,” there is a growing movement among students, teachers and parents against high-stakes testing across the country. These efforts should be watched closely, as they represent the growing public outrage with an education system that is more concerned with administering tests than recognizing the unique potential of each child and teaching to their needs accordingly.

Bertell Ollman is a professor of politics at New York University, the author of numerous works on Marxist theory and the creator of the Marxist board game Class Struggle. For more of his writings, see dialecticalmarxism.com.


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