How high-stakes testing is like domestic abuse

[Talk delivered by CPS board member Ricardo Rosa, a leader of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools, at a recent CPS town hall on “Healing our Students in Schools: A Community Conversation to Resist High Stakes Testing and Reclaim Public Education”]

The title “Healing our Students” is both powerfully pointed and moral. I have a colleague who works in the field of crime and justice – Viviane Saleh-Hanna – and she relates state sanctioned violence to the dynamics that unfold in abusive relationships. I think that the same lens can be applied in understanding high stakes testing as educational policy.

Abuse begins through isolation. In the case of these tests, isolation begins with the fact that the test is normed on a bell curve. The bell curve is not designed to be closed. What it’s designed to do is revictimize victims. You refuse to speak about socially engineered inequalities – poverty, structural racism/white supremacy…and you make students living in poverty, disproportionally of color, and immigrant – the focus of the “problem.” You make their teachers, their schools the focus of the problem.

(Not that we don’t have some dynamics in our schools that have to be worked on, we do. High stakes testing is not the cure, however.)

After isolating the victim, the abuser then seeks to control and manipulate. “If you do what I say, we’re going to close the achievement gap. Not only will we close the achievement gap, but additional resources will flow into schools for the ‘good work.’

This is what abusers do. They get us to believe that we need them to stay alive. If schools and those within them are not vulnerable, they must be made vulnerable, so as to be controlled.

I believe that this struggle against high stakes testing will be won. We’re on the ethical and moral side of history. But, before it is won, just like an abuser, we will get the apologies…the promises of change sometime down the line… “with all deliberate speed” type of language that has kept our school systems segregated. The question that we need to raise is: how do we escape this abusive relationship?

I’m no longer interested in speaking truth to power. Power always knows what truth is. Our focus as people – hopefully working through organizations – is to involve ourselves in organizations seeking to take power. Bertolt Brecht – German War Primer:  General, your tank is a strong vehicle. It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people. But it has one fault: it needs a driver. What happens when we refuse to drive? What happens when we refuse the test en masse? What happens when we delegitimize the abuser’s effort to manipulate and seek to exit the abusive relationship?

Testing is the oxygen that fuels a great deal of the problems in education. It’s about erasing culturally relevant/critical multicultural programs.  throughout the country, it is those programs that actually help youth connect to their education. Ironically, when they connect, the test scores soar. The same policy elite advocating for high stakes testing are the same policy elite creating obstacles for or actively dismantling critical culturally relevant programs. In short, these tests advance a deadly ideology in education – that is, that youth need to stop existing, so as to exist. State sanctioned violence is not done only with guns, police batons, chemical weapons or a knee. Other policy tools might be used. High stakes testing is one of those tools.

Lastly, I want to say that these tests fuel a whole lot more than educational privatization. When school systems are irrelevant to the needs of youth, you get an increased likelihood of oppositional behaviors – leading young people into the possibility of contact with school based disciplinary regimes that further socializes them as “a problem” and it increases the likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. The numbers behind these tests also helps to fuel the gentrification of our cities and the movement of wealth out of our communities. In the midst of all of the talk about looting, we need to talk about the racialized looting of our schools.

There are other issues other than high stakes testing that we need to discuss. However, the resistance to high stakes testing is a key piece in reclaiming public education. And, as we think about the resistance and the alternatives, it’s absolutely critical that we center the voices of those most marginalized by policy – communities of color (in all their complexity), undocumented students… Otherwise, we recreate “reforms” that re-victimize victims.

The New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools has called for other transformations:

  • Institute policies that prioritize mental health in all of our schools

Cease the use of School Resource Officers in our schools and institute a well-resourced restorative practice/justice program and work to dramatically reduce the use of suspensions in the city’s schools

  • This public health crisis should also give us pause to think and work on evaluation instruments and processes that do not include random factors beyond a teacher’s control. Teachers should be at the forefront of the creation and implementation of evaluation systems.
    • Provide access for all students to safe and healthy food within every school
    • Understand that higher educational policy, public and social policy is k-12 educational policy and respond accordingly
      • Our school committee should initiate and/or sign on to statements supporting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, greater control over corporations given public bailouts of these companies. At the local level, the committee should sign on to a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures beyond
    • Implement locally developed, higher-order, culturally responsive, student-centered curricula and instruction
    • Advocate for a post pandemic recovery package
    • Implement participatory budgeting
    • Refuse the purchasing of technology products that are untried, unproven and disruptive to classroom practices