So, did you know that the very thing that’s guaranteed to close the “achievement gap” (standardized testing, duh) has its origins in the eugenics movement?
And, did you know that some of the first people to speak out against these purposefully racist tests were radical black intellectuals?
Ooh. Double awkward.
These were some of the fun facts Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian–one of the nicest radicals you could ever hope to meet–dropped during his recent swing through the Twin Cities, on a book tour for More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Jesse covered a lot of ground during his two-day visit to the Twin Cities. From the dimly lit auditorium at Minneapolis South High School to the comfy John B. Davis hall at Macalester College, and on to St. Paul’s labor-focused Eastside Freedom Library, he wowed groups of students, teachers, parents, and community activists with his views on education, testing, and the power of communal action.
I was lucky enough to attend all three events, but I think my favorite experience was listening in at South High School, as some of the school’s students interviewed Jesse after he spoke in the auditorium.
First, let me congratulate the South High School student journalists on their excellent interview prep skills–these kids had some great questions ready for Jesse. And, they were joined by three additional student leaders who are not on the paper, the Southerner, but came to listen and ask their own questions.
High school students are so great, and so were their questions.
Here’s a few of them, with a summary/paraphrasing of Jesse’s answers:
Isn’t it mostly privileged white kids that are opting out of testing? (Don’t hold back, kids!)
- Jesse: This is a question about who has access to information. Even though low-income people of color are most impacted by test and punish policies, they might not have the same access to information as whiter, wealthier people. And there are a lot of people of color, like Karen Lewis of Chicago, who are currently leading this movement because these tests measure access to resources, not someone’s intelligence. And, we need to reveal the racist origins of standardized testing.
How can students legitimize the movement?
- Jesse: I think it’s happening. Thousands have opted out in Colorado, where tests were tied to graduation. Well, they can’t deny everybody a diploma, so it worked. And, in Santa Fe, the student-led walkout was huge. We need to uncover the first cadre of test resisters, and get back to education with a purpose. In the Freedom Schools from the 1960’s students had to go vote as their final exam. We also need to move away from global competition, and practice global collaboration. The 1% is doing just fine, but meanwhile we have endless wars and have spent trillions of dollars just to lay waste to the Middle East, and get oil. Public education should be about global solidarity instead.
But, with a government that values top down change, can it ever come from the top?
- Jesse: All important changes that have come about have come through grassroots movements. The 1% wants to eliminate critical thinking in order to maintain gross inequality. A global struggle against high stakes testing is an important way to fight this.
If we don’t have tests, how should we evaluate teachers?
- Jesse: Let’s apply some scrutiny to politicians and ask them, “Are you funding our schools properly? No? Then you’re fired.” Look at Finland, too. We should be making teaching a sought-after, prestigious profession. Flood the schools with resources, to set the teachers up for success. Observations are important, too, and time for collaboration with other teachers. A main problem with education is that we don’t support our teachers.
We have heard people say that opting out will hurt our school. Does it impact funding?
- Jesse: There were over 67,000 families who opted out of testing in New York last year, and there has been no impact on funding. It is an empty threat. Every school in Washington state is a “failing” school, because we have not agreed to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations (a demand of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” plan). Every principal had to send a letter home, saying “your child attends a failing school,” because every student was supposed to be “100% proficient” on testing by 2014, under the No Child Left Behind law from 2002. That is ridiculous.
Finally, on the important topic of race and test scores, Hagopian had sympathy for parents and students of color who may be slow to embrace the opt out movement:
- Jesse: We have a legacy of deep, entrenched racism, and there are legitimate concerns from families of color about whether or not their kid’s needs are being met at school. People are trying to carve out sanity in an unequal world, and opting out may not seem worth it. But, rote learning and an individualistic approach to education (that pits students and schools against each other) is not going to end institutionalized racism.
Radical black intellectual indeed.