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Radical Pedagogy (2014) ISSN: 1524-6345 Standardized Testing as an Assault on Humanism and Critical Thinking in Education Noam Chomsky

Department of Linguistics and Philosophy Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, USA Email: Arianne Robichaud Department of Educational Foundations Universit de Montral Montreal, Canada Email:

Abstract This article discusses, in a critical perspective, the historical and philosophical background of educational practices such as teaching to the test and standardized testing in the United States, to demonstrates how the historical origins of those practices are profoundly rooted, as they are still based, on an ideological attempt to discriminate, influence, control and impose obedience over citizens. By exposing and referring to educational ideas from humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell, this article argues that: 1) Standardized educational practices represent an attack on humanistic and critical education, as they are politically made to annihilate students and teachers creativity, individuality and autonomy in order to create more effective measures of uniformity and control; and 2) Standardized measures like teaching to the test are more likely to destroy the American educational system than to improve it, as there is an ideology of privatization and power concentration lying under programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. This article ends on the proposal of a way to react, criticize and work against this phenomenon, which is the concept of intellectual self defense in education. Keywords: educational practices, humanism, critical education, intellectual self defense

Some of the first traces of an institutionalized practice of standardized testing, in the United States, can be found in the early-1920s American Armed Forces influenced by the hopes and works of Robert M. Yerkes, a eugenics supporter, psychologist and teacher at Harvard University who wanted to establish psychology as rigorous a science as physics (Gould, 1982, p.1). Designed for the specific purpose of intelligence classification amongst recruits of the First World War, different kinds of intelligence tests were created by Yerkes in order to offer suggestions for proper military placement: it is no surprise that, considering the fact that Yerkes deliberately avoided all environmental, socioeconomic or immigration-related issues and possible criteria, a vast majority of immigrants and Afro-Americans recruits were labelled as men of grade D and E (in a scale from A to E, A being highly intelligent), meaning that they were rarely suited for tasks requiring special skill, forethought, resourcefulness or sustained alertness, and could not be expected to read and understand written directions (Gould, 1982, p.2). In other terms, a great number of them ended expulsed of the Forces, or placed in the front lines of the war. Aside those pure atrocities, Yerkess intelligence tests and standardized postulates had also penetrated many other public spheres in the 1920s, from politics to business: The major impact of Yerkess tests did not fall upon the army. Yerkes may not have brought the army its victory, but he certainly won his battle. He now had uniform data on 1.75

million men, and he had devised, in the Alpha and Beta exams, the first mass-produced written tests of intelligence. Inquiries flooded in from schools and businesses. In his massive monograph in 1921 on Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Yerkes buried a statement of great social significance in an aside. He spoke of the steady stream of requests from commercial concerns, educational institutions and individuals for the use of army methods of psychological examining or for the adaptation of such methods to special needs. Tests could now rank and stream everybody; the era of mass testing had begun. (Gould, 1982, p.5) A long mass-testing tradition, in the U.S, separates the present times from Yerkess first tests. However, the epistemological postulates underlying Yerkess psychological works can easily be found in actual educational practices and programs: hundred years later, an analysis of the multiple negative effects of standardized testing, in education, can be formulated in similar terms than those of the critics we can address to Yerkess epistemological assumptions. Firstly, it pretends to measure a multi-dimensional phenomenon by uniformed and standardized criteria. Secondly, it tends to create performance categories by which individuals are labelled and classified, and fatally leads to social, economic and educational inequalities and injustice. We can also analyse practices from governmental programs like Teaching to the Test and Race to the Top from a specific philosophical and political frame of analysis, to investigate the implications and assault represented by such programs against a humanistic and critical conception of education. The sociological and ideological context of creation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a federal law covering all the American educational system from kindergarten to 12th grade, is structured around several measures to enhance the accountability of states and schools on the academic achievement of all students, to ensure that teachers are highly qualified and provide parents with access to information and the possibility of choice (The New York City Department of Education, 2013). With the overall objective of improving the level of education and equal opportunities in the United States, all the reforms, since 2002, were based on two founding principles that have guided the attempt to improve the education system: First, administrators and teachers are responsible and accountable for their actions and, secondly, families, regardless their income, should be able to enroll their child in the school of their choice. At a more concrete level, four major principles of federal law have uniformly governed the curriculum established by the States: greater accountability of states, of their school districts and their schools, a wider choice of schools especially for parents whose children attend failing schools, more flexible and autonomous management of districts funds, and a greater requirement for reading, especially among younger people. (Montagutelli, 2009, p.98) In the spirit of this law, states created and structured tests for the establishment of a general control system of performance by students: when students do well within the rules imposed by federal law, the institution can expect a State Academic Achievement Award, while in the opposite case, the institution may close or be transformed into a Charter School (Montagutelli, 2013, p.99). However, this law does not only apply to the supervision of student achievement, but also to teachers work with the same logic: The administrators have begun to implant a salary scale that varies according to performance criteria. Teacher salaries can be proportional to the level of success of their students. Incentive bonuses may also be granted to the teacher who continues to follow pedagogical courses, or returns to college to complete further studies. These bonuses are also designed to attract teachers to positions located in difficult areas or to subjects for which the requirements are higher, such as mathematics and science. (...) As expected, teachers unions responded with great reserve to these policies, incentives and bonuses as they create inequalities within the teacher staff. (Montagutelli, 2009, p. 99) Similarly, the Race to the Top competition, launched by the Obama administration in 2009, is part of

theAmerican Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, whose primary purpose is to reward, with monetary funds, institutions who excel in meeting various technical or ideological criteria dictated by the federal government: adoption of different standards of performance regarding uniform national criteria for the evaluation of teachers and principals, promotion and support of charter schools, standardized school expectations regarding the results of students, importance of science, mathematics and technology (Race to the Top Program: Executive Summary, U.S. Department of Education, 2009). The defenders of this initiative believe that: Race to the Top marks an historic moment in American education. This initiative offers bold incentives to states willing to spur systemic reform to improve teaching and learning in America's schools. Race to the Top has ushered in significant changes in our education system, particularly in raising standards and aligning policies and structures to the goal of college and career readiness. Race to the Top has helped drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools. (Official website, The White House, para. 1.) Since their respective implantations, the two programs generated many critics, based on the idea of a denaturalization of education through teaching to the test educational practices, specific and rigid curriculums and rewards for success in standardized tests. Because of the economic impact that such measures have on the lives and choices of teachers (their salaries depending on the results of their students on standardized tests), we can easily interpret this phenomenon from an ideological perspective: these policies are designed to enforce obedience, discipline and discharge of individual initiatives, though education should, on the contrary, rely on intrinsic motivation and encouragement of the curiosity and personal interests of a child. One can argue that programs based on teaching to the test methods are deadening to the human mind. Standardized educational practices as an attack on humanistic and critical education In order to describe the humanistic conception of education that is philosophically irreconcilable with standardized educational practices, we must go back to the Socratic and Platonic sources of humanism, mainly found in their defense of the human rationality. From Ancient Greece to Modernity, from Socrates to Rousseau and Humboldt, humanists opposed rationality to authority and, more importantly in modern humanism, the concept and value of freedom against external pressure. Coherently, the idea of a natural growth and development of the child in its uniqueness, as defended by Humboldt, has had a great resonance throughout the history of pedagogy and philosophy of education, from the 18th century to this day (Tardif, 2005). Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one the most renown and ardent advocate of modern humanism and critical thinking in the 20th century, is rarely mentioned as one of the important figures in the field of educational philosophy; however, we strongly believe that he brilliantly represents the ideals of a humanistic and critical conception of education. As Russell conceived the organization of society and education as means to make man able to live a life guided by knowledge and inspired by love (Russell, 1925, p.20), he proposed a complete and coherent set of values and concepts that inspired and shaped his thoughts on education: an education based on the respect of the universal brotherhood of humanity, of solidarity, on the belief of the development of the uniqueness and individuality of each person, tolerance, open-mindedness and, especially, freedom of speech and expression (Singh, 1979). The struggle against propaganda, through the means of education, is also one of the great intellectual legacies left by Russell. Throughout his life, Russell promoted this ideal form of critical thinking by vigorously protesting against what he believed to be the restrictive influence of the Church and the State in the development of freedom and creativity in education: To a very large extent, Russells writings on education may be characterized as a protest against the control of the agencies. He sees the individual submerged in a sea of propaganda which emanates from the state and which is taught in schools staffed with teachers who are

civil servants primarily concerned with appearing patriotic and maintaining their jobs. (Park, 1963, p. 61) As mentioned above, the English philosopher firmly believed, as Humboldt did, in the natural growth of the child, of the individual, and in his abilities to develop himself under his own conditions: but the human nature on which Russell relies to expose his educational philosophy is mainly characterized by the coexistence of two specific dimensions of human life: Man loves society as well as solitude. The secret of a good life lies in the harmony between the two. Any attempt to socialise man to the extent of submerging his identity into the group makes life listless and monotonous, as it becomes a constant burden on mans conscious mind. Similarly an anarchic development of individuality leads to egocentrism and maladjustment. Russell has tried a solution of his scheme of education, which aims at a compromise between the two. He intended to cultivate a high sense of personal morality along with the civic virtues. (Singh, 1979, p. 7-8) Considering the uniqueness and individuality, the inner need and possibility for creativity, the freedom of speech and the respect of natural growth in the development of each specific human being, to what extent humanistic and critical values are affected by methods and programs like teaching to the Test, Race to the Top and standardized testing? Standardized programs and testing are based on the idea that any person can be educated and tested under the same conditions, predetermined by specific and external groups of specialists and politicians; it claims to be fair and adjusted for all students, taking in account the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity amongst children in all the different schools in America. But reality is different: Test score gains among New York City students are important because research finds that how well one performs on cognitive tests matters more to ones life chances than ever before. Mastery of reading and math, in particular, are significant because they provide the gateway to higher learning and critical thinking. But test score results can also be easily overblown and obscure significant disadvantages still faced by children in New York Citys high poverty schools. Whatever the score, children in high poverty are still cut off from networks of students, and students parents, who can ease access to employment. Consider, for example, the over-the-top coverage provided to gains in New York state exams by students at an overwhelmingly low-income school that is part of the Harlem Childrens Zone. According to The Times columnist, David Brooks, by eighth grade, in math, the Zones middle school, the Promise Academy, eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. The approach works, Mr. Brooks wrote, implying that separate schools for rich and poor and black and white can, in fact, be equal after all. But this conclusion raises two problems, which illustrate the limitations of test score results. First, just because students are trained to do well on a particular test doesnt mean theyve mastered certain skills. As the Columbia University professor Aaron Pallas pointed out, on a different assessment the Iowa Test of Basic Skills eighthgrade Promise Academy students scored at the 33 rd percentile for a national sample in math. This is important, Mr. Pallas notes, because if the New York State test score gains are real, and not just the result of test prep, the success should transfer to other tests. Second, whatever the test score results, children in high poverty schools like thePromise Academy are still cut off from networks of students, and students parents, who can ease access to employment. This is important given research finding that more than half of jobs are filled through connections. (Kahlenberg, 2009, para. 5) In a humanistic conception of education, such measures could not be coherently defended: the idea of separated schools for rich and poor, or white and black, is profoundly anti-democratic and radically

discriminating. Teaching for tests, instead of cultivating ones intrinsic interest is, from a humanistic point of view, just inconceivable, considering that students are being trained instead of encouraged in a creative and individual way. By doing so, with standardized practices, it tends to undermine any likelihood of the child wanting to learn, or gain the capacities to proceed on his own: Teaching a narrow curriculum is likely to alienate a large portion of students whose academic strengths lie outside of commonly tested subjects. [] One may argue that teaching to the test in such schools facilitates disengagement and even truancy. Teaching to the test also undermines the validity of large-scale assessment results. Consider two schools: one which focuses test preparation on instruction with released or cloned test items; the other which provides instruction in a general body of knowledge that a test represents. Elevated scores by the former school likely do not represent authentic learning and students may not be able to fully utilize the skills that the test represents. []. Stripped of its power to make inferences about student skills and knowledge, a standardized test also loses its ability to inform instruction as a formative assessment measure (Volante, 2004, para. 9). But a large part of standardized programs and testings negative effects is a form of disrespect towards teachers. Diane Ravitch, historian of education and educational policy analyst, has done comparisons of the U.S. and Finnish systems, considering that Finland has one of the most successful educational systems. She pointed out that one of the main differences between the two systems is not much salary differences, but respect for the teachers: Teachers and principals repeatedly told me that the secret of Finnish success is trust. Parents trust teachers because they are professionals. Teachers trust one another and collaborate to solve mutual problems because they are professionals. Teachers and principals trust one another because all the principals have been teachers and have deep experience. When I asked about teacher attrition, I was told that teachers seldom leave teaching; its a great job, and they are highly respected. And by the way, the Finnish teachers I saw those heaped with laurels as outstanding professionals didnt look or act differently from many, many teachers I have seen in the United States, even in so-called failing schools. (Ravitch, 2011, para. 6) On the contrary, No Child Left Behind seems like a deliberate sign of disrespect for the teachers: it implies that, as a teacher, you shouldnt teach, and you should just be a disciplinarian who makes the children go through materials and regurgitate it, then test and go on. That is not teaching: it means that you cant do imaginative things which will stimulate children interests, because that would take them away from tests: I was asked about current trends in U.S. education, and Finnish educators were astonished by the idea that our governments intend to evaluate teachers by their students test scores; that made no sense to them. They were also surprised that we turn children over to teachers who have only a few weeks of training and no masters degree. They did not understand the idea of merit pay . They are paid more if they do more work for the community, but they cant understand why teachers should get a bonus to compete with one another for test scores. Since they dont have comparative test scores for their students, our practices dont make sense to them. Nor do they understand the benefits of competition among teachers who ought to be collaborating. (Ravitch, 2011, para. 9) The comparison between the U.S. and the Finland systems has to be understood in terms of social values: Our guiding principles: Competition, accountability, and choice. Finland has this singular goal: to develop the humanity of each child. Isnt that a shocking goal? Their guiding principles: equity, creativity, and prosperity (Ravitch, 2011, para. 11). And as social values are intimately related to political decisions, we can ask ourselves: how do standardized programs represents, according to the United States, the American social values?

Standardized measures as parts of an ideology of privatization and power concentration A lot of motives underlying the mass testing practices and programs like No Child Left Behind andRace to the Top, in the United States, are not dedicated to improve the educational system, but to destroy it: the main goal is to try to privatize the educational system, and one way to privatize it is to get rid of the public services by, first of all, making it non-functional. Underfunded, the system cannot longer function properly, and as the populations discontentment grows, the schools are handed over to what is called a chart of private schools, which are publicly funded: interestingly, those schools do not perform any better than public schools, even though they have a lot of advantages. It is a way to get rid of the general commitment of the public to solidarity and mutual support: to think that we ought to care whether the kid across the street can go to school, or whether the disabled widow across town should have food. For the Masters of the Universe, a phrase from Adam Smith, that is the right attitude towards public services like education: we should only do things that benefit them, and the attacks on the public schools are part of this ideology. The main problem of the public schools in the U.S. is, first of all, the very high level of poverty, which is getting worse, a scandalous situation in a rich country. Children come to school under certain circumstances where it is extremely hard for them to even sit in a classroom: they havent eaten breakfast, walk down the streets where people are fighting. The real problems of the American educational system are the socioeconomic conditions and the underfunding of the schools. As a part of a general neoliberal ideology, a pathological and transformed but widespread form of libertarianism, those mechanisms represent a way to create a kind of sociopathic society in which there is strong individualism and subordination to concentrated power: if you dont have kids or grandchildren in school, why should you pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school? The concentration of power and authority, and imposition of subordination on the population in the name of liberty lies behind the attack on the public schools and the attack on social security, which have no economic basis rather than private profits: The companies that create and sell standardized achievement tests are all owned by large corporations. Like all for-profit businesses, these corporations attempt to produce revenue for their shareholders. () One particular question from a 6th grade science test makes clear what's actually being assessed by a number of items on standardized achievement test. This item first tells students what an attribute of a fruit is (namely, that it contains seeds). Then the student must identify what "is not a fruit" by selecting the option without seeds. The choices are: A) orange, B) pumpkin, C) apple, D) celery. As any child who has encountered celery knows, celery is a seed-free plant. The right answer, then, for those who have coped with celery's strings but never its seeds, is clearly choice D. But what if when you were a youngster, your folks didn't have the money to buy celery at the store? What if your circumstances simply did not give you the chance to have meaningful interactions with celery stalks by the time you hit the 6th grade? How well do you think you'd do in correctly answering the item in Figure 3? And how well would you do if you didn't know that pumpkins were seed-carrying spheres? Clearly, if children know about pumpkins and celery, they'll do better on this item than will those children who know only about apples and oranges. That's how children's socioeconomic status gets mixed up with children's performances on standardized achievement tests. The higher your family's socioeconomic status is, the more likely you are to do well on a number of the test items you'll encounter in a such a test. (Popham, 1999, p.3-4 ) Misleading measures of the quality of the educational system are also consequences of standardized programs imposed on students and teachers. A teachers long-term engagement, cultivated by a sense of care about the children and the future, is not measured by the kinds of tests used in standardized testing. In fact, the whole thing is just demeaning: why should a teacher have to feel that unless his students get a higher grade in the test, his salary will go down?

Suppose you're a principal of a school in which most students come from genuinely low socioeconomic situations. How are your students likely to perform on standardized achievement tests if a substantial number of the test's items really measure the stimulusrichness of your students' backgrounds? That's right, your students are not likely to earn very high scores. Does that mean your school's teachers are doing a poor instructional job? Of course not. (Popham, 1999, p.8) Apart from being discriminating, those measures are also introducing a business model into the school system, in which values like control, efficiency and productivity destroys the possibility of humanistic education and autonomy for the teachers: Faced with increasing pressure from politicians, school district personnel, administrators, and the public, some teachers have begun to employ test preparation practices that are clearly not in the best interest of children. [] There have even been documented cases in the United States (see Goodnough, 1999) where teachers and administrators had given students the answers to standardized reading and mathematics questions. (Volante, 2004, para. 5). Intellectual self-defence: a way to react, criticize and work against standardized methods and programs As the current school fails to give students the fundamental tools to critically analyze the educational system, but rather contributes to the concentration of power, a humanistic education that would include courses of intellectual self-defence against the political and academic propaganda is needed. As a mode of constant critical thinking, it is developed by a recurrent questioning of the facts presented to us by politicians and mass medias, and represents the need for necessary justification for any authoritarian attempt to annihilate freedom of speech, critical thinking and humanistic values. Intellectual self-defence should also be a communitarian and solidaritarian practice: as government and media ideological mechanisms are constantly trying to isolate individuals by various means, it is important to come together, share and discuss ideas to rediscover a solidarity constantly threatened by the imposition of an ambient individualism. What is important for a human being, at any level of schooling or stage of life, is cultivating his own abilities to think for himself, to encourage those elements of a persons nature. Every child has it: that is why children are constantly asking questions, wanting things to make sense, to understand. That can be encouraged from a young age to graduate school: then, it doesnt really matter what you learn, because you are capable of learning what matters to you. There is a standard line, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from when used to teach this world-famous physicist who taught freshman classes in physics, and was renown for when he was asked in class: what are we going to cover this semester?. He would say: It doesnt matter what well cover, it matters what you discover. That is education. Once youve cultivated that talent, youre ready for whatever next challenge will come along. There are surely some things you have to learn, but for the most part, you have to learn to gain the abilities, or just allow the abilities to flourish because they are ready to confront the next challenge. Whatever it will be. References Gould, S. J. (1982). A nation of morons. New Scientist, 6, 349-352. Kahlenberg, R.D. (2009). What do school tests measures? The Problem for Low Income Students. The New York Times, August 3, 2009. Retrieved from Problem for Low-Income Students Montagutelli, M. (2009). Lcole amricaine dans la tourmente de No Child Left Behind. Revue franaise dtudes amricaine (119). Retrieved from : Park, J. (1963). Bertrand Russell on education. London, UK: Routledge. Popham, J. (1999). Why standardized tests don't measure educational quality: What's in a name? Educational Leadership, 56(6), 8-15.

Ravitch, D. (2011). What can we learn from Finland? Education Week (Bridging Differences Blog), October 11th. Retrieved from : Russell, B. (1925). What I believe. London, UK: Routledge. Singh, S.N. (1979). The Educational philosophy of Bertrand Russell. Varanasi, India: B.H.U. Press. Tardif, M. (2005). Les Grecs anciens et la fondation de la tradition ducative occidentale. In Tardif, M. & Gauthier, C. (Ed.), La pdagogie. Thories et pratiques de l'Antiquit nos jours. Montreal : Gatan Morin diteur. The New York City Department of Education (official website). No Child Left Behind. Retrieved from: The U.S. Department of Education (official website). Race to the Top Program: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: The White House (official website). Race to the Top. Retrieved from: Volante, L. (2004). Teaching To the test: What every educator and policy-maker should know. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 35.

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