The Guardian February 21, 2001


Bush: Schools Inc. Company sees dollars not kids

On his second working day in office, President George W Bush launched an 
unprecedented expansion of federal involvement in local education through 
federally mandated standards and tests for all children.

It's a far cry from the Republican Party agenda of five years ago that the 
Department of Education be abolished.

Bush's plan is like telling children to run a marathon on a gravel path, 
but some will run barefoot while others will wear $100 running shoes. It's 
not hard to guess who will come in first.

Bush's 28-page education agenda has two major components: tests and 
vouchers. Vouchers are negotiable, leaving tests at the heart of his 
vision.

Interestingly, there are two main components in Bush's testing proposal:

1. A mandate that states test students in maths and reading every year in 
grades three to eight.

2. A promise that the federal government will use the test results to 
"reward success" and "sanction failure."

The proposals rest on two faulty assumptions.

First, that standardised tests are the best way to measure academic 
success.

Second, that schools are failing because they aren't trying hard enough and 
that the threat of sanctions will magically transform these troubled 
schools.

Most people will hopefully recognise that it's cruel-hearted to give more 
money to schools already doing well and to take money from failing schools. 
But the rhetoric of tests is far more seductive, especially when couched in 
terms of accountability. Who, after all, opposes accountability?

Educational researchers routinely disagree on any number of issues, from 
how best to teach reading to how best to prevent dropouts. But there is 
near unanimous agreement that students should never be evaluated on the 
basis of a single test, especially a fill-in-the-bubble standardised test.

While Bush has said States can choose their tests, the likelihood is they 
will opt for the low-cost option of buying a standardised test from one of 
the handful of companies that control testing.

One concern is that standardised tests measure only the most rudimentary of 
knowledge. They generally permit only one correct answer, penalise multiple 
perspectives and avoid questions that require a complicated, thoughtful 
answer.

They ensure that half of our children will always be "below average". That 
is the way they are constructed  to rank children so one can sort the 
smart kids from the dumb kids.

Because socioeconomic status plays such a crucial role in test scores, it's 
easy to predict which students, schools and districts will routinely be 
condemned (and punished) as "below average".

Finally, it's revealing that standardised tests have their origins in the 
Eugenics movement earlier in this century, and its belief in the 
intellectual superiority of northern European whites.

As Kenneth A Wesson, a founding member of the Association of Black 
Psychologists, wrote in a recent essay in Education Week: "Let's be honest. 
If poor, inner-city children consistently outscored children from wealthy 
suburban homes on standardised tests, is anyone naive enough to believe 
that we would still insist on using these tests as indicators of success?"

If Bush is serious about his promise of "No Child Left Behind", here are 
some alternatives that would truly make a difference:

Most important, federal dollars to address the savage inequalities in 
school funding.

Financial incentives so that the most qualified and experienced teachers 
and principals work in low-performing schools. A good teacher and a well-
run school mean far more to a child than another test.

A federal jobs initiative for depressed urban and rural areas so that all 
families and all children are lifted out of poverty and receive

adequate housing and health care. You cannot separate the plight of low-
performing schools from the problems afflicting their families and 
communities.

Taken from an article by Barbara Miner, managing editor of the Milwaukee-
based newspaper, "Rethinking Schools" which can be reached at 
http://www.rethinkingschools.org

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