When Did Tests Become Conservative?

Something happened.

The idea of administering standardized tests to check the success of schooling has had a strange ideological career. Tests have been seen as a progressive panacea as well as a conservative coup. These days, a welter of standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers as well as students. In the eyes of some, these tests have become a hallmark of conservative educational policy. How did that happen? …and what does it mean?standardized-testing-comic3

Last night, historian and pundit Diane Ravitch talked to a crowd of teachers in my hometown, scenic Vestal, New York. Those familiar with Ravitch’s recent book and blog will have a good sense of her argument: Today’s testing regime is a scam by false-faced school “reformers” bent on installing corporate control over public education.

Testing was not always seen this way. As historian William J. Reese demonstrated in his latest terrific book, the first round of fights over standardized tests occurred way back in the nineteenth century. Early test mavens hoped to protect students from idiosyncratic and tyrannical schoolmasters who evaluated students by whim.

In the twentieth century, early testers hoped to use tests to help individualize instruction for children. They did not hope to replace the human touch. Rather, they hoped a set of tests could serve to move education in profoundly progressive directions.

These days, leading progressive pundits such as Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider denounce the testing regime as an attempt to corporatize education. They point to the suspicious support of billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family. Why do these corporate titans push for more tests? In order to strip teachers’ unions of power; in order to remake schooling in the image of corporate America.

Of course, the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH) know that the real situation is more complicated than these sorts of conspiracy theories allow. There are plenty of conservative pundits, too, who hate and fear the tests that accompany the Common Core standards. To these conservatives, a national testing regime gives progressives the opportunity to inject sneaky leftist ideas into classrooms across the country.

Plus, there are plenty of progressives who support more rigorous standardized testing as a way to ensure that lower-income students get their share of educational attention. Ravitch herself, in an earlier ideological incarnation, helped create today’s testing policy.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is no William J. Bennett. Duncan’s enthusiastic support of high-stakes tests does not come from the same sorts of cultural conservatism that animated President Reagan’s second Education secretary.

But there is something to Ravitch’s charges. There are plenty of conservatives who see testing as a way to find out what is really going on in public schools. Ravitch drew vigorous applause last night when she said she did not want to quantify kindergarteners’ college-and-career readiness. It was more important, Ravitch insisted, to be sure that children were happy, healthy, and improving every day.

And this, I think, is at the heart of today’s divide over standardized testing. Such tests have become “conservative,” I’m guessing, to the extent that they satisfy Americans’ traditional ideas about education. As I argue in my new book, across the twentieth century battles over education had a similar backstory: progressives wanted education to be mainly about the improvement of children; conservatives and traditionalists wanted education to be mainly about the delivery of information from teacher to student.

If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, then the success of that education can be measured by a simple paper-n-pencil test. This is an idea that resonates with lots of people. Not only self-identified “conservatives,” not only the scheming Walton family, not only Mayor Bloomberg, but lots of parents, teachers, and students buy into this fundamental notion of proper education.

To my mind, this situation is a good indicator of the tenuous hold of progressive education on the hearts and minds of Americans. Even self-identified progressive reformers such as Michelle Rhee embrace the notion that tests are a good measure of educational improvement.

The reason today’s test mania has been able to make such huge progress in public schooling is not due only to the funding of billionaires and the schemes of plutocrats, in spite of what smart people like Diane Ravitch may say. We Americans, with rare and beleaguered exceptions, never took to heart the central notions of progressive education. We tend to agree that real education means, in essence, the transfer of information from an authoritative adult teacher to a receptive child.

If that attitude is “conservative,” then it’s no wonder conservatism has come to dominate American public education.

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  1. Dan Mandell

     /  March 5, 2015

    Yes. To expand slightly your point about progressive versus conservative concepts of the purpose of education, progressives are more likely to emphasize subjective perceptions and conservatives objective truths. The latter are far more reducible to test questions (and answers) that can be graded en masse.

  2. If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, …

    Surely it isn’t that. Newspapers, television, the Internet are all far better at transmitting information than teachers will ever be. Yet replacing teachers with technology doesn’t work.

    So education must be very different from the transmission of information.

    • I’m with you. But historically, there has been shockingly widespread agreement that the heart and soul of “real” education–or at least “real” schooling–has been exactly that. For instance, as my historian hero Larry Cuban has argued in books such as Teachers & Machines, in the 1950s the federal government and the Ford Foundation poured tens of millions of dollars into a wacky program that beamed closed-circuit TV lectures around the nation. Including from a constantly circling plane over the Great Plains. No foolin. And these days, hand-wringing about MOOCs and the end of higher education show a similarly broadly shared assumption that the primary function of school is precisely the transfer of information.

      • Agellius

         /  March 5, 2015

        Well, it’s the transfer of information, but not as data is transmitted over a wire, but rather *taught*, in other words explained at a level kids can grasp, illustrated and demonstrated, clarified through the answering of questions, etc.

      • I see this as the heart of the controversy. Economic conservatives like the “transmission of information” model, because it can be done more cheaply. Religious conservatives like it as long as they can control the message.

        Progressives see the issue as opening the mind of the student. So the student must be taught how to analyze. Merely teaching facts is not enough.

      • Agellius

         /  March 5, 2015

        Hmm, I think I’ve heard this trope before: Progressives care about people, conservatives only care about money.

      • But I did not actually say either of those things.

      • Agellius

         /  March 5, 2015

        Nor did you have anything remotely resembling them in mind, I’m sure.

  1. Knowledge vs. belief | The Heretical Philosopher

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