Adding the Pressure of High-Stakes Testing to the Pressures of Poverty





Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Hearing that the governor of New York plans to raise student test scores from twenty percent to forty percent of teacher ratings just reinforces my perception that a species of insanity has overtaken those in charge of public education in the United States.

The idea that we need to make passing standardized tests the central mission of our schools in order for the U.S. to remain competitive with other nations not only ignores the central role of imagination and creative thinking in the global economy, it is a strategy certain to increase disparities between the rich and poor in the United States, already the largest in the advanced world.

In neighborhoods where young people need teachers to provide nurturing and support to counteract the harsh lives they  often lead, tying teacher salaries and tenure to student performance on high-stakes tests will turn teachers into virtual slave drivers determined to  squeeze results out of students lest their own jobs be in jeopardy. Where compassion and caring should prevail, making test results the central feature of teacher evaluation creates an adversarial relationship guaranteed to maximize stress on everyone involved.

As the film Race To Nowhere demonstrates, this can have negative consequences even in affluent communities, but the results will be most devastating to young people in poor communities who are alleged to be the primary beneficiaries of high-takes testing.

The last thing these young people need is for school to be turned into a zone of stress where the teacher’s job depends on students memorizing huge amounts of data, with no time left for art, music, play, or community building activities.

Because to be poor in America is to live with stress.  The stress of not knowing whether you will have enough food to get through the weekend without being hungry most of the time.  The stress of not knowing whether the lights are going to get cut off, the heat will work, or whether you will be evicted from your apartment for non-payment of rent and forced to move to a shelter or be taken in by relatives.  The stress of living with fifteen people in a space meant for six, where you have to sleep in shifts, and where there is no place to do your homework.  The stress of worrying whether your uncle, who you just moved in with, is going to sexually molest you or beat you up if you do something he doesn’t like.  The stress of having to go to the emergency room of a hospital and wait eight hours for someone to see you.  The stress of never being able to go to the dentist when you have a toothache.  The stress of walking a gauntlet on your way to school, or even to the corner store, because someone doesn’t like the way you look, the ethnic group you are part of, the block you live on, or just think you are fair game for harassment because you are a young girl who has reached puberty.  The stress of watching your mother get old before her time because she is working three jobs to keep you housed and fed and is mistreated by bosses, husbands, boyfriends, and virtually every public servant she interacts with.  The stress of being recruited for a gang and  told that if you don’t join, you will be made that gang’s “bitch.”  The stress of being looked upon by every police officer as a potential criminal because you are a young person of color living in “the hood” and are regularly stopped and searched by police  when you are doing nothing illegal.

So yes, let’s take young people for who those experiences are a daily reality and ratchet up the pressure on them in school by increasing the number of tests they have, and telling teachers their careers are dependent on how those students perform on those tests.

Do you really think this is going to work?  What you are going to do is push young people already near the breaking point over the edge.  Some may obediently conform.  But many more will rebel by lashing out at their teachers or their fellow students, or by leaving school to find some place they can find relief from the stress and pressure that is enveloping their lives

Schools should be places where young people are nurtured, loved and gradually given the skills to change their lives.  It should be a safe zone, not a pressure cooker.

Governor Cuomo is joining a long line of elected officials who, in the name of improving national competitiveness, are making a whole generation of young people—mostly but not all in poor and working-class neighborhoods—hate going to school.

Our best teachers and principals know how damaging this is and are starting to speak out.

But unless students and parents join the resistance to linking teacher evaluation to high-stakes testing, it will take years, possibly decades, to undo the damage that will be done to our schools by arrogant and misguided public officials.



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