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High Stakes Testing: The New Child Labor


“Exploited without regard to their tender years, countless youngsters were working under conditions constantly fraught with danger to life and limb…The blight of child labor was widely prevalent, in dust-laden textile mills and pitch-black coal mines, in sweltering glass factories and fetid sweat-shop lofts, in filthy canneries and blazing hot tobacco fields. No industry, no region was without its “tiny hostages to rapacious capitalism.” —- from Child Labor in Textile Mills by M.B. Schnapper

“I walked past my daughter.  She looked up at me, her face red from crying, I could see that tears had been collecting at her collar ‘I just can’t do this,’ she sobbed.  The ill fitting headsets, the hard to hear instructions, the uncooperative mouse, the screen going to command modes, not being able to get clarification when she asked for it…Later on when I picked her up after her long seven-hour day, she whispered into my shoulder ‘I’m just not smart, mom. Not like everyone else. I’m just no good at kindergarten, just no good at all.’”———-Claire Wapole, a Chicago mom who volunteered as a MAP test proctor in a Chicago Public Schools kindergarten

Look how far we’ve have advanced in the use of child labor. Corporate USA doesn’t send US children to choke out their lives in the black dust of the coal mines or the brown dust of the textile mills. After long and intense opposition to that kind of child labor, Corporate USA was forced to allow working class children to attend school.

But in our Brave New World of neoliberal capitalism, Corporate USA, as represented by companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill,  have turned schools into testing factories. They generate mega-profits by having kids hunched over their writing desks or their computers for hours and even days at a time. Education is a big business, some estimates I have seen place it at as high as 1.3 trillion dollars.

 photo Leah-AnneThompson-kindergartenTestingFW.jpgPhoto by Leah-Anne Thompson

If the White House and Wall Street have their way, this big business will get even bigger. There’s gold in dem thar’ tests, along with the ancillary material, the training manuals, the test prep guides and the scripted curricula that goes along with the whole package.  Standardized tests have been weaponized and used as an excuse to close schools and privatize education while firing experienced and beloved teachers. Teachers? Who needs teachers? If the trend continues, a computer network technician who can read instructions in a clear voice will be all that is necessary. Think of the cost savings in salaries and benefits.

But the real mother-load will be the data collection that requires monstrous server farms, upgraded multi-state digital networks, endless software and hardware upgrades, technical support and…well you get the picture. And by the way, what do they plan to do with all of this highly personal data?

What do these tests measure BTW?

Just because something happens in a school doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with education. Today’s standardized tests grew out of the racially and class biased  IQ tests popular in the days when eugenics was considered “science.” As Alfie Cohn says about the modern standardized tests:

“The main thing they tell us is how big the students’ houses are. Research has repeatedly found that the amount of poverty in the communities where schools are located, along with other variables having nothing to do with what happens in classrooms, accounts for the great majority of the difference in test scores from one area to the next.”—– Alfie Cohn 

To those who say that students need to prepare for jobs and careers in “real life”, how many people are evaluated on their jobs based upon sweating over often inane and unrelated multiple choice questions?

Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools
Chicagoans against testing abuse

High stakes testing proponents seem to forget that schooling is not only about preparing students for careers, careers  that may not even exist when they graduate. It is also about preparing students to be active citizens in a vibrant democracy.

While it’s true that the voting booth is a kind of standardized test, the few minutes we spend there every couple of years are only a small part of our responsibilities as citizens. There is no standardized test that can evaluate the complexity of sustaining and extending democracy.

What high stakes tests cannot measure

High stakes testing cannot measure inspiration, creativity, exploration, curiosity and collaboration. Instead it is banishing these from the schools in favor of “rigor” and “grit”, the latest faddish buzzwords from high stakes testing proponents.

Pardon me while I draw upon my 25 years experience as a secondary school educator and talk a little about the “rigor” that I have observed, none of it the result of high stakes testing.

Rigor is the cast of the high school musical devoting many hours of practice after and before school to make their live performance as flawless as possible. Rigor is the students in a math class exploring advanced calculations because they have been inspired by the sheer beauty of them as well as by how math has been essential to the technology they carry in their pockets. Rigor is students in an English class learning that painstakingly combining exactly the right words together can lead to life-changing insights and perhaps even result in a respectable showing at the next city-wide poetry slam.

You can’t bubble that kind of “rigor” into a standardized test. It’s amazing how even pre-k’s and kindergartners can focus on tasks that inspire them without the intervention of high stakes testing. That kind of rigorous intensity comes from the human interaction of students and teachers in a collaborative classroom environment.

Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools
Chicagoans against testing abuse

As for “grit”, introduce that into delicate complex machinery and it will destroy it. Grit is what wears things down and in that sense the term is a pretty accurate way of describing what high stakes testing is doing to our schools. They are wearing them out from within.  Katie Osgood is a teacher in a Chicago psychiatric hospital. Here is her take on “grit”:

“What is the value in teaching children to be able to sit for hours, to have the “grit” to finish that tedious task or long test? Why not create curriculum that is so engaging and relevant that children discover a joy in learning? No instruction on “grit” is needed when students are empowered and engaged. “No excuses” pedagogy is rooted in obedience and submission, in breaking children’s spirit, while social justice pedagogy empowers and uplifts using that spirit as an asset.”——-Katie Osgood 


Wasting valuable class time for dubious results

I often hear from frustrated parents and teachers that the endless parade of standardized tests is a “waste of valuable class time”. It’s much worse than that. The old fashioned child labor damaged children’s’ health and deprived them of an education. I fear that the new child labor of high stakes testing and its related classroom activities will be the 21st century equivalent.

How will the chronic stress affect the minds of young children as it is applied year after year? A Great Neck, New York principal named  Sharon Fougner reported visceral reactions to Common Core testing:

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.’” —from an open letter signed by over 1500 New York state principals.

Chronic stress can kill.

It’s no secret that American schools have problems with bullying and violence. This manifests itself in different ways, some of which are related to race and social class. Troubled students often turn to favorite teachers when they are in distress. Yet, the goal of the standardized test mania is to remove the caring empathetic  human connection and replace it with a rigid scripted curricula that will literally “teacher-proof” the classroom.

I spent 15 years of my teaching career at a South Side Chicago Catholic women’s high school. My students were a multiracial mix of working class young people, many of them from distressed neighborhoods where labor exploitation, disinvestment, racism and gender discrimination take their toll on a daily basis.

I had students coming to me with serious personal issues exacerbated by the socio-economic realities around them. By working closely with the school counselors, together we were able to offer them at least some of the support they so desperately needed.

Since most of my teaching career was before the high stakes testing madness took hold, I had a lot control over the history curriculum in my classes. I was able to bring in historical examples and current events that addressed what these young people faced. I could show them how social movements had addressed and continue to address the often harsh realities of working class life in the USA. I could ask them to imagine how they would address these issues and how research and creative thought can provide some answers while also raising new questions.

How do you bubble that into a standardized test?

According to Kathleen M. Cashin and Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University, financially hard-pressed schools who pay for expensive testing packages:

“…are forced to cut such necessary services to students as social workers, psychologists, counselors, as well as the arts and athletics. These demands and the sacrifices they require will prove harmful to students, in the short run and the long run.”

How will this affect the school to prison pipeline as students drop out or are pushed out? How will this impact the mental health of the next generation? How many lives will be lost to suicide, street violence or domestic abuse who might have been saved with a more rational and caring educational system?

Is corporate profit really worth the loss of such human potential and human life?

Fortunately there is the law of unintended consequences 

One of the consequences of the testing mania is a growing nationwide resistance movement to the new child labor of high stakes testing. Corporate USA is giving parents, teachers and students quite an unintended education in just how far it will go to squeeze profit from even the youngest children.

Parents are requesting that their children opt out of the tests. Teachers are risking their careers by refusing to give them. Students in Massachusetts organized their own “Be a Hero. Get a Zero” movement for test refusal.

Here in Chicago, in the midst of one of the worst winters in the city’s history, teacher Sarah Chambers stood in front of her grade school early one morning looking out from inside of her thick parka. She was calmly explaining to the media why teachers at her school were refusing to give the ISAT test and why many parents were not allowing their children to take it. Too many tests. Too little time for learning and human interaction.

When asked what teachers planned to do with the children not taking the test, Chambers smiled and said, “We’re going to teach them.”

Teach the children. What a concept.

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”——— Mario Savio at the 1964 Berkeley student strike


It’s way past time to shut down the high stakes  testing machine that runs on the labor of children and the growing anguish of adults….and turn our attention to actual education.

 photo Test-Skills-Jobs.jpg

Sources consulted

N.Y. school principals write letter of concern about Common Core tests by Valerie Strauss

Paul Tough Is Way Off-Base. And Stop Saying ‘Grit’ by Katie Osgood

Testing? Testing? by Claire Wapole

Lean Production; Inside the real war on public education by Will Johnson

Childhood Lost: Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution from Teaching with Primary Sources at Eastern Illinois University

How Wall Street Power Brokers Are Designing the Future of Public Education as a Money-Making Machine by Anna Simonton

You Can’t Bounce Off the Walls If There Are No Walls: Outdoor Schools Make Kids Happier—and Smarter by David Sobel

The case against standardized testing: raising the scores, ruining the schools by Alfie Kohn

Sacrificing Psychologists, Counselors, & Social Workers—and Athletics & the Arts—to Test Preparation by Kathleen M. Cashin Bruce S. Cooper

Testing in kindergarten: whatever happened to story time? by Ben Joravsky

They turned our schools into testing factories Socialist Worker editorial

Tests + Stress = Problems For Students by Daniel Edelstein

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