Tests: Garrison’s “A Measure Of Failure”

Published online 2 February 2010.

Book review: Garrison, Mark J.  A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing.  Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2009. 140 pages.

Essentially Garrison’s book critiques standardized testing in the public schools as a power trip — what type of power trip a particular test is for, Garrison argues, depends upon the standards which are erected and the purposes to which the final scores on the tests are used.  It is argued, then, that standardized tests have had different purposes in different historical periods.  The high-stakes testing regime of the No Child Left Behind Act (of the Bush administration) is argued to be destructive (in this regard) of public schooling in general.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Teacherken’s diary of yesterday, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, put a pall on that entire day for me.  (Please follow the link and read teacherken’s excellent diary if you haven’t already).  The prognosis for our educational institutions is grim.  Public school education has become test insanity; college education has become, in the words of David F. Labaree, “How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.”  The point of Labaree’s book, with which I concur, is that the predominant purpose of college education today is to provide its graduates with a credential good for better prospects in the job market, regardless of what was learned or how meaningful or useful the learning itself really was.  So it appears that our educational institutions are not primarily about the dissemination of learning, but most importantly about the ongoing status games being played with the lives of the learners, and secondarily about learning.

As an educator, and given my especial vulnerability as a scholar with degrees in the humanities, I am especially interested in the shape of our educational systems and in the purpose of the educational efforts to which I contribute.  In this regard, the bankruptcy of the various states of the Union (& thus no hiring and budget cuts) is depressing enough as a reality with which I must contend; the reality of gradual privatization of schools and of their conversion into “learning for profit” systems is unsavory as well.  One would hope that one’s efforts as a teacher would contribute to an improved society rather than to just another calculation of whose account balances will be fattened by my employment as an instructor.  (Disclosure: in March I will be working for a for-profit, private university.  Source of income, y’know.)

teacherken’s diary of yesterday was about Gerald Bracey’s book “Education Hell,” though the sense of futility imposed upon schooling today has also been captured in a neat little volume dated to last year: Mark J. Garrison’s “A Measure of Failure.”  The latter book is what my diary of today will be about.  Garrison’s premise is simple: standardized testing measures, for the most part, the ability to pass a test, and so standardized tests are mainly suited to the task of ranking students hierarchically by test score.  They thus represent a tool for the justification of inequality through the ideology of meritocratic “fair competition” (p. 2).

To say that “the schools have failed,” then, is not merely to criticize or discredit the schools, but to beg the question of what social function the schools have failed to perform.  And to suggest a social function for the schools, I might add, begs the question of for whom the social function is performed.  Thus NCLB:

Recent analyses claim that by 2014, the vast majority of public schools in the United States will be deemed failures by NCLB.  This failure will shift control of education to for-profit educational management organizations, tutoring agencies, and test-prep companies and other commercial endeavors.  (109)

Garrison’s short, narrowly-argued volume does not appear to have been updated for the Obama administration, which plans to grant a reprieve from the 2014 date, although to be fair the Obama administration appears to have made its specific intentions known quite recently.  In this regard see teacherken’s critique of Race To The Top, with which I concur.  (Also please do see in this regard the critique of achievement culture in the schools as discussed in detail here).

Thus the current bout of political class obsession with standardized testing, at least under Bush/ Spellings and quite likely under Obama/ Duncan (given the latter’s obsession with charter schools) is focused upon the gradual privatization of public education.  And this aim, then, reflects upon the overall aim which Garrison attributes to Bush reform: “the current standards movement is part of a larger trend to eliminate representative democracy” (111).  We might do well to ask Obama if he hopes to continue with the ultimate aims intended in Bush’s NCLB project.

At any rate, the bulk of Garrison’s text is concerned with establishing his thesis of what standardized testing is, and of how it developed historically.  In discussing what standardized testing is (chapters 2, 3, and 4), Garrison largely debunks the notion that standardized tests measure anything but the ability to obtain a particular score on the test:

I argue that psychometry (here defined as the field of test design – Cassiodorus) fails to meet its claim of measurement and that its object is not the measurement of nonphysical human attributes, but the marking of some human beings as having more worth or value than other human beings, an act central to and part and parcel of the legitimacy of a particular kind of hierarchical social system known as capitalism, and in particular its political shell, representative democracy.  (30)

His sections on the history of American public schooling (corresponding to chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the book) emphasize the idea that standardized testing arose with the rise of the capitalist system, and that in replacing the feudal hierarchy with its emphasis upon bloodlines it needed a new basis for the justification of hierarchy, to justify the public perception that some people were more deserving of privilege than others.

Garrison’s solution to the problem of NCLB (and of the system-wide collapse NCLB hoped to instigate so as to privatize the educational system) runs as follows:

There is a need for assessment in education to establish a new starting point, one predicated on the equal worth, dignity, and rights of human beings and human cultures.  Those working to develop assessments in the service of education must vociferously reject the linking of academic prowess with notions of good or bad.  The habit of talking of good students must be replaced with a culture in which the work of teachers, students, and the community as a whole is judged by teachers, students, and the community as a whole on the basis of whether this collective work is serving to prepare youth to solve the problems they and their society face.  (112-113)

I find this to be a laudable ideal for educational assessors to pursue.  Though of course deciding “what problems society faces” is itself a difficult venture.  And getting a community of teachers and students to conclude that they are a “community” performing a “collective work” will not be a piece of cake either.  Garrison continues, in greater specificity:

This is the basis on which assessments should take place, and in fact such a drive may underpin recent efforts toward alternative or authentic assessment, in particular those predicated on Gardner’s (1993) notion of multiple intelligences, which opens up space to recognize and value a broad range of human abilities and achievements.  (113)

Given that under the conditions of very late capitalism our net worth (to those who run the show) approximates nearly zero, it’s easy to argue that Garrison’s recommendation follows an ideal appropriate as a remedy for the social ills of our time and place.  His book, then, is a laudable, if narrowly-focused, effort.

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