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Living in Dialogue: The Test of Our Time: Can We Break the Shackles of NCLB?

I came to FairTest in October 1987 as a movement activist and an educator. Over the years I’d worked in anti-war and black liberation support campaigns, wrote for underground newspapers, engaged in community organizing, edited the newspaper of the New England Prisoners Association, and for decades, before and during FairTest, participated in Midnight Notes, an irregular publication of political analysis.

In education, I attended alternative colleges, where I deepened my understanding of existing social, economic and political systems, resistance to them, and efforts to birth new systems. I also began to think about education itself. I taught in day care, at an alternative high school for dropouts, and in college, particularly as director of the Prisoner Education Project. I studied education as an international phenomenon. My doctoral dissertation was titled, The Struggles of Boston’s Black Community for Equality and Quality in Public Education.

So in this article, I will weave around particulars of testing and education and my sense of much wider social justice issues that we in education must address.

When I came to FairTest, my knowledge of testing was limited. I understood that it operates as a sorting mechanism to perpetuate class and race hierarchy. I learned about its roots in eugenics and its consequences, and how it contributes to tracking and is a selection tool for special education and gifted and talented. It often determines grade promotion and high school graduation, who gets into college and what college and whether one gets a scholarship. All of those play out by race and class, so the best you can say about testing is that it may not always be worse than the overall system, but it does nothing to alleviate the reproduction of inequities and hierarchies.

The 1990s was a period of gains. A growing testing reform movement won test cutbacks, developed performance assessments and portfolios, and expanded test-optional college admissions. Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The various advocates of NCLB advanced at least five main goals:

First, there were those who saw it as opening the door to school privatization. They have proven to be all too successful.

Second, there were those who wanted testing to control teaching and learning. Sadly, they, too, have been successful.

Third, there were those who thought that the test and punish regime would improve learning. NCLB failed at this. It could not even consistently raise scores on the standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), overall or for the various groups (FairTest, 2015).

Fourth, NCLB proponents argued the law would compel states to increase educational funding for low-income communities. Too often, schools fail our most vulnerable children, from the buildings to the supplies to large class sizes and a lack of support staff. While we know that family and community income, wealth and education levels are the dominant factors in determining formal academic outcomes, schools can help overcome these inequities, if, among other things, they have sufficient resources. But, as Billie Holiday sang, “Them that’s got, shall get.” NCLB failed to solve this basic problem. In fact, the law was used as an excuse to push aside funding issues in favor of “get tough” actions.

Fifth, they maintained the law would increase equity, but it failed again. NAEP test score gaps remain wide in reading and math and in some cases have expanded, as instructional quality is often undermined despite the valiant efforts of many teachers and other educators. Schooling reduced to test preparation is most prevalent in schools that serve low-income children of color.

In the wake of NCLB, tests now largely define what it means to be educated. They are used to dictate what is most important to learn, and by implication what is less important or entirely unimportant. They define learning of content, such as math, in a reductive, rote way, focusing on memorization and routine applications. They also define knowledge by culture, and thus by race and class and place of origin. Tests determine the norm as upper-middle to upper class, white, born in the USA, born to an English-speaking and well-educated family, and not having a disability. That cultural hegemony is infused into testing, from writing the items to deciding what questions to include in the test in order to sort and rank test takers. By and large, access to the dominant culture is critical for success on standardized tests. Exceptions to the rule, students who beat the odds, become useful for justifying the tests as well as reinforcing the underlying ideology of individualism, of making it if you try hard enough.

Another way to frame this is that in recent decades testing has been a core weapon in a larger agenda that focuses on the education’s role of preparing youth for the workforce and on privatization to enable greater corporate profiteering from schools and universities. To the first: the idea that schools would prepare youth for adult labor of one sort or another has always been central to public education in the US. Other key roles, such as preparing for citizenship or for “lifelong learning” largely disappeared from government, corporate and most media discussion under NCLB.  Schooling for the workplace (here including preparation for college) requires sorting, which in practice means that schools will provide everything from dropouts and pushouts who will mostly become very-low-wage workers, if not at some point prisoners, to lower-waged “unskilled” workers to skilled labor, technical workers, professionals and managers. Standardized testing, as it has done since its earliest days, plays a fundamental role in both sorting and justifying the sorting, even to gaining acceptance from those sorted into the bottom of the labor hierarchy.

In addition, colleges themselves increasingly focus on employment preparation, reducing the humanities and other non-work-preparation aspects of colleges. Indeed, ending the role of humanities and social sciences has been an explicit goal of right wing ideologues since at least the student rebellions of the late 1960s, as spelled out in Nancy MacLean’s excellent (and frightening) work, Democracy in Chains. “Critical thinking” becomes solving technical problems for the company. These too-influential forces also seek to reduce college attendance and end need-based scholarships for students in public colleges.

In fact, numerous ultra-right groups make clear they want to end public schooling at all levels – not just privatize it, but eliminate it. Privatization has been increasing steadily. This right-wing agenda also has been embraced by the so-called New Democrats. Charters – privately owned schools operating with taxpayer funding (kind of like Boeing) – have steadily increased their share of the student population. The worst, often the on-line schools, provide almost no education. Vouchers in various forms (a visible right-wing agenda since Brown v. Board of Education) have expanded in some states. Corporations have always garnered some school funds, such as for textbooks and standardized tests, equipment, meals, and construction, but recent decades have seen more functions, such as janitorial, outsourced to low-wage, non-union companies.

Within the teaching-learning process, the most pernicious development has been the proliferation of computerized/online packages that combine curriculum, instruction and testing into a reductive whole. This replaces the teacher or reduces her, in whole or in significant part, to the status of monitor. In these packages, students complete a task then take a multiple-choice or short-answer online test, intensifying the most reductive, stultifying aspects of schooling. It appears this is more common in low-income communities and their schools, but I am not familiar with hard data on this. Some of these packages are sold as preparation for end-of-year exams; others claim to provide a more complete education. The advertising for these programs, seen in most popular education publications, spew misleading jargon regarding critical thinking, in-depth, personalized or competency-based education. One cannot tell from the ads or following online public links just what these packages contain. (I have tried with many). In fact, many iterations of “personalized learning” are little more than having a student sit in front of a screen, able to proceed at her or his own pace, for some or most all of the school day. Rather obviously, these forms of schooling can significantly reduce costs by eliminating and de-skilling teachers, though the programs are expensive, more so since they often require annual fees for students to use them.

In sum, the purpose of schooling is increasingly defined as the creation of labor power in various qualities and quantities, and as with many other social realms, is increasingly under the control of profiteering corporations, directly or through sale of ever more products or contracting out of work.

There are some signs that NCLB’s lost decade-and-a-half is perhaps coming to an end. In the testing arena, today we see growing test optional college admissions, declines in high-stakes test use, and a renewed interest in performance assessment. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, the replacement for NCLB) continues to mandate over-testing, to which states and districts often add. The result can be well over a dozen tests per year for each child. However, ESSA allows states to largely end punishment and instead offer help. Many states have moved in this direction. In others, students and educators face continued dangers from punitive accountability. Also positive, charters have lost luster in the face of pushbacks and sunlight, such as the Massachusetts referendum that blocked an expansion of charters – though that did not roll them back. The teacher rebellions of spring 2018 and again in 2019 protesting the low funding of schools, rebellions that had vast parental and community support, won significant victories in multiple, states.

Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department appears to be far less interested in testing, despite some high-level officials having come from Jeb Bush’s test-loving Foundation for Excellent Education. Rather, DeVos is pushing charters and other forms of privatization and working to remove protections (such as in school discipline) for students of color, women and girls, and other groups that have historically suffered discrimination but attained some relief under the Obama-Duncan administration. While ESSA maintained NCLB’s charter funding, the law gives DeVos no real power to advance charters.

So where do we go from here? What can educators, organizers and activists do to address not only the intertwined issues of testing, privatization and underfunding, and the many consequences that flow from these core factors, but also the future and purpose of schooling?

Since public education is about helping young people grow toward adulthood, we must think about what adulthood might mean, about how to prepare youth for an unknown and unsettling future. Consider that the 2016 Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisors to the President predicted that 83% of the jobs held by people making under $20 per hour will face automation in the near future. The influential book, The Rise of the Robots (Ford, 2015) predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace a large share of higher-paid occupations. However, these predictions may not come true. A recent World Bank report showed that, overall, the size of the workforce is not declining: AI is not replacing many jobs, particularly outside of industrial production in nations like the U.S. In fact, this odd tension of predicting the rise of AI and seeing continued workforce expansion even as robots replace some jobs seems has been the norm for decades.

However, the quality of the jobs and their pay remain issues. Today, U.S. wealth and income inequality are comparable to the “gilded age” of the late 1900s, while the real average wage remains below the 1973 level. Under NCLB, the nation saw the proliferation of the claim that all workers will need to engage in critical thinking. This was far more ideology than reality. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics workforce reports and projections show most of the largest occupational categories have not changed very much since at least the 1980s and do not require post-high school education. That is, most jobs do and will require little more than a basic high school education – as can also be attested to by the many college grads working in low-paid jobs. My point is not to predict what will happen regarding the use of AI, but to say that youth will have to solve serious economic problems regarding work, income and power.

Barring strong interventions, the future also portends a rapidly looming environmental catastrophe – global warming, ocean acidification, mass species die-off, and more; all are well under way. This looming disaster interacts with questions of work not only around issues of “green jobs” in a “green new deal,” but also of whether a society based on increasing production and consumption is ecologically viable at all. Instead of addressing this crisis, our nation is bankrupting itself economically and morally with massive war spending, as the US remains what Martin Luther King called it, “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence,” a comment recently echoed by President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, school segregation by race and class has intensified in recent decades, and immigrants are under vicious attack. We see, in the U.S., and around the world, a rapidly rising racist, misogynist right wing that pretends it will assist downtrodden workers (or at least those with the correct racial/ethnic background and political views). They tap into not only racism but also frustration with the Democrats and similar formerly leftish parties that have bought into the neoliberal/mid-nineteenth-century conceptions of the role of government in the economy. As recent elections in numerous countries showed, we have a long way to go to defeat that trend.

These dangers tell me that education – and assessment — must focus on helping all young people prepare to solve profound problems and to change the direction of our society, economically, socially and politically.

Such an education would be close to what progressive educators have long sought. It is about agency, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and connecting to place and community. It is more political than progressive education often has been, not political in the sense of parties but in the sense of deep social engagement that combats racism and sexism, challenges capitalism and imperialism, promotes equity, and fights to restore ecological balance.

To move in that direction requires us to dig anew into the question, what should school be? What makes for great learning experiences and a welcoming environment for all the children? What does real equity look like beyond limited numerical comparisons, so we take seriously the cultures and needs of the many diverse people who come to our schools? How do we hear all these voices, address contradictions and conflicts, and seek to reshape democracy? The work of many educators, including in this blog, have begun to provide answers.

To return to testing and assessment: We know good assessment is fundamental to good teaching and learning and will continue to occupy an important space as we fight to reshape schools. But over the past few years, I’ve heard that testing is often “issue number three” when local education activists list their concerns. It is always there, but behind something else, such as funding or privatization – which are of course vital concerns. I conclude that those of us seeking to overhaul assessment must more clearly integrate our efforts with wider and deeper education reform and equity campaigns.

That means being more explicit about how testing is part of an oppressive and exploitative system. Testing reformers have pointed out how it particularly harms youth by race and class, language and disability, and at times also by gender. Can we put combatting racism more in the center of this work, particularly in white communities? There are places where parents have valiantly fought against tests, including by opting out, but sometimes their communities also elect legislators who support underfunding urban schools and have no interest in opposing racism. Can activists use the concerns over testing to open deeper discussions? The testing reform movement needs to help white folks, including test reformers, to support explicitly the educational needs of people of color and to accept their leadership. In a period of intensifying racism and greater class inequality, it seems right, both morally and politically.

In education, there are valiant battles being waged on every front. I am thinking of the opt-out movements, such as on Long Island, where parents learned how to be effective organizers. I am thinking of Chicago and Milwaukee and Massachusetts where militant teachers have gained control over their unions, as well as the so-called “red” states where teachers rose up to disrupt a destructive status quo. And I am thinking of the youth such as those in Boston who walked out of schools to protest budget inequities and rallied against testing. Sometimes testing reform is explicit in these efforts, as it was in Barbara Madeloni’s upstart campaign to win the presidency of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and in her successor Merrie Najimy’s campaign.

It is a plank in the United Teachers of Los Angeles platform. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president, and many other union leaders, have long fought testing and inequities of race and class, including for immigrant rights. A group of LA teachers of the year wrote in the Washington Post, “Our demands have consistently been about far more than an increase in salary. We are demanding lower class sizes for our students, less testing and more teaching, charter school accountability, a full-time nurse and librarian in every school along with more counselors, psychologists, and social workers, and we want LAUSD to support the Community Schools Model, which has been proven to work all over the USA.”

When we fight, we may not always win, but we won’t win without fighting, and we have gained some testing victories. More than 1000 colleges have SAT-ACT optional admissions. In recent years, the number of states with high school graduation exams dropped from 27 to 11, and slowly the use of student scores to judge teachers is being pushed back. In numerous districts, educators and parents have won testing overhauls (Neill, & Guisbond, 2016). These victories also serve the ends of race and class justice. ESSA allows states to end punitive sanctions against schools and to overhaul their state assessment systems away from standardized exams. The “innovative assessment” provision is modeled on a NCLB waiver given to New Hampshire to design a system that radically reduces testing, replacing it with teacher-designed, school-and-classroom based performance assessments (Neill, 2016). Unfortunately, no other state has yet chosen to emulate NH, and some states even seek to use the opportunity to mandate repeated low-level testing as a replacement for the annual exams.

All of these battles have been hard. Educators are often intimidated, fearful, for example, to denounce test misuse. Unions are too-frequently not structured to engage in real battles, to organize not only their members but to build mutual, deep alliances with other working people’s organizations (as teachers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Milwaukee have done).

For the most part, teachers, parents, students and their allies have won victories through quite concrete and specific actions, such as to end particular injustices or test misuses. But our finest learning experiences often come through participating in struggles. We learn from one another, we get to know and trust one another, and we grasp the deeper connections that enable us to tie various strands into a larger whole. It is through what we do and learn in struggles that we build our capacities and vision to reshape the world.

I believe that for our planetary well-being, we must replace the capitalist system and the structural racism at its foundation. While the future seems daunting, by no means do I feel hopeless. We can look to Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and many of the most prominent liberation leaders from all our population groups, who have challenged us to ensure, as King framed it, the “radical reconstruction of society itself.”

While I believe there have been and will be grand, qualitative social leaps forward, and that success in the parts is greatly enhanced by success in the whole, still the core of social change is the detailed, grinding but also stimulating and fulfilling work of pushing forward in every possible arena. Each of us can contribute to the thinking and actions that not only win specific victories such as educationally beneficial assessment and accountability, but also make a strong contribution to the broader goals of social justice and thus to uniting multiple struggles into a profound social movement. Moving forward requires that each of us keeps making a contribution to positive social change, toward equity, toward helping build a shared power that can transform the system.

Monty Neill retired in 2018 as Executive Director of FairTest. This article is based on a talk he gave on receipt of the Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education award. The views here are his own.

Featured Image by Socialist Appeal, used with Creative Commons license.


FairTest. 2015. “Independent Test Results Show NCLB Fails.”

Ford, Martin. 2015. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Basic Books.

Neill, Monty. 2016.  Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill.FairTest.

Neill, Monty, and Guisbond, Lisa. 2017. Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?FairTest.

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Monty Neill

Monty Neill, Ed.D., is currently Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). He has led FairTest's work on testing in the pu...