Skull Measurements, Achievement Data and the Destruction of the Public School System

In the 1880’s, a white anthropologist named Samuel Morton theorized that the relative intelligence of different races could be determined by measuring and comparing skulls.  He then took to measuring hundreds of skulls and concluded that based on his results, of course races could be ranked by intelligence.

Guess who came out on top in Morton’s system?

Yep.  White people.

The bottom?

People of African descent.

And when the evidence didn’t support his theory Morton just rewrote history. He concluded that, according to his measurements, the people of Ancient Egypt were white.

With the passing of time, it is easy to see Morton’s science as a racist imposition of so-called objective science on “reality.”


It’s a little bit more difficult to see the racist impositions of so-called “objective measures” upon reality today, but such impositions nonetheless exist.  And, though they are difficult to see, they are not hard to find. Simply look at any form of measurement that proposes to determine invisible characteristics that are difficult to quantify, such as  intelligence, and then designs a ranking and sorting system that concludes with whites ranked above people of color.  Some measures simply quantify “reality” without ranking and sorting.   Others ostensibly quantify, but actually translate “reality” and call it real just as Morton did.

Let’s try using this filter.  Does it apply to poverty?  No, poverty is a fairly straightforward, visible, measurable characteristic once we agree on a level of income that determines it.

How about achievement in school?

Now we’re talking.

What is it?  It depends on who you ask.

How do you measure it?  I have no idea, especially since I’m not sure what it means, but the superficial and all too easy answer has become, you use a standardized test.

Whose standards are used in a standardized test?  The standards of dominant culture.

What is the organizing principle of the standards of dominant culture?


And what are the results?

Exactly the same ones that Morton arrived at.

Yes.  High-stakes standardized testing takes its place in a long historical line of impositions of racist assumptions upon “reality.” Morton would be proud.

My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color are “under-performing” in schools.  My point is that the design and context of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called “reality.” My point is that the tests, like Morton’s measuring of skulls, actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.

History Replicating Itself

Morton was a part of the eugenics movement, an overtly racist scientific attempt to explain racial differences in status by genetics.  This movement has been discredited, but it’s important to remember that in its time it was highly respected as an objective, scientific explanation.   In our time, as Harold Berlak points out in Race and the Achievement Gap, genetics as the explanation of racial differences has been replaced by explanations of culture and history.

“Recently a more subtle form of ‘scientific’ racism has gained some respectability. The inferiority of the Black and brown races is now said to lie not necessarily in genetics but in culture and history. This more quietly spoken academic version of the master-race ideology has also been thoroughly dismantled, yet racist explanations for the race gap persist.”

So the structures that benefit one race over another still exist, but the language used now makes those structures more difficult to see. We know that when we look at DNA there is no such thing as race.  We know that race is a social construction with implications of power. What is more difficult to see is the language used to construct and reify these differences.

How This Works With Standardized Testing

What follows are some of the factors that instantiate racial outcomes into standardized tests and the contexts they occur within:

* Stereotype vulnerability: Berlak discusses a study done by psychologist Claude Steele which explored the differences in how white and black students mentally frame testing situations.  In this study, black students who were told that the test was a valid measure of academic ability and capacity scored much worse than those who were told that the test was a not a measure of ability, but of psychological factors involved in problem solving.  The black students who were told the test was looking at psychological factors rather than ability scored equal to the white students.  The white students scores were consistent in both situations.

“The explanation Steele offers is that Black students know they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability. Groups not stereotyped in this way do not experience this extra intimidation. He suggests that it is serious intimidation, implying as it does that if they should perform badly, they may not belong in walks of life where their tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested.’ He labels this phenomenon ‘stereotype vulnerability.'”

* The ways in which the curriculum of the dominant culture shapes the schooling experience of students of color: Berlak points to a study completed by anthropologist Signithia Fordham.

“She concludes that for African-American students, patterns of academic success and underachievement are a reflection of processes of resistance that enable them to maintain their humanness in the face of a stigmatized racial identity. She shows that African-American adolescents’ profound ambivalence about the value and possibility of school success is manifest as both conformity and avoidance. Ambivalence is manifest in students’ motivation and interest in schoolwork, which of course includes mastery of standardized test-taking skills….

Fordham found that even the most academically talented African-American high school students expressed profound ambivalence toward schooling and uncertainty that they will reap the rewards of school success. Virtually all African Americans she interviewed indicated that a central problem facing them at school and in larger white society is the widely held perception by whites that African Americans are less able and intelligent and their continuing need to confront and deal with this reality in everyday experience.”

* Racial Bias Built Into Tests:  Many of us are aware of the ways that the unconscious bias of the dominant culture is integrated seamlessly into test questions.  The example often given is the abandoned question from the SAT that asks students a question referring to a “regatta.”  Who knows what a regatta is? People who have enough wealth to provide them access to boats.  The cultural bias is clear. Fair Test explains it this way:

“According to other research, items which facilitate ranking and sorting are often items which, perhaps unintentionally, factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. Such items help create consistency in test results, but they often are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children, who also typically have access to a stronger academic education.”

Less well known is the bias that is built into the scoring of the tests.  Fair Test does an excellent analysis of this in explaining “bi-serial correlation.”

“To obtain higher consistency (and hence technical reliability) on the test, Texas follows the typical practice of using items with the highest correlation values. This procedure means that on items covering the same materials, the ones with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers will be used. Because minority group students typically perform less well on the test as a whole, the effort to increase reliability also increases bias against minorities…

This common test development procedure exacerbates the existing inequities of schooling. When used in high-stakes testing, biserial correlation helps ensure that at least some students who know the material and ought to pass the tests do not. Those students are overwhelmingly low-income, of color, with English as a second language, or have special needs.”

John Loflin nicely summarizes these factors:

“…the standardization of high stakes tests is based on: 1) “normalcy” and epitomized via norm-referencing tests where some will always fail regardless of actual achievement, 2) a history of racial discrimination associated with the testing–particularly in how tests are calibrated–as well as the cultural bias associated with intelligence measurement such as IQ, and 3) the eugenic deficit model of humanity, a model with neither scientific nor moral merit.”

So What?

What does this mean?

It means we simply can not continue to use measures that have unconsciously pre-determined an outcome, pretend shock at the outcome, and then focus all of our energy on changing the outcome after the fact. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions that create the outcome in the first place? Doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions of inequality organized around poverty and race?

It means that when we are unavoidably involved in anything to do with “achievement data” we must act with the recognition that such data is not a reflection of ability.  Nor is it a reflection of achievement.  It is simply a marker of privilege. “Achievement data” tells us what we already know from history – our society is full of inequalities, and race and poverty are the organizing principles of these inequalities. This data, taken as real, has become the lever for the current education reform movement that is decimating our public education system.  It follows that the use of it hurts students of color and  white students.  It hurts poor students and rich students.  It hurts all educators who recognize that places of belonging are fundamental to learning, rather than places of ranking and sorting. As school superintendent David Britten eloquently puts it, “I firmly believe the evidence is unassailable that the end game is the complete destruction of the public school system, since it is the one substantial threat to maintenance of class structure, dilution of power, and eventual downfall of an expanding oligarchy.” (In the comments section of this excellent post.)

So let’s top talking about “achievement” and let’s start talking about learning.  Let’s stop standardized testing and instead focus on contextual assessment and useful feedback.

And let’s stop talking about the “achievement gap” and start addressing the conditions of inequality that it reflects.

Governor Snyder and Direct Control

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder signed an executive order that moved the state’s school reform office from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

That may be one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever written.

But, as a helpful attempt to reinforce its truthfulness, I am going to write it again.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed an executive order that moved the state’s school reform office from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

If you still don’t believe, check this.

There are many things to consider regarding Snyder’s decision. For example, why is a category with the title “school” not placed within a department that includes the label “education”? But that seems silly.  (For another solid example that isn’t silly, see this.) I want to explore here the  values that such a move represents. And since Governor Snyder has said nothing that I can find, I am going to use an article written by the Detroit News  as the text that will provide us some insight into those values.

After a questionable beginning in which the article, Snyder Right to Move Reform Office,” refers to Snyder’s frustration over “the lack of progress in Detroit schools” without explaining that this “lack of progress” has occurred under a series of Snyder appointed Emergency Managers, the actual situation is explained fairly dispassionately.

“The reform office has oversight of the 5 percent of schools that are the lowest-performing in the state. And it works along with the independently run Education Achievement Authority, the reform district that operates 15 of the worst schools in Detroit.”

These are indisputable factual observations.  What it doesn’t also say is that the EAA was created with immense controversy and continues as a colossal failure, a judgement that is reaching consensus in Michigan.  It also doesn’t say that the EAA was developed by Snyder, and that the EAA moved schools out of the Detroit Public Schools into the newly created Reform District.

Are you sensing any patterns regarding Snyder’s propensity for movement?

The article continues with less dispassion.

“Snyder has longstanding frustrations with the State Board of Education, the elected panel that oversees the department, and its lack of commitment to reform. The Democrat-majority board is responsible for electing the state superintendent. Superintendent Mike Flanagan is retiring in June, and the board is in the process of finding his replacement.”

The State Board of Education is a democratically elected board that operates independently of Snyder.  Its members are each accountable to the public that elected them.  Also note the opinion stated as fact, “…its (the board’s) lack of commitment to reform.”  I’m not sure where this comes from.  I’m not sure what it means.  I am sure that the 3 candidates that the board has narrowed their choice to have each shown a strong commitment to public education.  I worry greatly that support of public education is misconstrued as support of the “status quo,” and that “status quo” has become  code for “the continuation of public education.”

“By issuing the executive order, Snyder is giving a clear warning to the board that if it chooses a superintendent that is resistant to the kind of education reforms the administration seeks, even more control could be taken away from the department….Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, is a finalist, and she is definitely on Snyder’s radar as an opponent of school choice.”

Now maybe we are getting closer to some insight.  This move is meant as a threat to the elected state school board. It also points out Markavitch specifically as being “…on Snyder’s…radar as an opponent of school choice.”  So maybe the unstated assumption is that if you are against school choice you are for the “status quo”?  And it seems certain that school choice here is a good thing.  And what does school choice mean? I’m not entirely certain, but I assume (in my attempt to make my assumptions clear) that it means more charters, vouchers, cyber schools, private schools, non-union teachers, segregation by class and race and ability, Teach For America and lots of profit.  I could be wrong, but I think it’s at least ok to question the assumption that school choice is a good thing. You see, in a democracy we ask questions, and asking questions has been the necessary historical purview of a free press.  (Take note Detroit News.)

The article ends with these paragraphs:

“Snyder is already seeking counsel from this broad Detroit coalition forming a blueprint for fixing city schools. The group is expected to have its recommendations ready by the end of this month.

The governor wants community backing for the next round of reforms. But whatever form that plan takes, Snyder’s direct control of the school reform office should help with the execution of the new agenda.

Snyder has contemplated moving the reform office for a while. This was the right time to do it.” (Emphasis added)

So Snyder is seeking counsel from a group, the Detroit coalition, that he put together.  All of the available evidence suggests that Snyder is fine in receiving counsel from people who think  like him. This thinking is ideological and runs contrary to  all readily available contrary evidence. (As an example, see this article from the Detroit New’s conservative editor on how that DPS Emergency Manager thing is working out.)  And when Snyder doesn’t like what he hears, he moves things around, literally, so that he no longer has to listen.

And yet, “Snyder wants community backing for the next round of reforms.”  He certainly has an interesting strategy for gaining community backing, doesn’t he? Please. He doesn’t care about community backing.  If he did, the EAA would no longer exist.  If he did, he wouldn’t insist that Emergency Managers take the place of a democratically elected school boards (i.e. “community backed”). If he did, he wouldn’t act as a dictator, he would operate within the constraints of democracy.

What he does want is to institute his ideology with as little resistance as possible. This is certainly much easier when you have “direct control,” which is another way of saying, “Without the obstacle of the complex messiness that democratic processes bring with them.”

Such processes intentionally include a variety of voices and perspectives, and intentionally remove “direct control” from anyone.

Because we used to recognize that the direct control of one leader is the organizing principle of fascism.

The Shock Doctrine- Alive and Well in Michigan

Symptomatic of what is occurring in education across the nation, Detroit Public Schools are deep in debt.

Detroit, though, is somewhat unique in that they have in place an autocratic and unilateral leader appointed by the Governor of Michigan.  They have an Emergency Manager, a person appointed at the governor’s behest to alleviate a financial situation that has been deemed by such governor to be an “emergency.”

DPS Financial HistoryIn Detroit Public Schools, this has led to the marginalization of a perfectly capable and democratically elected school board.  It has promoted the market fundamentalists’ premier value of economic efficiency over democracy, and it has done so at the expense of the economic health of the district, the academics of the students affected, and the community’s agency as expressed via the accountability of a democratically elected school board. It is no small thing to again point out the irony of the fact that Emergency Management has been installed at the expense of  the district’s financial viability.  (For more on this sordid history, please read Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s excellent account.)

So what is the governor going to do now with this mess he has exacerbated? According to The Detroit News, “Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is exploring ways to link a change in governance of public education in Detroit with ‘financial relief’ for the debt-ridden and cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools.

Hmm..little mention of here of the structural conditions that led to such a situation.

No mention of the damning, incomplete, and false narrative of “failing schools.”

Although there are some hints if you read between the lines.

Since DPS is managed by its fourth emergency manager in six years, the issue of giving the district some financial breathing room looms large as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren tries to craft a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.

See, it seems that there is a glimmer of understanding that an Emergency Manager- the fourth in six years- has simply not worked.  The solution? “…a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.”

Again, if you read between the lines you will note who is not able to pursue anything in the legislature -the people of Detroit whose children are affected. You see, their voices have been silenced.

More hints of what might be to come?

Snyder wants the plan before spring so he can pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year, Walsh said.

Walsh, a Livonia Republican, was term-limited from the House last year and joined Snyder’s staff in January. He since has worked closely on Detroit and urban education reform issues with Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana schools chief credited with turning around the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Last summer, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has invested heavily in the EAA schools, sent Pastorek to Michigan to assist Snyder’s office in studying education reform in Detroit.

The 36-member coalition is exploring reforms that include common enrollment and the creation of a new commission that could have governance power over all DPS…

So what is this really about?  In order to learn, we need to follow the bread crumb trail ( in this particular nightmare that means “money”) to New Orleans.  The Broad Foundation, whose marketing brand reads, “Entrepreneurship for the public good in education,” a sentence whose inherent contradiction is mind-boggling, has funded Paul Pastorek as an advisor to the Michigan Governor as he looks for a system that he can use to, “ pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year.” 

As the governor wrings his hands about the debt DPS is incurring.

Sound familiar?

Let’s see- the creation of massive financial insecurity that allows for radical structural changes which will then allow for corporate profit at the expense of democracy and local communities? Yes, the Shock Doctrine!

To those familiar with the history of public schooling in New Orleans it will sound all too familiar.  (Thank you Paul Pastorek.)

And for those not familiar, please rapidly learn about the NOLA history, as it’s coming to a school near you.

As a public service I offer the video below.  (From New Orleans Education Equity.)

And as a succinct encouragement to view, I offer this quote from the video:

A lot of money has come into New Orleans to open up new schools. That actually incentivizes school failure. The more schools fail, the more money certain organizations get to open new schools….closing schools simply gets the money changing hands again.” 

It’s easy to predict that a lot more money will be soon be changing hands again in Michigan.

Please watch.

The “Achievement Gap”: Banning the Language of Deficit

George W. Bush famously pushed through NCLB with his hyperbolic rally against, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”  His argument was that minority students were performing poorly, as measured by “the achievement gap,” because expectations for them were low, or “soft.”  His answer? To raise standards and test to hold schools accountable to these standards.

Time has predictably shown that Bush’s stance has only served to reinforce a racialized world dominated by Whiteness.  What standards are we asking students of color to rise to?  Standards determined by dominant culture that are reinforced through a biased testing system that rewards those who benefit from privilege, and continues to punish those who lack it.

I assume that Bush would argue that success is determined by this dominant culture, and thus, it is this culture that our students must learn to navigate in order to be what our culture deems “successful.”  (Though he probably would word it differently.)

If only it were so simple.

It seems that the game that determines the winners and losers against our standards of success is rigged.

In What’s Race Got To Do With It?, Wayne Au explains,

One of the key assumptions undergirding the use of standardized tests to measure, sort and rank students is the idea that these tests are measuring students objectively and accurately- for if the tests are objective, then they truly are assessing the individual  merits of students.  In turn the individual students who have worked the hardest and who have the most merit will rise to the top compared to their peers.

So far it kind of sounds like Bush was right, right?

Except he’s not.

Because standardized tests are neither objective nor accurate.

Au points out the flaws in the design of the SAT, “…ensuring that the test question selection process itself has a self reinforcing, built-in racial bias.”

He points out the ways in which out-of-school factors matter more in determining “achievement” than in-school factors.

He writes,

…systems of accountability built upon high-stakes, standardized testing cannot function if everyone is a “winner” for both ideological and technological reasons.  Ideologically, if everyone passed the tests there simply would be no way to justify elite status for any particular group: Every student would qualify for the most elite colleges and jobs, thereby rendering the very hierarchy of elitism obsolete. A high-stakes, standardized test that everyone passed would then function to challenge White supremacy, not maintain it.


But no worries, as long as we are talking about achievement and data and standardized anything, the ranking and competition and market driven forces will ensure that those on top stay on top.   Especially considering,

The White supremacist curriculum enforced by high-stakes testing directly and negatively impacts students of Color. Research tells us that students learn best when they can connect themselves, their identities, their lives, and their experiences to their learning.  This has proven to be true for students of Color in particular, especially those historically underserved by our school system:  Curriculum that connects to students’ cultures and identities fosters deeper connection to concepts and learning, and can lead to more academic success.  By legitimizing Whiteness through the delegitimization of non-Whiteness in curriculum and classroom environments, high-stakes tests explicitly include and exclude certain student identities in schools.  Put differently, because high-stakes tests force schools to adopt a standardized non-multicultural curriculum that structurally enforces norms of Whiteness, it ultimately silences the cultures and voices of children of Color, particularly if those voices, cultures and experiences are not contained on the tests.

And Why This Matters: Towards Banning Deficit Language

So to be clear, the ways in which we supposedly measure the “achievement gap” serves to reinforce the achievement gap.  These measures ensure that we look at students already marginalized through a  lens of “deficit.”  “They” are not measuring up to the standards that “we” have set.  Standards that are defined by, and serve to reinforce, a dominant culture determined by Whiteness.

And it is within this context that I would like to join Andre Perry in  his quest to eliminate the deficit language of “achievement gap.”

In, Why We Need to Smash the Concept of the Achievement Gap Into Tiny Pieces, Perry points out that the deficit model serves to externalize the problem of achievement.  In other words, the achievement gap is seen as a problem that rests with people of color, rather than one that rests within structures that have institutionalized racism.

Perry writes,

Common titles like Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life and Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students insidiously de-emphasize institutional responsibility for graduating men of color and as a consequence, measures of institutional accountability based on inclusion are ignored.

The authors of these and similar texts acknowledge and deconstruct institutional factors. However, we mitigate our efforts comparing black and brown weakness to supposed white strength. We undermine our cause when we try to fix black and brown boys and men of color…

The inferred white male referent in the achievement gap construct contributes to the centuries old logic that others should be compared to whites. On its face the idea of student success lets institutional factors of the hook, which have been shown to be at least half of the reason why men of color are pushed out of college. Educators shouldn’t be data driven.

We should be community driven and use data to support students.  (Emphasis added)

So what’s the first step?

To stop using any language that reinforces a perceived deficit.  Stop using any language that privileges one group vis-a-vis another.

To stop talking about a so-called “achievement gap.”

We can no longer allow language that functions to denigrate others.

Reframing the issue means that researchers must abandon antiquated constructs. Smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces.


Maybe after banning the language of deficit, we can stop blaming people and start to become community driven.

PS- Thanks to Paul Thomas for providing fodder for this thinking. Read more here.

Privatizing the Public (On Steroids)

In one of the scariest articles on education ever written, States Weigh Turning Education Funds Over to Parents,” you will find that many states are creating policy that will allow parents to create “Educational Savings Accounts,” paid for by funds that were previously used to cover public education, that will give them “the freedom to design a custom education for their children — at taxpayer expense.”

It’s the ultimate in privatizing the public.


I shouldn’t be surprised.  My own governor of the state of Michigan once developed a secret plan for the same idea.  And that was 2 years ago. Of course, when exposed it disappeared, only to surface again in a different form.  I guess I just hoped that such stupidity would be so abundantly obvious that no one else would ever attempt the same.

I was wrong.

So, to say the least, this idea is a threat to our most basic form of democracy, your local school district.

But then again, local democracy has also been disappearing for years.

And what has been the narrative that has allowed for such ideas?

The notion that our public schools are failing.

The article succinctly essentializes this point of view in quoting Tennessee’s state representative John DeBerry Jr.:

“Tennessee state Rep. John DeBerry Jr., a Democrat, couldn’t agree more: ‘We created public education. It didn’t fall from the sky. It wasn’t divinely given to us. We created it, so we can reform it,’ he said. ‘If the status quo  isn’t working, it needs to be changed.'”

Unfortunately for John DeBerry, the status quo he’s referring to, the common good of public schools and the traditional idea of local democracy, has been working just as it is intended, thank you very much.

“Public Schools Aren’t Failing,” a recent article in the Charlotte Observer, which leans on two recent studies and concludes,

“In fact, both (studies) show that American public school children are doing remarkably well.

For example, the NCES report shows that in schools with less than 25 percent poverty rates, American children scored higher in reading than any other children in the world. In. The. World.

The takeaway is simple. Our middle-class and wealthy public school children are thriving. Poor children are struggling, not because their schools are failing but because they come to school with all the well-documented handicaps that poverty imposes – poor prenatal care, developmental delays, hunger, illness, homelessness, emotional and mental illnesses, and so on.” (Emphasis added)

(Granted, I hate the idea of using “achievement data” as the basis of any form of comparison.  But if it’s going to be done, as a minimum we can be honest in recognizing that it measures privilege rather than learning.  These studies reinforce that fact.)

The issue isn’t public education, it’s poverty (and always remember the complication of race).

The neoliberal ideology of the privatization narrative finds it very convenient to ignore poverty. Why? Because they are actually fighting an ideological battle against so-called “government schools.”  They are actually not concerned with poverty, or the ills it leads to.  They are not able to see beyond the privilege offered by wealth and class.  And I’m not certain, at least judging from the evidence of their policy decisions, that they are able to garner any compassion for those less fortunate.

“The ultimate in local control” is actually a thin veil that intends to cover the ultimate in selfishness at the expense of those most marginalized.

Be on the look out.


Complicating Poverty

In Academic State Champs: Michigan’s Top 25 School Districts, Michigan’s Bridge, an on-line magazine, has come out with an attempt to rank schools in a way that factors in the variable of poverty.

Any attempt to rank schools that factors in the concern of poverty must be better than most, right?

I guess so, if you accept that the competitive, market driven model of ranking schools is acceptable, or that rankings based on achievement data is in any way useful.

And if you accept that poverty can be considered without also considering the ways in which race functions in our society and schools.

And if you accept that the real way to change children’s education is by addressing in-school factors while avoiding the impact of out-of-school factors.

I, on the other hand, accept none of these.

Allow me to explain.

But before doing so, let me applaud this attempt by the Bridge.  I think it is a genuine dive into the issue of poverty.  At least they accept that poverty has an impact on education. However, by accepting the myths I outline below, Bridge continues that failed narrative of “failing schools,” which hurts all of us, especially our kids, by misdirecting good intentions.

Myth 1- standardized tests measure learning.

In determining its rankings, Bridge makes the fundamental assumption that test scores measure learning.  They don’t. Bridge recognizes that, “To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors.”  Yes, there is a strong correlation of “achievement” to socio-economic status.  However, the problem goes even deeper.  As just a cursory look at testing, for example,  if we understand that learning is a function of growth, of some kind of difference in a student’s understanding between time A and time B, these tests scores, as they are static, don’t measure learning.  They are a tool that freeze frames a fluid process and focuses on where a student “is” as opposed to any growth. As a whole, we greatly confuse “achievement” with “learning.” And all too often, in these days of so-called ed reform, achievement simply means “ability to perform well on tests that measure superficial knowledge.”

Alfie Kohn, as usual, gets to the root of the matter when he writes:

“Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding. Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted to students (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command.”

Standardized test, like the ones that Bridge uses for its comparative data, do not necessarily measure the increase of anything of value that can be singularly recognized as caused by a student’s school experience.  Instead, this data simply is a static representation of regurgitated information on the part of students.  It mistakes correlation with causation, and the correlation is too often to regurgitated, superficial information. If regurgitated information is important and what we want in our children’s school experience, then tests work well in their purported task.  If we’re after something more, then I urge us to consider Diane Ravitch’s caution:

“We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.”

But for now, let’s just ignore the meaninglessness of wasting so much time and energy on pretending that these tests somehow relate to learning so we can get to myth #2.

Myth 2- poverty can be taken into consideration without factoring race into the equation.

The fact of the matter is that poverty functions differently according to race.  To put it another way, poor white people still have the privilege of being white.  This is not to deny the difficulty of their poverty. It is merely to say that for people who are poor and black, poverty is compounded by race. Educator Paul Gorski writes,

“What we see–what I see–is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what’s happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US–law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one–protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.”  (Please see Gorski’s invaluable, Complicating White Privilege.)

And because this is irrefutable, considering poverty without considering how it is affected by race gives only a partial picture.  We can’t just talk about poverty, as Bridge does, without considering the impact that race has on how poverty is experienced.  We can’t justifiably consider two differing conditions of poverty and call them equal in these comparisons.

You might be wondering, just how does poverty function differently according to race?  For one way, see Gorski above.

For another, we have to recognize that because of our history of race in this country, poor African-Americans are much more likely to experience poverty in a way that is encapsulated by race.  That is, the neighbors of poor blacks are very likely to also be poor and black.  The schools that their children attend are very likely to have high rates of children who are also poor and black.  Writing about this disparity in Down and Out, Jamelle Bouie points out, “A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation affirmed this fact. According to the foundation, only 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 20 percent, compared to a national average of 74 percent. Of course, the other way to say this is that 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of greater than 20 percent.”

What does this mean?

Bouie continues:

“Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime.”

Detroit Demographics

Understanding how poverty functions differently for blacks and whites is important, yet it is completely unaddressed by The Bridge.

It’s as if race just doesn’t matter.

As if only the variable of poverty matters.

And this means that as a whole, predominately poor black schools will be rated below predominately poor white schools, especially when comparisons only consider the factor of poverty to the exclusion of race. (Of course there will be predictable exceptions , which by their exception prove the rule.  And this rule obscures other factors that are bound up within the charter school movement.) And if poverty is the only factor, then we are left reaching for explanations that the methodology doesn’t allow for.

Structural racism is obscured.

Myth 3- the way to change outcomes is to address school quality while ignoring out-of-school factors.

Now, let me start by being crystal clear.  Teachers matter, and in-school factors make a difference.  Got it.  I’ve staked my career on the fact that as an educator, I matter.

The problem is, all of the evidence shows that out of school factors matter more.

From David Berliner’s Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Success, (,

“Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed.”

See.  Fundamentally, Berliner and Bridge agree that poverty impacts education. Yet, Bridge’s report manages to consider the out-of-scho0l factor of poverty as a means of directing attention back to factors within schools. It’s a magical trick of brilliant contortion.

What we all really need to consider is the question of, where do we put our energy? Into addressing in-school factors, where control is very difficult to quantify and thus know the effects of? Or in addressing out of school factors, which clearly would have an impact, though are difficult politically to make happen? Clearly, both are important. And yet the function of the current ed reform movement, whose narrative of testing Bridge is buying into, misuse in-school factors (i.e., “achievement data) is to direct attention away from out-of-school structural factors, which have a greater impact.

Berliner suggest that, “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.”

To be fair, Bridge seems to recognize this.  In their statement that explains their methodology includes, under the category of “disadvantages” of the methodology, “Disadvantages: It includes any disadvantages of the standardized tests and does not incorporate other factors that can affect performance, such as cultural differences, pre–K education, and neighborhood factors.” ( )

Those seems like fairly significant disadvantages.  And they are the same disadvantages inherent in  any methodology that compares and ranks schools using achievement data.

Which of course, begs the question, why?

Why compare using standardized tests when these disadvantages are recognized?

And why, if we agree that poverty impacts education, write a story that looks at how to raise test scores that are themselves fundamentally highly questionable when we could make it all bit easier by considering  how we can actually address poverty (and race) directly?

The Lynchpin For This System

As part of my life-long (and mostly losing) battle against the misuse of test data (and anything referred to in education by the language of “achievement”) I offer this incredibly succinct and accurate quote by the Jersey Jazzman and encourage you to slip it into all of your conversations, educational and other.

“Standardized tests don’t measure learning so much as they rank and order children according to a social construction that is based on the notion that we must have winners and losers in our society.” 

I’ve written about this before (see  here, here and here) and probably will again. It’s important to keep saying as long as achievement data is used comparatively and as a weapon against “failing schools” and “bad teachers.” Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, achievement data doesn’t measure learning. It does, however, serve as an accurate measure of socioeconomic status. Thus, achievement data is simply a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.  As such, those who present any argument for school reform that is fundamentally based on achievement data are actually arguing for maintaining our society’s status quo. They are presenting an argument that functions to benefit the privileged at the expense of the already marginalized.

The Jazzman continues:

“Ranking and sorting students does nothing to address this core problem in today’s America. All it does is ratchet up the pressure on children, whose parents understand that a life without a college degree increasingly means a life of misery. It’s become clear to many (even if they don’t articulate it in the same way I am doing here) that the standardized test is the lynchpin for this system. And it’s also become clear that the defenders of the real status quo refuse to acknowledge the truth about this state of affairs..

And maybe that’s why people are getting fed up with standardized tests: they are a distraction that keeps us from doing what really needs to be done.

Well said.