When is the paper of record, The New York Times, going to adopt a sane approach to the No Child Left Behind Act and once and for all condemn it on its editorial page? While such red states as Utah have rejected the law from the beginning, our supposedly liberal Republican mayor and his lapdog Education czar have kids on a testing assembly line that only stops for their 20-minute/20minute lunch break/recess respite.

The achievement gap, the achievement gap… If I earned a point for each time I heard that phrase I’d have more AYP (annual yearly progress for those of you living in Madagascar or on Madison Avenue) than E.D. Hirsch, Checker Finn, and William Bennett combined.

Let’s look a little closer at these high-stakes tests, shall we? Now the people who devise these tests, psychometricians (literally, psychic measurers) have PhDs in educational psychology. So they go to work for ETS or McGraw Hill or another of these companies that wins no-bid contracts from school districts. Tied into their test contracts are lucrative text and trade book contracts, just so we know that everything’s on the up and up. So a test, let’s say an 8th grade reading test, is given to the entire state of North Carolina. The white middle class North Carolinians from Charlotte score in the 89th percentile; the Bangladeshis from Greensboro score in the 28th percentile, and the Chinese from Raleigh score in the 60thh percentile. Remember, all kids have to test in English no matter what their home language is.

Let’s start with the cultural biases in the reading comprehension portions of the test, and I’m not talking about content! All the passages concern the “social” sciences, the “natural” sciences”, and/or the “humanities.” Did you ever stop and think what an alien construct a “social science” is to someone from the “third” world; or the “natural sciences” to someone who’s been cured from illnesses her entire life through home remedies? What significance might the “humanities” hold for someone who’s been raised primarily through visual and aural cultural transmission?

Then there are the scores. If a student or a group of students tank on year 1, the Ed Dept. will usually brush it off as unfamiliarity with the test’s design, or nervousness. Usually during the second year of the test’s administration scores begin to level off. Often, this has less to do with academic achievement than with a combination of test-prep curricula and an accommodation and internalization of test design. When politicians say the achievement gap is narrowing what is usually happening is one of three things:
1.You’re witnessing a leveling off of scores due to an accommodation of test design and content.
2.You’re witnessing a test that has failed to prove its validity. (There are many, many forms of validity that psychometricians use to measure a test’s worth; it turns out that content validity is the easiest to establish and that’s what pols and school administrators go on to say yes or no to a test.
3.You’re witnessing nothing but political spectacle. The pols say the test scores are going up and that the achievement gap is narrowing; either nothing is happening or things are getting worse. And I don’t mean that the achievement gap is getting worse!

High-stakes tests are not valid measurements for academic achievement. Far too often, schools are scapegoated for failed or non-existent economic policy. Tests are the easiest and cheapest ways to bamboozle the public into thinking that something is being done about it. Poor performance in school is a symptom of a much larger problem, just as homelessness and unemployment and suicide are. Until the structural issues underlying poverty and institutional racism are addressed, then it’s not the achievement gap that is going to widen, but the income gap (as if it could be any wider). Regressive taxation, a rapacious global consumerism, the loss of the US manufacturing economy, no job training, little or no vocational education… Will it take another world war or a Great Depression to gather the steam for the next great social movement? Perhaps the politics of identity have driven too many wedges between us all. But perhaps not.

Boycott high-stakes tests! Organize and resist!