Standardized Schools article from The Nation (1999) appeared at the end of the last century and is still on target today

"Why is corporate America bashing our public schools" was published long before the current generation of books promoting the resistance to corporate "school reform." The dozen books by Susan Ohanian are still available.[Editor's Note: Today our history lesson is the article "Wielding high-stakes tests, a noisy alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs and media pundits seems intent on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lockstep..." by our friends and Substance staff writer Susan Ohanian. It's always nice to win new allies to the cause, especially one so important as the salvation of America's real public schools and the promotion of democracy against a tyranny like high-stakes so called "standardized" testing and corporate "school reform". Sometimes, however, it's also necessary to be honest about the history of our resistance, especially if some people deliberately leave out major portions of it to shine a light on themselves and their current operations. Historical dishonesty and revisionism happens a lot, and is another good reason for us to teach history in public schools. Just as abolitionism was a major movement in England by the beginning of the 19th Century and significant -- as well as dangerous -- in the USA as early as 1820, it still took a long period of resistance, agitation and organization before partial freedom was finally won as a result of a Civil War that left as least three quarters of a million Americans dead. Some struggles really do take a toll. The history of The Resistance to high-stakes testing and the privatization attacks on our public schools have been going on for a long time. One marker might be the publication 20 years ago of "The Manufactured Crisis." Other markers were the regular publication of books by Jerry Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Richard Rothstein, Alfie Kohn and many many others. Fair Test was around as the 21st Century dawned. Recently, we re-discovered an article from October 1999 by Susan Ohanian and share it today to remind our readers that the resistance to high-stakes testing and the attacks on our public schools didn't begin in Seattle Washington in 2011 or with the publication of "Reign of Error." Some of us were doing this work while others were accommodating to the tyrannies they now resist. And we welcome them, today, into a movement that they were not ready to join 15 years ago. Readers can read Susan's updates every day at The ULP for Susan's 1999 Nation article is: George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance].

Wielding high-stakes tests, a noisy alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs and media pundits seems intent on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lockstep by Susan Ohanian, This article appeared in the October 18, 1999 edition of The Nation.

Wielding high-stakes tests, a noisy alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs and media pundits seems intent on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lockstep through the same curriculum. These so-called standards advocates send out a message about widespread school failure rebutted most recently by Richard Rothstein in The Way We Were: The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement, a Century Foundation report showing that public schools are doing as well or better than ever and that most parents are happy with their children's schools. But even for struggling schools, tougher tests and more uniformity are not going to do anything but push kids into the dropout bins and drive creative teachers out the door in even greater numbers than they are leaving in now.

Last January, for example, 280,000 fourth graders across New York State took a $5.8 million reading test designed by CTB/McGraw-Hill. For months preceding the test, newspaper reports documented a mounting hysteria: Teachers abandoned reading aloud to students, substituting practice on test-taking techniques; parents supervised mind-numbing workbook drills at home; and 9-year-olds confessed to reporters that they worried they might fail the big test and thereby shame their school, neighborhood and country.

If we're going to subject fourth graders to such scary tests, you would think we'd insist that the test writers have some savvy about what those fourth graders should know. But consider this: Nine-year-old test takers across New York were shown pictures of labels from different brands of pancake syrup and asked to choose "the real McCoy," a term defined by the test writers as "anything of true worth or value." The labels show maple "style" syrup, 2 percent maple syrup, syrup with artificial maple flavor and 100 percent pure.

In the real world, where plenty of 9-year-olds accompany their parents to the grocery store, twenty-four-ounce containers of Aunt Jemima Lite and Vermont Maid, with maple syrup contents of 2 percent and zero, each cost $3.59. Eight ounces of Butternut Farm Grade A Medium Amber pure maple syrup costs $12.95. How many actual consumers choose the $1.61 an ounce product over the one costing $0.149? So what's an average fourth grader to think? That she won't find "true value" in the food on her own kitchen table?

People who try to point out the absurdity of test questions by citing examples are warned that the tests are "secure" and that if secrecy is breached lawyers will call. This is not an idle threat. Thirty-year-veteran teacher George Schmidt is being sued for $1 million by the Chicago Board of Education for exposing the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE) test questions to public view (after students took the tests). Try this one out, for example:

4. Economic systems determine which one of the following? [emphasis added]

A. what trade should take place

B. food and language

C. how much goods are worth

D. which people should be employed in certain jobs

The political potency of the testing issue shows no signs of abating. Once Congress shelved President Clinton's plan for national reading and math tests, White House support shifted to Goals 2000, a plan calling for withholding federal funds for disadvantaged children from states that don't adopt such policies as denying third graders promotion and twelfth graders a diploma on the basis of a single standardized test. And Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush recently took a page from Soviet tank tactics as taught at the Frunze Academy--feed your winners and starve your losers--when he pledged to take public funds from schools whose students test poorly.

The "standards" agenda has been refined at school restructuring meetings hosted by such CEOs as IBM chief Lou Gerstner and attended by the nation's governors, other corporate executives and representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Teachers have been conspicuously absent from these meetings. But educrats in twenty states have duly collected their federal money by instituting tough tests. New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills announced that he didn't think fourth graders would do well on the January reading exam but said that subjecting 9-year-olds to tests they can't pass is "one of the strategies to change things for the better." (The 3,000 kids in New York City who were mistakenly sent to summer school because of a scoring error by CTB/McGraw Hill might not agree.) Likewise, when 98 percent of the schools in Virginia flunked the new state test, Kirk Schroder, president of the state board of education, announced that he is confident their testing program will become "a national model for excellence in measuring student achievement."

Standardized tests have been familiar fare in schools for decades. But until recently, teachers and parents used test results as one gauge among many of a child's progress. A child's promotion (or a school's survival) did not depend on the results of one test written by a committee accountable to no one; teachers taught the basics but were free to shape the curriculum around their students' diverse needs and interests. Frustrated parents are beginning to rebel against the new regime. In Massachusetts, parents made headlines in May by keeping their children home for two weeks when the tests were being given. Parents in Ohio, California and Oregon did likewise. In early June, Wisconsin legislators responded to parent pressure and voted to kill the new $10.1 million high school graduation test, the hallmark of Governor Tommy Thompson's education agenda. The students, teachers and parents with the most to gain--or lose--from public education can tell the difference between real standards and standardization.

Susan Ohanian, September 30, 1999, This article appeared in the October 18, 1999 edition of The Nation.


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