Year 2001 Monograph Series
Volume 3  Number 2                  John Dewey Project on Progressive Education                  Winter  2001
                     College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont

High-Stakes Testing and Standardization:
The Threat to Authenticity

Kevin D. Vinson, Rich Gibson, E. Wayne Ross

    The recent movement toward high-stakes standardized testing as a means of school reform has captured the support of many local, state, and national educational “leaders,” including former President Clinton and President George Bush, members of Congress, and a majority of Governors, State Legislatures, and Boards of Education.  What most clearly defines these groups and individuals is their pursuit of mandated content and testing regimes as a simplistic cure-all—an absolute panacea—to the variously perceived ills that “threaten” the fundamental “effectiveness” of contemporary American public education.  And yet, as can be demonstrated, a great deal is known about the implicit and explicit weaknesses and dangers of such efforts.
    Against this perspective, the focus of our work here is fourfold.  First, by drawing on the work of John Dewey (see, especially, 1902/1956, 1916/1966), we argue that testing, especially high-stakes, man-dated, standardized testing, represents little more than poor, and absurdly disconnected and uninspired, pedagogy.  Instead of consider-ing those conditions that we know contribute to ineffectual and unjust schooling—inequity in funding, lack of teacher planning time, large class sizes, a focus on facts over meaning—it seeks to lay blame on teachers and students, to reward policy leaders for “action,” and to redefine learning as scoring well on externally produced and graded evaluations.  Second, by aiming to standardize and normalize knowledge such tests work to promote conformity and oppression, claiming as they and their advocates do that “legitimate” and “real” learning necessarily “shows up” in the scores.  Unquestionably such thinking denies and/or ignores key differences in meaningful and experiential knowledge as well as in access to formalized academic and economic resources.  Third, we argue that the current “liberal-conservative alliance” in favor of such test-ing ultimately works against vigorous struggles for profound and substantive school change, both politically and pedagogically.  We do, however, take seriously and support the often courageous work of teachers, students, parents, and others involved in vari-ous grassroots undertakings (such as those in Michigan, Illinois, California, and New York, some of our country's largest school systems) as critical to the countermovement away from the eco-nomics of standards and toward the democratic tasks of justice, equality, fairness, and anti-op-pression.  Fourth, we challenge the extent to which testing meets the needs of all students, particularly those who speak English as a second language and those existing in traditionally marginalized settings.
   In sum, high-stakes standard-ized tests and test scores undermine high-quality education, genuine student/teacher motivation, and the benefits of diversity and inclusion.  They simplify schooling to the point that it becomes nothing more than a capitalistic and competitive chase for acceptable numbers, a dedicated means by which to exclude, to rank, and to sort the less powerful.  Within such a system schooling itself, becomes little more than an alienating and undemocratic threat to educational authenticity.

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From the Director:
Since 1983 and the publication of A Nation At Risk, the United States has been involved in a wave of school reform that is currently focused on the establishment of rigorous standards of learning, increasingly accompanied by high stakes testing.  Unlike testing that is used to assess what students know and to help shape instruction, “high stakes” tests are tests with significant consequences—for students, teachers, families, and schools.  High stakes tests are used to determine whether a child passes from one grade to another or whether they graduate from high school, to rank and compare schools and districts, to determine resource allocation (incredibly, this can sometimes mean taking resources away from schools most in need!), and increasingly, to assess teacher performance.  Conventional wisdom says that schools need to be accountable, and that such tests are the most efficient, fair, and objective ways of assuring accountability. 
In line with the pragmatic thinking of John Dewey and other progressives, we believe that it is important to examine both the intended and unintended consequences of any testing policy.  Our headline article in this monograph is intended to challenge conventional wisdom about high stakes testing, and provoke us to think more deeply and critically about such issues as: Whose interests are represented by the trend towards high stakes tests?  (Hint: Visit the web site of the Business Roundtable at to see what corporate leaders think about the issue.) Who benefits and who loses from the testing regime?  Who decides what will be tested?  What are the effects on our democratic way of life from this educational practice?  These and other questions are taken up in the monograph by Kevin Vinson, Rich Gibson, and E. Wayne Ross.  We hope you find it thought provoking, stimulating, and worthy of use in your school district as a discussion piece. 
For many years, Vermont has been known as a leader in the authentic assessment movement.  Our pioneering work in portfolio assessment demonstrated that assessment could be student-friendly, used to improve instruction, and respond to the healthy diversity and local differences that have characterized Vermont schools.  Yet currently, Vermont teachers and school administrators find themselves under increasing pressures to “teach to the test”, which is, from many accounts, having an adverse effect on the improvement of learning. 
We hope that this contribution to the public debate encourages educators, school administrators, and policy makers to take a critical look at testing schemes, and to ask what we believe are the most important questions: Does this policy result in genuinely improved student learning?  Does it foster understanding and the making of meaning? Does it improve the quality of life in educational institutions for teachers and students?  Does it foster equity, justice, and social responsibility?  Does it help develop a citizenry with the capacity to act compassionately, think critically, and assess the worth of knowledge? Authentic answers to questions such as these are where genuine accountability lies in a democratic society. 
Kathleen Kesson, Director JDPPE

High Stakes Testing and Standardization Cont.

Pedagogy and Pedagogy

     John Dewey (1916/1966) long ago recognized the imperatives connecting a democratic society to a democratic system of schooling.  In fact, he considered their relationships not only mutual,  but also necessary to virtually every aspect of a healthy and vital democracy.  Throughout his work he consistently identified and presented the underlying principles that even today orient and define the characteristics of a meaningful and authentic pedagogy, one grounded in and consonant with the demands, values, and directions of an open, dynamic, and inclusive society.  By challenging the dominance of “traditional” schooling, Dewey (1902/1956) established the foundations for an instruction committed to reflective inquiry, cooperation, growth, association, and multiculturalism.
     The current expansion of standardized testing fails pedagogically on a number of levels, including, perhaps most importantly, on several criteria initially proposed by Dewey himself.  In The Child and the Curriculum, for example, Dewey (1902/1956) argued that education and educators must “get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind… between the child's experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study” (p. 11).  This, for Dewey, was the “problem” with traditional and dominant viewpoints.  Moreover, it was a problem defined by two principal “sides”:
 From the side of the child, it [was] a question of seeing how his [or her] experience already contains within itself   elements—facts and truths—of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study; and, what is more important, of how it contains within itself the attitudes, the motives, and the interests which have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the plane which it now occupies.  From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as outgrowths of forces operating in the child's life, and of discovering the steps that intervene between the child's present experience and their richer maturity.  (p. 11)
As he continued:
Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience; cease thinking of the child's experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process [italics added].  Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction.  It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies.  (p. 11)
     I n terms of standardized testing, what Dewey's understanding implies are at least three significant points.  First, it suggests an instructional state of affairs in which all important knowledge—even so-called “academic” or “disciplinary” knowledge—grows out of the multiple and experienced lives of the learners themselves.  Second, it indicates an instruction that is fluid and dynamic, one in which neither the perceived and actualized experiences of the child nor the subject matter itself is constant or set in stone, that is “fixed and ready-made.”  Third, it maintains and asserts a certain and clear connectedness, one inherent in the act of instruction, that represents the motion and instability of the learner’s association with a given mode of content.  In sum, it challenges the extent to which content can be predetermined, objectified, established as permanent, legitimately cut-off from experience, and measured or moderated externally.  And yet, these indeed are the conditions that at least partially describe the present commitment to standardized and high-stakes testing.
     Accordingly, “It is the failure to keep in mind the double aspect of subject-matter which causes the curriculum and child to be set over against each other…” (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 23), such that “[t]he [instructional] material is not translated into life-terms, but is directly offered as a substitute [italics added] for, or an external annex to, the child's present life” (p. 24).  In fact, because of this failure, “[t]hree typical evils result:  In the first place, the lack of any organic connection with what the child has already seen and felt and loved makes the material purely formal and symbolic” (p. 24).  The material becomes, in effect, “not a reality, but just the sign of a reality which might be experienced if certain conditions were fulfilled…” (p. 25).  The “realities” of classroom life, therefore, get replaced by the “symbols” of standardization.  The fact that a school or school district has a system for delivering mandated tests and reporting their scores, and that it has in place therefore a means by which to control and dictate content and teaching method in a publicly visible way, replaces the realities of classroom life, substituting in their place an “image” or “mere representation” by which to judge and presume—to imagine or create—the supposed “(in)effectiveness” of teachers and schools.
     “The second evil in this external presentation is lack of motivation.  There are not only no facts or truths which have been previously felt as such with which to appropriate and assimilate the new, but there is no craving, no need, no demand” (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 25).  Content, within a technology of standardized testing, that inevitably leads to standardized curriculum and instruction, disconnects schooling from the child's innate curiosity; it turns the learner off, so that classroom life becomes phony, senseless, and trivial within the bigger life picture.  Speculatively, one cause for what those who support standardization see as a lack of knowledge on the part of today's young people might be simply that through schooling children are taught not to enjoy, long for, or value learning for its own inherent consequences.  Instead, students(e.g. children)learn because they are made to, and are scared into achieving vis-à-vis the perils of the threatened and threatening alternative consequences.  Subsequently, they develop a viewpoint toward schooling as something negative and of little internal or substantive value, as something one does purely to pass and to succeed within the system: Preparing for tests becomes equated with “real” work: Passing tests becomes the indicator of success and the only legitimate definition of learning.  As one Chicago sixth grader recently stated, “Normally I wouldn't pay much attention because I’d know I could pass without doing much work…. It's not like that now.  I know I've got to study harder and learn so that I can go on to the seventh grade—and life” (Steinberg, 1999, p. A25).  (Note, though, that some Chicago students—the Organized Students of Chicago [OSC-- have indeed had some success in challenging Chicago's Tests of Academic Proficiency [TAP] [see Fair Test, 1999b].)  As Dewey (1902/1956) noted, even “Unpleasant, because meaningless, activities may get agreeable if long enough persisted in.  It is possible for the mind to develop interest in a routine or mechanical procedure if conditions are continually supplied which demand that mode of operation and preclude any other sort[italics added]” (p. 28).
     “The third evil is that even the most scientific matter, arranged in most logical fashion, loses this quality, when presented in external, ready-made fashion, by the time it gets to the child” (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 6).  That is:
It has to undergo some modification in order to shut out some phases too hard to grasp, and to reduce some of the attendant difficulties.  What happens?  Those things which are most significant to the scientific man [sic], and most valuable in the logic of actual inquiry and classification, drop out.  The really thought-provoking character is obscured, and the organizing function disappears….[content] is presented as stuff only for “memory.”  This is the contradiction: the child gets the advantage neither of the adult logical formulation, nor of his [or her] own native competencies of apprehension and response.  (p. 26)
In effect, subject matter, in order to meet such demands as those presented by standardized testing—for example, “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” “objectivity,” “validity,” “reliability”—becomes hypersimplified. Subject matter becomes denatured to the point that it exists only as a collection of mere facts or rote ideas useful only for mechanized storage and retrieval. It becomes information that remains unproblematic and unproblematized,  unassailable and unassailed; it becomes virtual data set to portray and symbolize an absolute Truth.
     Dewey's (1902/1956) solution dwells within his notion of “psychologization,” a process grounded in “the need of reinstating into experience the subject-matter of the studies, or branches of learning” (p. 22).  Here content “must be restored to the experience from which it has been abstracted.  It must be psychologized; turned over, translated into the immediate and individual experience within which it has its origin and significance” (p. 22).  As against the “evils” associated with disconnecting subject-matter from the lived experiences of the learner, Dewey argued that,
The legitimate way out is to transform the material; to psychologize it—that is, once more, to take it and to develop it within the range and scope of the child's life.  But it is easier and simpler to leave it as it is, and then by trick of method to arouse interest, to make it interesting; to cover it with sugar-coating; to conceal its barrenness by intermediate and unrelated material; and finally, as it were, to get the child to swallow and digest the unpalatable morsel while he is enjoying tasting something quite different.  (p. 30)
 But in terms of high-stakes standardized testing, what does all this mean?  Of what relevance is a concept such as psychologization?  Dewey’s assertion was that educators first must realize that subject matter itself be abstracted fundamentally from the experiences of the child.  It must, moreover, be re-internalized and not left hanging lifelessly before the learner as a disconnected and externally created intelligence.  It must not be forced on students as something inherently worthwhile, regardless of its meaning.  In the case of standardized testing, though, the opposite condition occurs.  Content is selected with indifference to the multitude of learner experiences.  It is, further, produced externally, in an identical way for everyone (dismissing, therefore, the potential importance of diversity of experiences).  Meaning indeed is irrelevant, and understanding unimportant.  “Acquire the content for its own sake, and reproduce it on command,” that is the “secret” message of mandated testing.  Induce “achievement” by deceiving students (and parents and teachers?) into accepting the essential gravity and false attractiveness of the subject matter.  Or, better yet, convince the public that meaning and motivation don't matter.
     An alternative, yet critical perspective, rests on a mode of interpretation constructed directly out of and upon Dewey’s (1916/1966) famed delineation of democracy and of democratic education.  From this viewpoint, high-stakes standardized testing represents not only an inadequate method of pedagogy per se, but also a threat to democratic society—that is, a contradiction, an un- or antidemocratic means of preparing children for an engaged democratic social and political life.
     In his monumental work Democracy and Education:  An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey (1916/1966), in some of the best known words in the entire history of Western educational philosophy, presented his construction of democracy.  In pursuing “the democratic ideal,” he wrote that:
The two elements in our criterion both point to democracy.  The first signifies not only more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest, but greater reliance upon the recognition of mutual interests as a factor in social control.  The second means not only freer interaction between social groups (once isolated so far as intention could keep up a separation) but change in social habit—its continuous readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse.  And these two traits are precisely what characterize the democratically constituted society.  (pp. 86-87)
And, most critically (here, Dewey is worth quoting at length):
Upon the educational side, we note first that the realization of a form of social life in which interests are mutually interpenetrating, and where progress, or readjustment, is an important consideration, makes a democratic community more interested than other communities have cause to be in deliberate and systematic education.  The devotion of democracy to education is a familiar fact.  The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.  Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.  But there is a deeper explanation. A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience [italics added].  The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his [or her] own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his [or her] own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men [sic] from perceiving the full import of their activity.  These more numerous and more varied points of contact denote a greater diversity of stimuli to which an individual has to respond; they consequently put a premium on variation in his [or her] action [italics added].  They secure a liberation of powers which remain suppressed as long as incitations to action are partial, as they must be in a group which in its exclusiveness shuts out many interests.  (p. 87)
With respect to mandated standardized testing, Dewey’s understandings yield several critical insights.  Whereas Dewey’s democracy called for “more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest,” mandated standardized testing in fact reduces and limits them, creating a system of “interests” organized around exclusion and not inclusion.  Our potentially real, shared interests become artificial, determined by powerful and peripheral forces, with "their" interests established as “our” interests.  What counts as shared and mutual extends no farther than that which is consistent with, or deemed proper with the context of, the normalized and dominant content.
     Further, standardized testing (and educational standardization period) contradicts the democratic ideals of “freer interaction” and “varied intercourse.”  Standardized testing confines legitimate “interaction” to test-driven teaching and learning.  It reduces meaningful “intercourse” to that which is officially and formally sanctioned.
      Lastly, standardization directly challenges the principles of “greater diversity of stimuli” and “variation in action.”  Such dynamism and difference are destroyed as teachers are forced to follow scripts and teach to the test, and as students acquire the notion that learning means nothing more than achieving “desirable” scores.  In effect, the stimuli are identical, and the actions strikingly the same.  For in effect, the conditions and characteristics of standardized testing contradict those of democracy, leaving instead—in democracy's wake—an institutionalized externally produced mechanism of authoritarian social and intellectual conformity, a regime of “top-down” pedagogical control.  They ignore or dismiss, the imperatives of such critical and limiting factors as time, money, and class size, promoting in the end a privileged individualism over a commitment to collectivity, community, and care.
     Dewey’s concerns with connectivity and meaning, his emphasis on experience and fluidity, his fundamental motivation vis-à-vis a strong and vibrant democratic society, echo throughout the writings of such well known and respected, yet divergent, contemporary educational thinkers as Alfie Kohn (e.g., 1999), Neil Postman (e.g., 1995), and Theodore Sizer (e.g., 1996).  Their calls for deeper and more complex assessments, as well as their criticisms of national and standardized testing schemes, seek to refocus education and schooling toward that which is unrelentingly authentic and meaningful and away from that which is simplistic and robotic.  As each implies, such a reorientation moves US public schooling closer to that which might legitimately be considered significant educational goals; that is, reconsidering standardized testing opens up the possibilities for a profound, rich, and reform-minded countermovement aimed at a more genuine and holistic, democratic and community-based, truly public education.  As Kohn (1999) summarizes:
I do know this: the issue of standardized testing is not reserved for bureaucrats and specialists.  All of us with children need to make it our business to understand just how much harm these tests are doing.  They are not an inevitable part of “life” or even a necessary part of school; they are a relatively recent invention that gets in the way of our kids’ learning.  Their impact is deep, direct, and personal.  Every time we judge a school on the basis of a standardized test score—indeed, every time we permit our children to participate in these mass testing programs—we unwittingly help to make our schools just a little bit worse (p. 73).
Justice and Equality
     A second concern—in addition to the potential threat posed to democratic and authentic pedagogy—emanates from the extent to which high-stakes standardized testing promotes a set of conditions that are at once unjust, unequal, and conforming.  By insisting that legitimate learning necessarily presents itself in and on the basis of test scores, such testing refuses to admit and accept differences (individual as well as cultural) in knowledges, values, experiences, learning styles, economic resources, and access to those dominant academic artifacts that ultimately contribute to both the appearance of achievement and the status of cultural hegemony upon which standards-based reforms depend.  In effect, standardized testing encourages a singular and homogeneous public schooling—one antithetical to such contemporary ideals as diversity, multiculturalism, difference, and liberation—vis-à-vis an underlying and insidious mechanism or technology of oppression, one in which the interests of society’s most powerful (the minority) are privileged at the expense of those of the less powerful (the majority).
 In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, radical Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire (1970) referred memorably to such standardization schemes as “banking” education,  in which schooling
turns [students] into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher…. The more completely [the teacher] fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she [or he] is.  The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are …. Education [thus] becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor… the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits (p. 53).
Moreover, Freire (1970) identified such banking approaches with the fundamental conditions of oppression.  As he wrote:
One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription.  Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness.  Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor (pp. 28-29).
     Freire’s (1970) critique applies neatly to the climate and functionality of current standardization-based pedagogies.  With respect to banking, under such programs students and teachers are held “accountable” only to the extent that they conform to the dictates of high-stakes mandated tests, which, in turn, work to drive (if not outright determine) classroom behavior relative to aim or purpose, content, and teaching method (e.g., Hartocollis, 1999; Libit, 1999a; Steinberg, 1999).
     Even more clearly, perhaps, is the degree to which standards and standards-based reforms represent a case of prescription.  In fact, such systems mirror Freire’s (1970) insights almost to the letter.  Within any complex of educational standards (including standardized tests), some individual or group's decisions are imposed externally on the actual classroom lives of teachers and students.  Over time, the “consciousness of the person prescribed to” merges or “conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” such that “the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior” indeed.  The prescriber(s) choose/s for others, convinces them that the decision is consistent with the totality of all their interests, and then works to ensure (here, via testing) the strict compliance of the prescribed to’s behavior with the initial, test-regulated decision.
     A more recent, yet equally significant framework was established by Iris Marion Young (1992) in her work on “The Five Faces of Oppression.”  Within this view, oppression moves beyond its,
traditional [grounding] in the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group [so as to include also its] new left… designat[ion of] the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power intends to keep them down, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society…. [It] refers to systemic and structural phenomena that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant [but are in fact] part of the basic fabric of a society, not a function of a few people's choices or policies…. Oppression refers to structural phenomena that immobilize or reduce a group…. To be in a… group is to share with others a way of life that defines a person's identity and by which other people identify him or her (pp. 175-177).
For Young, oppression is more subtle, yet actually no less dangerous, than in the settings identified by Freire (1970).  What is oppressive from this perspective is the everyday workings of “the system,” the structure of public education itself, which lies in the tendency of standards-based formats to develop or evolve a life of their own.  Once in place, well-intentioned though it might be, works automatically, if not absolutely, to control the lives of the oppressed (e.g., groups such as teachers, students, and classroom communities), a state of affairs that yields a marginalization effect, a condition of injustice and disadvantage.
     Young (1992) identifies five “faces” or “types” of oppression, recognizing that “each presents its own unique mode or class of oppression whether in the presence or absence of the others” (Vinson, in press).  Specifically, these types or faces include:  (1) exploitation, (2) marginalization, (3) powerlessness, (4) cultural imperialism, and (5) violence.  To the extent that standardization and standardized-testing schemes rely on the use of classroom labor to benefit the (external) powerful (i.e., working teachers and students so that they take the blame for “failure” and various educational “leaders” claim the praise for “success”), there is exploitation.  To the extent that test scores privilege some at the expense of others (e.g., based on relationships of power, race, ethnicity, language, gender, class, and so on), there is marginalization.  To the extent that a majority of teachers and students (not to mention parents) play little if any genuine role in making decisions that significantly affect their lives, there is (undemocratic) powerlessness.  To the extent that standardization fixes knowledge, and represents the experience of dominant groups as “normal” and/or “true,” there is cultural imperialism.  And, lastly, to the extent that testing and its media portrayals result in the reduction of freedom, the expansion of conformity, and the “unprovoked” or unwarranted attack on, or humiliation of, some (less powerful) individuals and groups (e.g., teachers, students, parents, members of less wealthy communities) at the hands of other (more powerful) individuals and groups (e.g., politicians, corporations, the media), there is, in effect, a well-entrenched order of violence.  All in all, whether from a Freirean or a Youngian perspective, standardization and standardized testing are oppressive, and so must at once and forcefully be challenged.
The “Alliance” and School Reform
     What makes the contemporary conditions favoring standardization and high-stakes testing so powerful, and therefore what makes them so difficult to counteract, is the existence of a dominating “liberal-conservative” alliance or consensus advocating vigorously on their behalf (Vinson, 1999).
    More precisely, the actuality is one in which widespread agreement among political and pedagogical “liberals” and “conservatives” sustains the extreme authority of the standards movement (see such “diverse” sources as Hirsch, 1987, 1996; Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 1997; Ravitch, 1995; Ravitch & Finn, 1987; Tucker & Codding, 1998).  In fact, there is at least some support for standardized tests within the official bureaucracy of the federal government and among many individuals within the general “public” (e.g., FairTest, 1999a; Johnson & [with] Duffett, 1999).
     On the one hand, political and pedagogical conservatives (i.e., “neoliberals” and “neoconservatives,” including, among educators, perhaps most famously E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Diane Ravitch) back standardization as a means by which to link the control of “American culture” with the ever-increasing domination of the global economy by US-based multinational corporations.  Ostensibly, though, conservative standards supporters ground their views within the context of “efficient,” “effective,” and “necessary” school “reform.”  As indicated by Ravitch (1995), for example, the conservative agenda argues that:
1.  Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected;
2.  Standards (national, state, and local) are necessary for equality of opportunity;
3.  National standards provide a valuable coordinating function: by providing coherence with respect to the various aspects of education;
4.  There is no reason to have different standards in different states, especially in mathematics and science, when well-developed international standards have already been developed;
5.  Standards and assessments provide consumer protection by supplying accurate information to students and parents;
6.  Standards and assessments serve as an important signaling device to students, parents,  teachers, employers, and colleges.  (pp. 25-27)
On the other hand, the liberal perspective, quite publicly presented in the recent debates over national history standards (e.g., Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 1997), argues simply that standards themselves can assure equal opportunity, diversity, and progressive modes of curricular and instructional practice.  In addition, the effort among liberal educators to “stay ahead of the curve” seeks to preclude non-educators (e.g., politicians, corporate leaders) from taking control of US schooling.  It is, from the liberal view, an opportunity to ward off right-wing ideologies and anachronistic pedagogies.  As Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn (1997) suggest in their history of the national history standards project (in a quote representative of liberal initiatives):
The simple fact [was] that the train was leaving the station.  History standards were clearly on the country's agenda.... The matter boiled down to who would write them.  Those who were at first reluctant about the wisdom of this enterprise soon decided that they might compromise their own best interests if they failed to join in.  If the cards were being dealt, why would historians or social studies educators not want seats around the big table?  (p. 158).
     All in all, the consensus pro-standards position is that:
National curriculum standards… [are] necessary for productive public school reform.  They (liberals and conservatives) agree that today's students do not “know enough,” that they possess too little knowledge (whether defined as facts, skills, understandings, or something else), and that curriculum (and instruction and testing) standards can promote wider and deeper levels of achievement and performance.  Further, they concur that without such a system of standards American students and their schools will continue to “lag behind” those of other industrialized countries.  Liberals and conservatives each envision a (potentially voluntary) structure built upon proactive federal leadership and guidance (and perhaps funding) but under the ultimate control of states and communities.  Lastly, both champion… standards as conducive to and consistent with the advancement of equal educational opportunity (Vinson, 1999, pp. 304-305).
Of course, the pro-standards alliance has received a good bit of criticism, both from the political and pedagogical left and the political and pedagogical right.  Among more radical educators such criticism has argued that by definition standardization systems are anti-democratic, oppressive, and disciplinary (e.g., Vinson, 1999).  Yet significant criticism has come also from more mainstream and well known educators.  As conservative standards supporter Diane Ravitch (1995) summarizes things, at least at the national level, these criticisms have included arguments such as:
1.  National standards will be minimal, reduced to the lowest common denominator, especially if they are controlled by a federal agency;
2.  The government might impose controversial values and opinions;
3.  National standards based on traditional subject matter disciplines such as mathematics, science, and history will narrow the curriculum;
4.  National testing will harm children and will distort priorities in the classroom;
5.  National standards and national tests will do nothing to help poor inner-city schools;
6.  National standards and assessments will not expand equality of opportunity;
7.  National standards and assessments will not improve achievement because most teachers will ignore them and do what they have always done;
8.  The failure of national standards and testing will undermine faith in public education and pave the way for privatization of education;
9.  National standards and assessments will accomplish little by themselves.(pp. 18-25)
Gittell (1998), a cautious liberal advocate of standards, writes that substantive criticism has indeed come from within the entire range of relevant political and pedagogical perspectives.  As she notes, it has been offered by, among others, individuals who:
1.  honor and cherish the tradition of local control of education, particularly at the school district level;
2.  give priority to equity and equitable financing of education;
 3.  focus on the role of the states;
4.  see American federalism as the most effective means of retaining a decentralized and democratic political system;
5.  value and encourage diversity in all aspects of American society;
6.  question the value of the extensive testing in American schools;
 7.  lead [local] school reform efforts;
8.  do not think that foreign school systems are exemplary models of education; and/or
9.  worked on the national history curriculum or the New York social studies proposal, and have faced the wrath of colleagues who disagree with their suggested standards.  (pp. 143-144)
     Overall, though, most existing mainstream critiques lack any commitment to challenging standards and standardization themselves.  According to Vinson (1999):
What these viewpoints share are the understandings that opposition positions (1) represent the entire range of political and pedagogical perspectives (i.e., from the far Left to the far Right), (2) are at least somewhat legitimate and thus deserve to be taken seriously, and (3) can be addressed to their proponents' satisfaction.  Both Ravitch and Gittell believe that these questions, doubts, and challenges can be worked out within the consensus framework.  Neither indicates a real willingness to reconsider the essential position of…standards themselves (p. 306).
What both supporters and critics agree on, is the “fundamental” need for a standards-based system of school reform in which high-stakes testing influences the construction of classroom content and teaching method.  Within such a system, critique is limited only to curriculum and instruction such that the “inherent correctness” of evaluation schemes cannot be challenged (e.g., Hartocollis, 1999).  Criticism focuses on teachers, students, and curriculum workers and what they are doing “wrong”. No thought is given to any possible weaknesses in the testing or to potential flaws in the design and implementation of policy.  (But when things go well, however—when test scores rise—praise is heaped by politicians, policy makers, and the media on politicians, policy makers, and the media, for their “dedication” and “hard work”, for what they are doing “right.”)
     More significant, though, are the effects these mechanisms have on alternative, perhaps more promising, means of school reform.  Since the tests themselves can't be criticized, they can't be “reformed” (see, e.g., these recent and consecutive front page headlines:  “After six years of gains, pupils hit wall on tests”; “State tests still in favor: Md. Officials call for rededication in wake of MSPAP dip; Libit, 1999b, 1999c).  If “poor performance” rests in the hands of teachers, students, and parents, then why take the conditions of class size, planning time, funding, and so forth more seriously?  If “strong performance” resides in policy and policy makers, then why reform policy, or moreover, why pay attention to anything else?  In essence, the liberal-conservative alliance solidifies its own powerful position by limiting meaningful access on the part of opposed-minded critics.  By reducing the avenues of reform, they reduce the possibility that their own privileged positionalities can be challenged.
Educational Needs and Inclusion
 By formalizing and fixing curriculum and instruction, high-stakes standardized testing dismisses several significant points of individual and cultural difference, privileging some yet punishing others.  First, standards and standardized testing favor a proficiency in English over linguistic diversity even when scores are ostensibly based on “knowledge” of some subject matter discipline (e.g., math, history, etc.).  Second, following Gardner (e.g., 1983), they reward the “linguistic” and “logico-mathematical” capacities or “intelligences” at the expense of the other intelligences such as “musical” and “intrapersonal.”  Third, they ignore differences in background and lived experiences.  Lastly, and perhaps most damagingly, they maltreat and injure—quite disproportionately—US schoolchildren of color.  As Kohn (1999) argues (responding to the comments of a certain school administrator whose children attended private schools):
He seemed to think the traditional approach to education, including a heavy diet of standardized testing, is for other people's children—and, as it turns out, particularly children of color.  Even apart from charges that some standardized tests are biased against minorities because of the content, such tests—with all the implications for teaching they carry—are more likely to be used and emphasized in schools with higher percentages of minority students.  The result is that even people who are understandably desperate to improve inner-city schools wind up making the problem worse when they cause reform efforts to be framed in terms of improving standardized test scores (p. 92).
When utilized within increasingly racist, anti-immigrant, and nationally-chauvinistic settings, such conditions become even more terribly unjust, if not pathetically tragic (e.g., Ross, 1999b).
Summary and Conclusions: Resistance and Authenticity
 As we have argued, the current movement toward high-stakes, mandated, and standardized testing fails on a number of levels.  Such testing, for example, implicates US schools in a system of antidemocratic and inauthentic pedagogy.  It promotes a schematics of injustice, oppression, and inequality, privileging hyperindividualization at the expense of the community good.  It impedes real reform, and ultimately pleases only the powerful few, laying blame on teachers and students (as well as parents), and praising the “dedication” of elites.  At heart, in Kohn’s (1999) memorable words, the widespread use of standardized tests “make[s] our schools just a little bit worse” (p. 73).  And so we must face the question of what to do.  From our perspective, the demands of a genuinely public education necessitate a renewed resistance to standardization and a drive for the more authentic.
     In “Resisting Test Mania,” E. Wayne Ross (1999a) indicates several modes and mechanisms by which such a revitalized resistance to standardization might work.  As a starting point, or building block, he takes the position that standardization—“tougher” academic standards and formalized testing—“gets a number of things wrong” (p. 126).  As he states:
[First], it gets student motivation wrong.  The emphasis on testing in schools promotes anxiety and a preoccupation with test scores that often undermines students' interest in learning and desire to be challenged.
Second, tests drive curriculum and instruction in ways that harm children.  Time spent on test preparation and administration cuts into time for teaching and learning; and children internalize judgments as if tests were the final arbiter of one's potential or worth.  On the basis of test scores, children are denied access to learning opportunities through tracking, retained in grade, and may be denied a diploma, regardless of what they know or can do in authentic life situations.
Third, standardized tests demand more standardization of curriculum—tighter control of what goes on in the classroom by people who are not there.  Standards and tests are designed to promote a particular and singular view of truth, knowledge, and learning.
The bottom-line is that high-stakes testing is not effective in increasing achievement and higher test scores do not necessarily mean better schools [italics added].  (p. 126)
     And yet, as Ross (1999a) continues, in a number of states and local school districts standardization regimes have been successfully challenged or turned back by the efforts of engaged and concerned parents, students, educators, and community activists.  But how?
     Ross (1999a) demonstrates the potential of an array of organized protests and demonstrations to counter the “successes” of standardization.  These include:     As Ross (1999a) concludes, however, such resistance is not without risks.  They require both courage and support, as often participating teachers face threats of dismissal or lawsuit, students the pressures of failing grades, retention, and/or withheld diplomas, and community members the fear of harassment and/or costly legal action.
    In addition to organized resistance, though, anti- or counter-standardization demands making a commitment to an education that takes seriously the conditions of authenticity as well as the problematics of high-stakes testing.  In the words of Sandra Mathison (1997), we must move away from “tests and measurements” and toward “assessment” (p. 213).  For as she suggests, “Tests and measurements are created outside schools, edicts to be adopted by teachers and schools, an idea out of synch with the contemporary views of teaching as a profession, one which should rightly be controlled by teachers, not psychometricians” (p. 213).  According to Mathison, “Assessment… is an activity that may use tests and measurement, but relies more on the idea of tests as a means of trying out, and it demands less faith in the exactitude of the measurement resulting from that test…. These qualifications suggest that assessments involve an inexact measurement, but also include nonnumerical qualitative indicators” (p. 214).  Further, “Assessment… implies a relationship between the assessor and the assessed…involve[s] the student in substantive ways, and [is] not [a] solitary act performed by them” (p. 214).  Citing Wiggins, Mathison argues that assessment “is something we do ‘with’ and ‘for’ the student, not something we do ‘to’ the student” (p. 215).
    For Mathison (1997), “authenticity” provides an important goal of meaningful assessment.  Here authentic assessments are those which are based on “performances,” and have both “meaning in school contexts [and] more general meaning or value, especially in lived experience contexts” (p. 218).  Standardized testing, for example, displays what little meaning or value it may have only within the contexts of schooling itself.  And yet, as Mathison notes, changing the dominant modes and mechanisms of evaluation in US schooling is not easy, and it requires that educators and interested community members face a range of serious dilemmas, including:
1.    State/national versus local control;
2.  Adding on versus reformulation;
3.  Limited resources versus accomplishing the ideal;
4.  Disciplines/activities versus goals/objectives;
5.  Political versus technical solution[s]  (p. 224).
Mathison’s critique, of course, applies and must be extended beyond simply a renunciation of “objective,” forced-response (e.g., multiple choice) test items, and as she implies, must be understood within the current contextual emphasis on “performance-based assessments” and the rather behavioristic effort on the part of many educational leaders to standardize those as well (see, for example, the standards-based reform/performance-based system established vis-à-vis the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP).
     In many ways, the story of testing is still evolving, and remains in fact incomplete.  A lot has been said recently about the potential promises and problematics of both standardized testing and more meaningful modes of assessment.  While educators such as Monty Neill (1999) have warned against the misuse of tests, still others (e.g., Alleman & Brophy, 1999) have pointed out the “changing nature” of assessment and sought to explore its possible and nascent good.  We applaud this renewed interest, yet recognize the need for further reflection and action.  One starting point exists in the work of those who, like the members of the Whole Schooling Consortium (Peterson, Beloin, & Gibson, 1998), have promoted a more holistic and community-based reform that challenges the very heart of widespread efforts to standardize.  In brief, the exemplar principles of whole-schooling, those upon which a counter-standardization movement might progress, aim to: In the end, it comes down to a question about the purpose of public schooling and its role in a democratic society, about what we want for our children and their futures.  Do we as citizens, as educators, parents, and caring members of society, value a strict and disciplinary conformity “an external control of knowledge” or do we instead accept the imperatives of freedom, equality, diversity, opportunity, and justice?  Within the context of an evolving US society and system of public schools, we must come down on the side of authenticity and in favor of a resistance to the domination of our children, and the control of what counts as truth, by external wielders of cultural, economic, social, and political power.
    Do we, in the end, reinforce and reproduce the conditions of the status quo—hierarchical conditions of power and inequality—or do we seek to change them in a way consistent with the democratic ideals of justice, opportunity, and caring?
    Shall our children remain simply pawns in a game of coercion, or should they be treated as persons, learning to assume the rights and responsibilities of collective and broad-based democracy?  The forces of standardization reign, yet are not the inevitable victors.  For in many ways they stand poised in an ever-weakening and defensive position.  We seek only to build on that snippet of possibility, on the hope and optimism that must in the end ground any effort toward a meaningful school reform, including the evolution of a truly public system of democratic and inclusive schools.

 Alleman, J., & Brophy, J.  (1999).  The changing nature and purpose of assessment in the social studies.  Social Education, 63, 334-337.
 Dewey, J.  (1966).  Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education.  New York: Free Press.  (Original work published 1916)
 Dewey, J.  (1956).  The child and the curriculum/The school and society.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.  (Original works published 1902 & 1899)
 FairTest/The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.  (1999a).  Federal standards for standardized tests.  Examiner, 13(3), 1, 4-5.
FairTest/The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.  (1999b).  Students stop test misuse.  Examiner, 13(3), 7.
Freire, P.  (1970).  Pedagogy of the oppressed.  New York:  Continuum.
Gardner, H.  (1983).  Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences.  New York: Basic Books.
 Gittell, M.  (1998).  National standards threaten local vitality.  In A. Digby (Ed.), Perspectives: Education.  Boulder, CO:  Coursewise Publishing.  (Reprinted from The Clearing House, 69[3], pp. 148-150, M. Gittell, 1996)
 Hartocollis, A.  (1999, November 6).  Eighth graders fail 2 New York tests: Questions raised on quality of curriculum in the city.  The New York Times, pp. A1, A14.
 Hirsch, E. D., Jr.  (1987).  Cultural literacy:  What every American needs to know.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.
 Hirsch, E. D., Jr.  (1996).  The schools we need and why we don't have them.  New York: Doubleday.
 Johnson, J., & [with] Duffett, A.  (1999).  Standards and accountability: Where the public stands (A report from Public Agenda for the 1999 National Education Summit).  New York: Public Agenda and Achieve, Inc.  Available [on-line]:
 Kohn, A.  (1999).  The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tougher standards.”  Houghton Mifflin: Boston and New York.
 Libit, H.  (1999a, November 29).  Schools’ failures riding on results of statewide tests.  The Sun (Baltimore, MD), pp. 1A, 4A.
 Libit, H.  (1999b, December 2).  After six years of gains, pupils hit wall on tests.  The Sun (Baltimore, MD), pp. 1A, 18A.
 Libit, H.  (1999a, December 3).  State tests still in favor.  The Sun (Baltimore, MD), pp. 1A, 21A.
 Mathison, S. (1997).  Assessment in social studies: Moving toward authenticity.  In E. W. Ross (Ed.), The social studies curriculum: Purposes, problems, and possibilities.  Albany:  SUNY Press.
 Nash, G. B., Crabtree, C., & Dunn, R. E.  (1997).  History on trial: Culture wars and the teaching of the past.  New York:  Knopf.
 Neill, M.  (1999).  Stop misusing tests to evaluate teachers.  Social Education, 63, 330-332.
 Peterson, M., Beloin, K., & Gibson, R.  (1998).  Whole schooling: Education for a democratic society.  Available [on-line]: index.htm.
 Postman, N.  (1995).  The end of education: Redefining the value of school.  New York: Vintage Books.
 Ravitch, D.  (1995).  National standards in American education: A citizen’s guide.  Washington, DC:  Brookings.
 Ravitch, D., & Finn, C. E., Jr.  (1987).  What do our 17-year-olds know?  A report on the first national assessment of history and literature.  New York: Harper & Row/Perennial Library.
 Ross, E. W.  (1999a).  Resisting test mania.  Theory and Research in Social Education, 27, 126-128.
 Ross, E. W.  (1999b).  What is to be done in the aftermath of proposition 187?  Theory and Research in Social Education, 27, 292-295.
 Sizer, T. R.  (1996).  Horace’s hope: What works for the American high school.  Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books.
 Steinberg, J.  (1999, November 26).  Teachers in Chicago schools follow script from day 001.  The New York Times, pp. A1, A25.
 Tucker, M. S., & Codding, J. B.  (1998).  Standards for our schools: How to set them, measure them, and reach them.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.
 Vinson, K. D.  (1999).  National curriculum standards and social studies education: Dewey, Freire, Foucault, and the construction of a radical critique.  Theory and Research in Social Education, 27, 296-328.
 Vinson, K. D.  (in press).  Oppression, anti-oppression, and citizenship education.  In E. W. Ross (Ed.), The social studies curriculum: Purposes, problems, and possibilities (2nd ed.).  Albany:  State University of New York Press.
 Young, I. M.  (1992).  Five faces of oppression.  In T. E. Wartenberg (Ed.), Rethinking power (pp. 174-195).  Albany:  State University of New York Press.

Kevin D. Vinson is Assistant Professor of Education and Coordinator of Graduate Programs in Curriculum and Instruction at Loyola College in Maryland. His scholarship focuses on social studies education and curriculum studies. His articles have appeared in Theory and Research in Social Education, The Social Studies, and Social Education.

Rich Gibson is an associate professor at San Diego State University. His field is international social studies education. He has published articles in a variety of journals including Theory and Research in Social Education, Cultural Logic, The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, and Race Traitor.

E. Wayne Ross is Associate Professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He has written numerous articles on issues of curriculum and teacher education and
edited several books, including Democratic Social Education: Social Studies for Social Change (Falmer Press, 2000).

All three authors are member of the Rouge Forum, a group of educators, parents, students, and others working for a democratic society (


Good resources for learning more about testing:

News from the Dewey Project

Welcome to new John Dewey Project staffer:
Susan Ohanian is a longtime teacher and freelance writer whose articles have appeared in periodicals ranging from The Atlantic and The Nation to The American School Board Journal and Education Week. Ohanian is the author of more than a dozen books including One Size Fits Few: The Folly of
Educational Standards (Heinemann 1999).  Her new book, Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum (Heinemann 2001), recounts ten years working with 7th and 8th graders in an urban setting. Susan says that
these children are the reason she has devoted the last two years to fighting standards and high stakes testing. "We cannot throw out kids because they resist a traditional college prep curriculum."
Ohanian's most recent articles are "You Say Stakeholder; I say Robber Baron" in Language Arts, November 2000 and "News from the Resistance Trail," Phi Delta Kappan, January 2001.
    After some twenty years teaching, Ohanian moved to Vermont in pursuit of a quiet writing life in an idyllic setting. She reports, "I can look at Lake Champlain from my study window. But I am never home. As the resistance against crazy tests grows, so do requests for help. Resistance has overtaken my life. From the steps of the capitol in Denver to meetings of parents in Washington D.C., I am proud to be associated with the passionate and committed people who are fighting to make schools respond to children's needs."
    We welcome Susan aboard.  She will be working with the Dewey Project as a media consultant and research associate, and will be helping to organize a spring “summit” of progressive education leaders.

Kathleen Kesson, Director of JDPPE, is on sabbatical from her position as Director of Teacher Education at Goddard College.  She is spending the month of January in India and in England, where she is doing staff development with the international Krishnamurti Schools.  When she returns, she will be working on a new book with Jim Henderson tentatively entitled Curriculum Wisdom: Educating for Democratic Intelligence.  Kathleen has two book chapters coming out this spring.  “On the Need for a New Theory of Experience” (with Donald Oliver) will appear in Curriculum Visions, by William Doll and Noel Gough (Peter Lang Press), and “Contemplative Spirituality, Currere, and Social Transformation: Finding our ‘Way’” will appear in Educational Yearning: Journey of the Spirit and Democratic Education, by Dennis Carlson and Tom Oldenski (SUNY Press).

Chris Koliba has just completed Year One of a multi-year research project on education, democracy and the relationship between schools and their communities. This research has been generously funded through a grant from the Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation, Inc.  Look for a monograph this spring on the research results to date.  Chris recently had an article published (with Kerryann O’Meara and Bob Siedel) in the NSEE Quarterly, entitled “Social Justice Principles for Experiential Learning.”

Gustavo Teran spent the winter break in Oaxaca, co-teaching a University of Vermont course entitled “Political Ecologies of Globilization: Cultural Autonomy and Alternative Education in Oaxaca, Mexico”. The field based course examines the cultural politics of education and sustainable development in indigenous and campesino communities of Oaxaca, Mexico. Students examined various community-based initiatives including ecotourism, bicultural and “vernacular” education. Students also examined how communities in the coastal lowlands respond to challenges arising from natural resource depletion, environmental degradation, tourism and migration.
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