The outrageous and incalculably damaging reality of testing students every single year — extraordinary from a worldwide perspective, in fact virtually unheard of for students below high school age — continues in ESSA. Annual testing is something we’ve been conditioned to accept and even to view as tolerable compared to the reality of multiple tests a year, what with benchmark exams in between the other exams, districts piling on with their own assessments, new Common Core tests, and so on. Far from challenging this reality, the law that President Obama just signed cements it into place. And beyond the issue of how often they’re administered, standardized tests — still yoked to overly prescriptive, top-down standards — remain the primary way by which kids, teachers, and schools are going to be assessed.
Conservatives, in effect, have been saying to the federal government, “We demand that you stop imposing your terrible standards and tests on our communities. It’s the states’ job to destroy critical thinking and curiosity, and we’ll do that with our terrible standards and tests, thank you very much.” If you’re a teacher, it may not make much difference if oppressive dictates originate in Washington, D.C., the state capital, or even the district office. The point is still that your skills as a professional educator, and the unique interests and needs of a particular group of kids, don’t count for much. ESSA remains the Eternal Standardization of Schooling Act.
The new law not only mandates annual testing — and tries to counter parental efforts to opt out their children (by demanding 95 percent participation in those tests) — but offers as a definition of failure the “lowest-performing 5 percent of all schools.” A relative definition like that sets up education as a contest, guaranteeing that, no matter how well everyone does, some schools will always be classified as inadequate. The menu of interventions threatened for “failing” schools, moreover, is depressingly familiar: taking them over, turning them into charters, and so on.
If you’re willing to wade through nearly 400 pages of legislative language, you’ll find any number of other wince-worthy provisions. ESSA encourages the use of computer adaptive testing, which is welcome news mostly to companies that sell that technology. It opens the door to privately funded “Pay for Success” initiatives similar to Goldman Sachs’ money-making preschool schemein Utah. And it endorses non-university “school leader preparation academies.”
But, again, the problem isn’t limited to particular stipulations. The point is that, even with more authority re-devolving to the states, the broader foundations of what has been the educational status quo in America for a generation are allowed to continue and in some cases are actively perpetuated: the creep toward privatization, the traditional approaches to pedagogy and curriculum, the bribe-and-threat manipulation of educators and children, and, above all, the reliance on standardized testing. For worse and for worse, the heart of NCLB lives on.
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