Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
reviewed by Barry Gold - 2002
Title: Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
Author(s): Linda M. McNeil
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415920736 , Pages: 304 , Year: 2000
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The unveiling of President George W. Bush's education reform plan on January 23, 2001 elevated Linda M. McNeil's Contradictions of School Reform from supplemental to required reading for every person interested in education in America. This is because McNeil's excellent study describes, dissects, and explains the effect of the implementation of similar education reforms in Houston, Texas from their inception in 1982 under the guidance of H. Ross Perot through George W. Bush's years as the governor of Texas. As a result, McNeil's research provides a preview of the possible effects of Bush's national educational reform proposals on America's schools.
As in Texas, the centerpiece of the Bush administration plan focuses on creating teacher and school accountability through standardized student testing. "Putting accountability first," proclaims a Wall Street Journal editorial that approves of Bush's educational reform plan because it addresses the needs of the 21st century work force,
will now force the debate to come to grips with a stark reality, namely that public schools, no matter how high-flown their intended purpose, are at bottom public bureaucracies, which by now have shown themselves to be the American institution least amenable to reforms of the sort that have already occurred throughout the private sector (January 25, 2001).
Toward the end of the 2000 presidential campaign questions were raised about the extent of improvement in student achievement on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, but little was revealed about the effects of the test on the classroom behavior of teachers and students. Regardless of what the test scores actually were, the impression was created that educational reform in Texas had made schools accountable. Because educational and organization reforms usually have multiple outcomes, it is important to know if any additional changes occurred in the public education bureaucracies--schools--as a result of institutionalized accountability through standardized testing.
McNeil's study began as an investigation of three magnet high schools in Houston to understand conditions that produce authentic education. Established as part of the desegregation of Houston's school system, each school had a specific theme, for example, medical or technology education, students volunteered to attend the schools and were screened for admission, and teachers voluntarily transferred to them. In other words, they had a mandate to be innovative. McNeil's data indicates that as intended, despite obstacles--notably lack of material resources--the magnet schools developed an educational climate that engaged teachers and students in authentic education.
McNeil's detailed account clearly shows that the consequences of educational reform in Texas--particularly high stakes standardized testing--produced the unintended consequences of de-skilling teachers and redefining the education in inner city schools to focus on standardized test taking. This dismantled authentic education and created classrooms in which teachers and students colluded to create lowered educational expectations. In addition, the use of standardized tests to evaluate students and teachers increased the inequities between poor and affluent schools; extended test preparation substituted for genuine curriculum in inner city schools but not in suburbs. Finally, instead of reforming the school bureaucracy as originally intended, the reforms centralized power in the bureaucracy.
These findings are critical of the Texas reforms and, because they are largely the same, of the current Bush administration's proposed reforms. However, McNeil's selection of magnet schools for study--the introduction of the reforms recast her research in mid-stream to focus on the effects of standardized tests--probably heightened the negative impact of the reforms by forcing atypically creative inner city schools that had achieved authentic education to conform to a one-size-fits-all reform.
A critical issue then that McNeil's book does not address in depth is the effect of standardized testing on non-specialized, low performing, inner city schools that serve poor minority children. The test case for the Bush administration's policies, or any other educational reform, will be improvement of typical or "failing" inner city schools.
Findings from my research on a complex long-term reform effort of inner city elementary schools support McNeil's conclusion that standardized curriculum and particularly high stakes tests alter teaching and learning. Encouraged by administrators, who are under intense pressure to increase student test scores, beginning in September teachers teach to the test that is administered in April. Fourth grade--the year the test is administered--focuses on test preparation often with the extensive use of cram books. Coupled with a state curriculum that is aligned to the test, the result is to eliminate excitement and relevance from the curriculum and instead emphasize the painfulness of education based on incessant drill.
But despite these problematic outcomes the difference between NcNeil's study and my study is that standardized tests and accountability are successful to a limited extent because in many cases they improve classroom practices that did not provide authentic education before the arrival of state mandated testing. To illustrate this, in addition to the introduction of standardized tests these schools are required to implement a classroom management technique that emphasizes constructivist practices and student autonomy. Most teachers resist the new techniques because they conflict with their previous teacher-centered behavior that relies on drill and rote learning. Although these teachers find many flaws in standardized tests, nevertheless, the tests are congruent with their preference for drill, focus on teaching basic skills, and fit their idea of what good teaching is for poor minority inner city children.
Standardized testing narrows the curriculum, de-skills teachers, and reproduces dysfunctional classroom behavior but, by providing specific focus and clear learning goals, may improve teaching in schools where rote learning and teacher control is already present. This is not advocacy for increasing drill and rote learning to meet test standards. It suggests that the issues in many inner city schools are more complex than those faced by McNeil's magnet schools. An important issue is that if standardized testing coupled with teacher accountability eventually improves test scores--which is likely--it will be reinforced and intensified. Instead of meaningful reform, a pedagogy that has not worked well in the past can become re-legitimated and institutionalized.
Ultimately, the Bush administration's educational reform proposals and how McNeil's research on their impact on education in Texas are viewed, depends on understandings of the functions of education in a post-modern democratic capitalist society. Should the aim of education be, in the mock anti-elitist language of the Wall Street Journal, "high-flown," or to supply capable workers socialized into the corporate ethos through the efficient and accountable administration of educational bureaucracies?
Conflicts over education reform and the meaning of education will intensify because, as McNeil's research indicates, the Bush administration's intentions toward education are exceptionally clear. Unfortunately, beyond the presumed increase in test scores the outcomes of the Texas reforms are not widely known. If citizens who expect education to exceed the goal of having students perform well on standardized tests do not resist simplistic reforms and fail to provide viable alternatives, before too long the experiences of Texas will pervade the public education system of the United States of America.