Objectifying Measures: The Dominance of High-Stakes Testing and the Politics of Schooling
reviewed by Kara S. Finnigan - November 30, 2009
Title: Objectifying Measures: The Dominance of High-Stakes Testing and the Politics of Schooling
Author(s): Amanda Walker Johnson
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1592139051, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
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As the debate about high-stakes accountability policies, including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), becomes widespread, stopping to consider the statistical discourse that comprise these debates, as well as the underlying politics guiding this discourse is worthwhile. Amanda Walker Johnson attempts to do just that in her recent book, Objectifying Measures: The Dominance of High-Stakes Testing and the Politics of Schooling. Focusing on high-stakes testing policies in Texas, particularly those requiring students to take a standardized test to be promoted or graduate, Johnson argues that the statistical discourse around these tests objectifies students, reducing them to numbers to manipulate. Johnsons purpose in writing this ethnographic study is to examine the historical and political context of the testing movement in Texas, as well as consider the forms of knowledge production that serve to reinforce the testing regime.
As an anthropologist, Johnson provides a distinct perspective on this topic. She contends that her goal was to become politically involved in the events, themselves, as a way of conducting an activist anthropology. This work involved informal interviews with teachers and school staff in Austin, members of civil rights organizations, and employees of the Texas Education Agency, as well as media reviews of newspapers, documents, websites, and television broadcasts relating to testing. In addition, Johnsons study involved participant observations including attending political rallies and volunteering in a state legislators office each week for the duration of the 78th legislative session of 2003. Her internship provided her with access to important events and stakeholders as she attended House Public Education Committee meetings, for example, and met with lobbyists.
Johnson provides a very personal account of her experiences with these events as they unfold in Texas. Through her use of autoethnography, the book serves as both memoir and academic text as she describes her involvement in this policy context while also drawing heavily upon key theorists, such as Foucault and Gramsci. She begins the book by discussing the impact on her of an individual story or narrative of a student she tutored who had failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) twice. This opening helps the reader understand her motivation in conducting this study as she argues that narratives are important tools to use as a counter-discourse to statistics.
Johnson begins with a detailed account of the racial political context in Texas. She describes how the testing movement emerged from this context, particularly desegregated schooling, as proponents argued for minimum competency tests in the 1980s (Texas Education Assessment of Minimum Skills) and later more difficult tests (both the TAAS and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS) after a court case requiring finance equity. Important to this history is the legal challenge by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and resulting decision in favor of the Texas Education Agency and testing regime. In outlining the key events, she focuses on the realignment of the Republican party as part of the evolution of this testing movement. Much of her book centers around the attempt by a state legislator to pass a multiple criteria bill that would decrease the high stakes of testing by including portfolios, grades, and teacher evaluations in addition to standardized tests in determining graduation and promotion decisions.
The strength of this book is in Johnsons detailed discussion of how the discourse around testing marginalizes students of color, as well as the thorough account of the political players, including the for-profit testing companies and conservatives who support the privatization of schooling. Johnson argues that statistics are used by the government to commodify what counts as truth and reproduce power relations. She highlights the ways in which statistics created a type of panic among the public, as well as defined the collective will through the use of polling. Johnson uncovers some of the socio-economic patterns relating to testing that she says results in a type of naturalization of inequality. Finally, she provides an interesting examination of a number of statistical constructs, including standard error of measurement, validity, and correlation, pointing out the political uses of these tools and ways in which their results promoted a language of failure regarding the performance of students of color.
Johnson argues that her own statistical subjectivity allowed her and the proponents of the multiple criteria bills to create a counterdiscourse using both statistics and narratives to oppose high-stakes testing. This argument regarding the use of statistics as a mode of resistance deserves further attention, however, given her prior argument around the ways in which statistical discourse dehumanizes students. As she points out, statistics were a significant aspect of the lobbying points used in support of the multiple-criteria bills. How, then, is this different from her view that the well-meaning White expert with ties to civil rights organizations used charts as a reduction of Blackness? While she admits her discomfort with this, she does not fully reconcile this contradiction, raising questions about whether it is appropriate to use numbers for a worthwhile cause.
Relative to the arguments around the negative aspects of the statistical discourse, I expected a more fully developed account of the use of narrative to counter this discourse. Johnson argues that narratives were used as rallying points for the multiple-criteria bills without discussing the ways in which these stories joined groups together in support or strengthened the commitment of certain groups. She notes in the introduction her interest in having this study be useful for activists and yet without more details regarding the uses of these narratives, her message was unclear. Furthermore, the book would have benefited from additional attention to the complicated issues she uncovers around the use of stories by supporters of the voucher bill brought forward during this same time period, and why she considered their efforts to be staging rather than what she considered the more authentic use in the case of the multiple-criteria bills. Given her focus on the politics of testing, I would have liked for her to delve more deeply into the reasons why two of the major teacher organizations did not support the multiple-criteria bills. Finally, Johnson expressed surprise regarding the support of some African Americans and Latinos for the voucher bill, suggesting limited knowledge of the history of school choice advocacy coalitions across the country.
Despite these weaknesses, Objectifying Measures is a thought-provoking book which calls important attention to the subjectivity of the tests that are intended to provide an objective measurement of student learning, as well as the underlying politics of high-stakes testing. Her attention to these issues comes at a critical time given the upcoming reauthorization of NCLB.