On Test Scores and Poverty

fdr lbj mlkTo understand how unique our current historical moment is, and in particular, how much powerful corporate interests have seized control of BOTH political parties, ask yourself the following questions:.

  • When FDR spoke of a third of a nation “ill-housed, ill clothed, and ill-fed,” did he identify raising student test scores as a major component of his program to heal a wounded nation?
  • When LBJ launched the anti-poverty program, did low test scores of young people living in poverty represent a major target of the programs he initiated?.
  • When Dr King unveiled his idea for the “Poor People’s Campaign,” was poor performance on tests among the nation’s poor a central subject of his rhetoric?

The very posing of these questions moves us into the realm of absurdity—yet in state after state, and in the US Department of Education, “closing the achievement gap”—i.e. raising the test scores of students in poor communities—is lauded as the civil rights cause of our time and the one sure-fire method to reduce inequality in a society where every other policy seems to maximize it.

Do current policy makers know something that FDR, LBJ and Dr. King didn’t, or is the egalitarian rhetoric underlying their obsession with raising student test scores disingenuous and self-deluded?

While I cannot pretend to know what policy makers, in their heart of hearts, really think, I do know this—that since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, child poverty has skyrocketed, the concentration of wealth at the top of the society has grown, the prison-industrial complex has expanded, and the gap in college admission and retention between poor and wealthy students has expanded.

mark naisonAnd as for schools, we see the wealthy sending their children to private schools with few tests and a huge emphasis on the arts—and the poor and the rapidly shrinking middle class sending their children to schools that are stripped-down test factories with beaten down and demoralized teachers. This is the ugly reality that the flowery rhetoric of inclusion hides.

If narrowing the achievement gap is an anti-poverty strategy, it is the single most ineffective such strategy in modern America History.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent

Saturday, 17 August 2013


  1. Eric K says

    The New Common Core being forced into schools is only going to make matters worst. We need to raise our standards in our schools. The America education system has fail. We should look to other countries on how they are successful.

  2. Chris Stampolis says

    One is not going to diversify the ranks of medical doctors,
    engineers, computer programmers, educational administrators, teachers,
    lawyers, architects, social workers, etc., until we significantly
    increase the percentage of diverse-background students who earn graduate
    degrees. And one doesn’t get to graduate school without successful
    entry pathways, starting in elementary school There is an achievement
    gap. And though the gap is shrinking incrementally in some communities –
    bit-by-bit – our society has not yet committed to a systematic, focused
    pathway from poverty to professional positions. It’s utter silliness
    to expect that elimination of standardized testing will result in more
    college degrees years from now for students of poverty and/or
    English-as-a-second-language challenges. Yes, Arts matter. And Math
    matters. And Civics/History/Social Studies matter. And Reading and
    Writing matter…..And proficiency matters.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District

    • JoeWeinstein says

      Yes, proficiency matters. Occasional tests can – if intelligently used – help evaluate and then trigger help for a young person’s proficiency strengths and weaknesses. But who is being helped by tests whose purpose is to determine how ‘proficient’ is an entire abstract institution, a school? What counts are not ‘good schools’ and ‘proficient’ institutions but good and proficient individual people.

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