Firmly embedded in the mix of prescriptions for curing the crisis widely presumed to exist in America's educational system are standardized tests. The tests themselves are not offered as a solution; they actually enjoy a status above that of any particular solution. We may debate the various educational proposals, but the need for testing is generally considered beyond debate. How else can we know the extent of the problem and the success or failure of the remedies unless we use a common standard?On the strength of this argument, or more accurately, this assumption, standardized testing increasingly determines not just the fate of individual students but the funding of entire schools. But with the proliferation of tests has also come a growing doubt about their appropriateness. Alfie Kohn's The Case Against Standardized Testing is a handbook for parents, teachers, and students who have felt there was something wrong with the trend, but may not have known exactly what -- or what to do about it if they did know.
The first thing that Kohn -- a former teacher who has written widely on the subject -- objects to is the inevitable tendency to "teach to the test." Some standardized exams, like the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, have been around so long as to seem just a natural part of the academic landscape. (While I was writing this review, a high school English classroom in which I substitute-taught contained the videotape, Six Steps to SAT Success, and the book, Test-Taking Strategies: Reading, Language and Vocabulary for California High School Students.") But as standardized testing has insinuated itself more broadly, people have started to pay more attention to its educational impact.
Kohn tells of a Cambridge, Massachusetts middle school teacher who used to have her students select an activity that interested them, learn everything they could about it, and report on it to the class -- an exercise that afforded each student the possibility of shining while also providing them an opportunity to figure out how -- and why -- to learn for themselves. But now she has felt compelled to scrap these research projects in the face of the greater obligation to cover what's "going to be on the test."
Of course, some tests are worse than others. On one end we have mathematics, which many may consider a reasonable subject for assessment, and at the other, we have writing. Kohn notes that "It's easier to get agreement on whether a semicolon has been used correctly than on whether an essay represents clear thinking." And yet each year many thousands of test-takers will write essays which "in many states are not evaluated by educators; they are shipped off to a company in North Carolina where low-paid temp workers spend no more than two or three minutes reading each one."
One thing Kohn allows that standardized tests actually do well is to reflect the economic backgrounds of the groups that take them: "Break down the test takers by income, measured in $10,000 increments, and without exception the scores rise with each jump in parents' earnings." And what about the children of families with earnings that are but small multiples of $10,000? And, in particular, what about the children of black America, where low test scores faithfully mirror low economic status?
Bob Moses has an answer to that problem. He has founded something called the Algebra Project to teach math to mostly black middle school students, an effort he sees as a continuation of civil rights work that he started in Mississippi in 1961. Radical Equations is an unusual, largely autobiographical combination of the two stories.
Although Moses never gained the fame of others like Stokely Carmichael or Julian Bond (in fact, he's often confused with the highway-building Robert Moses of Robert Caro's The Powerbroker), many people will tell you that in the Southern voter-registration efforts of the early 1960s, Moses was the man. Certainly, he walked the walk. In 1963, he "was targeted in a machine-gun ambush outside of Greenwood. Instead of hitting me, one of the thirteen bullets that penetrated our car smashed into the neck of the Tougaloo student Jimmy Travis who was driving and lodged half an inch from his spine."
When Herbert Lee joined up with Moses' voter-registration efforts in Amrite County, he was shot by a white state legislator with whom he had played as a child. "Lee's body, dying and finally dead, lay on the ground for two hours with Blacks afraid to touch it and whites refusing to." After the funeral, Lee's widow turned to Moses and an associate and, "in bitter accusing tones [said], 'You killed my husband! You killed my husband!' I had no answer. ... If we hadn't gone into Amrite to organize, Herbert Lee wouldn't have been killed. I was sure of that." The legislator was never charged with the murder.
Eventually, Moses and others would take their fight to the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in an effort to claim the seats then occupied by the state's segregationist regulars in the name of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey would tell them that "The President will not allow that illiterate woman [civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer] to speak from the floor of the convention." But through it all, Moses believed "the civil rights movement of the 1960s was less about challenges and protests against white power than feeling our way toward our own power and possibilities."
Subsequently Moses taught in Africa, where he went in part due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and came back to the study of mathematics. While earning his Ph.D. in math from Harvard, he grappled with teaching math to his own daughter. His prime influences in developing the Algebra Project -- which has now spread to 25 cities -- were a math professor named Willard Van Orman Quine and a fourteen-year-old struggling math student named Ari (a relationship he goes into in the book's appendix). Few people can encompass that range of study, but then Moses didn't win a MacArthur "genius grant" for nothing. Plus, he has always agreed with what Ella Baker, one of his civil rights movement heroines, used to say: "Cast down your bucket where you are."
So, forty years later, Moses is back in Mississippi teaching math. Why math? Partially because he thinks that math literacy is crucial for economic success in the future, and partially to take advantage of "the national consensus in favor of educating all children well" that he contrasts with "the absence of such a consensus on health care."
Of course, while almost all may agree on the need for educational improvement, far fewer are in touch with the current realities of the problem. Charles Cobb worked with Moses in the '60s. It was his car that "freedom riders" Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman drove on the night they were murdered. He's been around. And yet he confesses in his introduction to Radical Equations that when Moses first engaged him in the project, "I had not been involved with public schools for years and while visiting them in [Chicago] it seemed as if I had traveled to another world." He watched a mother attack a teacher in a hallway, and talked to a kid as "another kid walked up behind him and hit him in the head with a brick or something."
As Moses says, "What young people are up against today is less clear than the raw racism of segregation laws and the Ku Klux Klan" -- but no less difficult. In the end it is probably less important whether the Algebra Project itself provides the solution Moses seeks than that it continues the struggle of the '60s on new terrain, and alerts others to just what that terrain is.
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