The Racially Coded Language in “Closing Opportunity Gaps”

Not so long ago in Seattle Public Schools there was an elementary school administrator forced out of their position by an angry community. There were a lot of reasons given for this ousting with only a few that I, personally, can confirm, but what I want to focus on is the people who defended this administrator. The evidence they pointed, and continue to point to when the subject comes up is the fact that student test scores, particularly in math, increased exponentially.

Now, this school has a high population of students of color, and Seattle Public Schools does have a big push for “closing opportunity gaps” between white and non-white students, particularly African-American students. So, on the surface, higher test scores do look like a huge accomplishment. The problem, then? These “opportunity gaps” are almost exclusively measured by standardized test scores. Sometimes, the gaps also consider disproportionate discipline data, but the district puts the most money, effort, and staffing behind improving test scores. In fact, in the current contract negotiations between Seattle Education Association and Seattle Public Schools, educators are demanding restorative justice coaches in every school and the district continues to shut it down citing lack of money. Go to any school in the district, however, and you will find math coaches, literacy coaches, math and literacy tutors, math and literacy after school programs, and even math and literacy “academies” during holiday breaks.

 

WHEN DISCIPLINE SERVES THE TEST

 

Going back to disproportionate discipline – Studies continue to show that students engage more in curriculum that includes critical, culturally responsive content and pedagogy. Learning to take a test is exactly the opposite of that, and that’s what a lot of kids are doing, especially in schools with majority student of color populations. That’s what was happening in the school in question. Some educators report they were instructed by the administrator to only teach math and literacy. Social studies, science, and the arts were not allowed. According to teachers, the administrator only allowed science to be taught once they proved it was also tested. Additionally, the curriculum that literacy teachers were forced to use was meant to be remedial curriculum. Again, I cannot confirm this, but I can speak from my own experiences and say that these claims make perfect sense.

The school I taught in has social studies and arts and science, but it’s a middle school where kids move from class period to class period, so it’s a little harder to take those away, but it happens. The school I taught at also has a majority student of color population and has been recognized for “closing opportunity gaps.” Many students, however, don’t get to partake in the great art and social justice electives that are available because they are in second and third reading, writing, and/or math classes euphemistically titled “reading empowerment” and “math empowerment.” I taught the former for two years. The courses were a semester long, so I taught four sections of it in those two years. In those two years I had one white student, and all of the students who came to me were chosen because they did not meet standard on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

These “empowerment” classes count as an elective because they are in addition to any other math or reading/writing class kids are enrolled in. That means they miss out on art, languages, music, and social justice offerings. In a seven period schedule, students get two electives, and too many kids are stuck using those slots for math and reading “empowerment.” Often times, they are also asked, and their parents are coerced, into sending kids to after school tutoring for math and/or reading instead of the enrichment programs like underwater robotics, urban arts, and the gender and sexuality alliance. Right before the testing season, these “empowerment” opportunities ramp up, and kids are “invited” for “extra help” to pass the math SBA. These opportunities happen during electives, so if they are lucky enough to get art or music, they are pulled from those classes weeks before the test for “extra help.” (See featured image of an actual call slip I got for one of my students to skip their art class to get “extra help.”)

All of this focus and pressure to incessantly practice and be prepared for tests usually comes in the form of practice tests. This isn’t critical, culturally responsive content and pedagogy! “We are killing kids with math,” is what I have been known to say a few times. They begin to act out in class, in the halls, and at recess. They become irritable and disrespectful. They are kicked out of class and lash out at everyone, not because they are bad kids, but because they are BORED! They are disengaged from the learning, if it can be called that. Then they are punished, ridiculed, suspended, and labeled. The goal of this disciplinary action? To get them to be quiet and practice the test, and since kids of color are lagging behind due to the inherent racism in the practice of standardized testing, the discipline gap continues to grow. Ever heard of the School to Prison Pipeline? I’ve seen it unfold before my eyes, and testing is its main artery.

 

CODED LANGUAGE

 

Hopefully we’re aware of how language is sometimes racially coded. Some might use the term “dog whistle.” “Thug” is the new N-word. “Sketchy” is often used to describe places where Black and Brown people live. Sarah Palin’s infamous “schuck and jive” comment, and most recently the Florida GOP candidate who warned voters not to “monkey this up” and vote for his opponent, Andrew Gillum, a Black man, are all examples of racially coded language. The argument I’m attempting to make here is that “closing opportunity gaps” is coded language for denying a comprehensive, critical, and enriching education to students of color.

My assertion is that math and literacy are not the end all, be all of education. Again, studies show that the arts and humanities improve learning and engagement, but those are harder to test and measure. I argue that reading and writing are equally challenging to test and measure, especially since the kids who came to me for reading “empowerment” were excellent readers who failed the racist test. But, testing companies can’t make money off of the other content areas, so literacy and math it is. That’s literally the only reason there is so much emphasis put on the two. I failed math all through high school and barely made it through college. I have a graduate degree and earn more than the average American, and I LOVE MY JOB! We have been forced by Corporate America to define success with testing data. According to them, I would be a failure.

“Closing opportunity gaps” is racially coded because it explicitly targets students of color without explicitly naming them and denies them access to the same quality and content of education as their white counterparts in order to meet this arbitrary definition of success. Standardized testing is racist from its inception and at its core. It’s racist in practice, and it’s racist in its enduring impact on students, families, and communities. I’m also known to say, “We can’t have Ethnic Studies and standardized testing.” It’s time for all of us to say, “We can’t have racial justice and standardized testing.”

 

#OPTOUT

 

I’ve always been told that educators are under some kind of gag order and aren’t allowed to talk to families about their right to opt out of standardized testing. I recently found out that in my district, that’s not true. There is nothing stopping us from doing so except for overbearing administrators whose job evaluations are heavily dependent on testing scores. Check the actual policy in your district and encourage families to opt out if you can! I opt my child out every year. I also teach my students about the racist history and impacts of standardized testing.

Here’s what I sent to my child’s teachers and administrators today. Feel free to copy and paste:

 

My child will not participate in any standardized testing in any content area, nor will they engage in practice or mid-year standardized testing. This includes, but is not limited to the SBA, MAP, or any state or federal mandated or suggested standardized testing for the 2018-2019 school year.

 

There are hundreds of opt out networks on Facebook alone and the #OptOut movement on Twitter. The National Education Association and the NAACP recently came out against standardized testing as well as other education associations, including Seattle Education Association who voted for a moratorium on all standardized testing. This motion was endorsed by Dr. Ibram X Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning. We need to build coalitions between families and educators who are against testing and ban this racist practice that perpetuates the systemic oppression of communities of color.