In her syndicated column that appeared in Wednesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Esther Cepeda accuses standardized testing critics of using the Georgia cheating scandal to “bash” tests when they should be placing the blame squarely on “flawed human natures.” Cepeda pluralizes this abstract idea to refer specifically to teachers who “made wrong choices” without surrendering the crowd-pleasing generalization: Human nature is a convenient scapegoat when we don’t want to ask the tough questions about why people make stupid or harmful decisions in the first place. Teachers certainly did make wrong choices when they falsified student tests and/or failed to report the widespread cheating in their midst. So did administrators and, according to the investigative report issued by the Georgia Governor’s office, so did 2009 Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall and her senior staff. Apparently, human nature was showing its bad side from top to bottom.
Take those seemingly innocuous tests. Cepeda lets them off the hook of moral agency even though they are overloaded with simplistic choices for our kids. Tests don’t cheat any more than guns kill, right? People and their ugly natures are the real culprits, but if we accept this false dichotomy then we fail to ask who hides behind the standardized tests that have swallowed our schools. The answer, of course, is more flawed humans prioritizing bottom line profits and faux proofs over actual teaching and learning. The Governor’s report identifies “three primary conditions” that “led to widespread cheating” in Atlanta Public Schools: a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation,” “unrealistic targets set by the district,” and Dr. Hall’s focus on “test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.” The question is not whether humans can fall prey to fear or greed. We know that they can, and we disapprove when they do. The question is whether there are human-made conditions that contribute to the morally lazy actions we decry in others, and whether we are complicit in maintaining them.
Do we want to entice teachers into bad behavior with misguided rewards and punishments that make doing the right thing a gamble with personal survival rather than a social good? Do we want children in all of their complexity, rich or poor, to be reduced to bubbles for a subjectively designed exam that is no more proof of learning than a greeting card is proof of love? These are ethical choices we all need to make, but Cepeda skirts accountability for them by shrinking the exercise of free will to one question, (a) to cheat or (b) not to cheat. Meanwhile, we flawed humans face several momentous choices that go unacknowledged by testing apologists. We can choose to allow high stakes tests to be used as a lever of privatization or we can fight for authentic education befitting a democracy. We can decide that poverty, a major factor in low student achievement, is inevitable or we can call it inexcusable.
While Esther Cepeda appears to defend poor children from the fuzzy “bigotry of low expectations,” her rhetoric leaves them easy prey for the greater, concrete evil of poverty. She implicitly accepts that being poor is an irrevocable identity and poverty a permanent state of nature. Poor kids can learn too, says her logic, so we are doing them a terrible disservice by suggesting that poverty might impede achievement. We should continue to debate the narrow and superficial measures of this achievement, but the crucial point here is that poverty is a changeable condition. When we draw the connection between poverty and education, we are showing our optimism that poverty can be challenged and our faith in the future of our children and our society. The cynical view that we can do nothing to change these stark economic inequities comes wrapped in upbeat sermons about token equality, but it is the same old tired nineteenth century Horatio Alger myth that school reformers have repackaged. They rationalize social inaction on a massive scale and then cloak this passive cowardice in pretty words about individual expectations. Imagine if American society rose to our expectation that child poverty would end and children’s most basic rights such as education would be adequately funded. Until then, let them take tests! Perhaps it’s human nature to take the path of least resistance. Some might even call it cheating.