Can Schools Be Trusted?

K-12 Testing

As the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and many state high-stakes testing programs further reduce education to test preparation under the guises of equity, high standards and accountability, Deborah Meier’s new book, In Schools We Trust, describes how to create schools worthy of trust. She explains why standardization, imposed through standardized tests, cannot create such institutions. Meier is the MacArthur “genius” award founder of the Central Park East schools in New York City and the Mission Hill School in Boston, experiences which provide the basis for her discussion of a good school. She also serves on FairTest's Board of Directors.


The first major section of the book looks at difficulties and successes in creating small schools that develop a culture and practice that makes them worthy of trust. Through stories and clear analysis, Meier describes trust in education as necessarily rooted in open debate and willingness to change in a democratic, public, participatory process. She explores in particular the difficulties of establishing trust across multiracial populations of students, families and teachers.


Both the proponents of increased state centralized control and the promoters of privatization tend to call for more standardized testing as a means of creating better schools. The search for the good test “keeps us tied to a false hope,” Meier explains. Tests cannot do an adequate job of meeting even some of the goals their proponents claim, never mind all of them.


Meier dismantles the multiple-choice, norm-referenced format. She focuses on reading, using well-chosen examples from elementary school achievement tests and college admissions exams to explain why they fail to adequately assess reading. She explores why the supposed objectivity of the tests is merely another type of subjectivity, rooted in the ways of knowing and expressing knowledge of the dominant social groups and therefore containing built-in cultural biases.


Meier also rebuts the claims by supporters of “standards-based” exams that new kinds of tests can overcome the problems of norm-referenced tests. The book addresses the hope, propounded to poor people, that teaching to the test will be “better than nothing.” The reality, as Meier explains, is that teaching to the test is a step toward mind-reducing schooling.


Meier supports standards (though not the many badly flawed state standards) but rejects the view that standardization can produce high-quality human learning. Schools for the wealthy have never perpetrated that illusion, even though it is now being peddled wholesale to the poor by liberals and conservatives alike. “Creating a culture in which all kids use their minds powerfully is well within our reach,” she argues. “Resorting to flawed standardized testing... is both unnecessary and counterproductive to such ends.”


• An expanded review was printed in Substance in September 2002, and is on the FairTest website.
• Beacon Press, $23.00