Part IV of the Series: Testing as a Civil Rights Strategy is Not about Achievement
In my doctoral program, I took a course titled Professionalism. After trying unsuccessfully to be removed from the course, I was stuck learning about what it means to be a professional. What was fascinating (yes, I grew to appreciate the class) was that I discovered that the scope of professionalism (or any social construct or knowledge for that matter) is an issue of power and authority. Those with the financial resources and social capital to define the concept will define it and then impose it on others (without those resources) for consumption.
Later in my studies, during the dissertation phase, I was introduced to Gaventa. It is here that I learned about three forms of power: overt (public and inclusive), covert (hidden and exclusive) and latent (invisible). As the developer of an empowerment framework, I found special interest in latent power. It is in latent power, where power is psychologically driven, that those with the resources can control who is invited to decision making tables (in terms of covert power) and control who even shows up to compete in open contests (in terms overt power). It’s in the latent dimension of power that the powerless began to police each other on the dominant’s ideology so as to perpetuate a continual internalization of powerlessness.
I started this series by talking about one of my teachers who had assessed my professionalism based on a standard of whiteness. When he argued that I was not doing it (being professional) based on how “white people do it,” there was fundamentally a depreciation of my worth. But as I think about my course work, I understand more of what was happening. At the heart of his critique of my professionalism, latent power was being activated.
Freire, in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, made claim that a basic condition of humanity is the ability to pursue it… to name one’s own world… to construct one’s existence. How I choose to employ the professional standards of my field, to maintain the laws of my state, and to embrace the values of my culture is how I pursue my own humanity. It is how I, existentially speaking, live out loud.
To critique me not on the basis of teaching standards, not on the basis of leadership standards, and not on the basis of English standards (albeit all of which could still be challenged as constructs of dominant power) and instead toss out a standard of whiteness speaks to an inherent belief that behaviors of white people are universal and are representative of a state of being right.
When this teacher, a non-white practitioner, accused me of not doing it like white people, he had psychologically internalized a white is right way of thinking… and then proceeded to police me accordingly.
That’s latent power at its best!
Not only did he become an advocate of white is right; he also attempted to regulate my behavior… my personhood, by some false standard of professionalism. In terms of the perpetual contests for power, he activated a weapon that wasn’t overt… meaning that it was not based on some publically agreed upon competition.
The weapon that he activated wasn’t even covert… meaning that it was not based on a private or a secret competition. His public leveraging of a presumed standard shows that it wasn’t a secret– there was no code to crack. He simply stated, “You’re not doing it like white people.”
His weapon of warfare, in a contest of power (of rightness), was psychological. It was an inherent acceptance of cultural messages driven out of a historical place where whites have been victors in overt and covert competitions. And, then (with this presumed standard of universal and intrinsic value), it was used to regulate me.
It is this latency, this psychological competition (and regulation) of worth, that is embedded in the deployment of standardized testing as a civil rights strategy.
I believe those who are arguing for testing as a civil rights strategy are fighting for worth… to show that children from the non-dominant group can perform just as well as affluent white children. Affluent white children are usually the ones who typically outperform other groups on standardized test, leaving a significant gap between their performance and others. Seeking to close the achievement gap based on the top performing group would be one thing but it becomes something altogether different when we see that the prevailing face of those top performers is white.
It has been argued that tests are written to favor white children. But as Willie pointed out, we spend more time studying test takers than we do test makers; therefore, it becomes very difficult to counter this argument of favorability when we are not equally obsessed with the construction of the test as we are with the outcomes of it.
Willie also said there are performance areas that black and Latino/a students outperform white students; however, these sections are not valued and reported. Finally, Willie offered that when black (and other marginalized) learners start improving on tests, they are rewritten to continue showing a gap in favor of those who have historically flourished.
Schiele argued that within a culture of whiteness, African Americans (and other minority groups) are at-risk of self-hate. When the individual and collective identity is based on a measurement that favors whites, we then internalize a white is right disposition and then inadvertently begin to police each other with it. I would imagine that this is what was at the heart of my teacher offense when he cried that I was not “doing it like white people.” It is a sense of revere for the personhood of whites and a devaluing of behaviors that do not reinforce this reverence.
In that “a value is a conception of what is desirable… a guideline for a person’s actions, a standard for behavior” (Bordens & Horowitz, p. 161), it is dangerous for tests (as a single instrument) to become the standard of value. Because, as much as we want to believe that it becomes a contest of achievement, by their design and outcomes, the test ultimately becomes a psychological contest of worth.
Achievement is not about doing it like white people. It is about doing it. We must find a better way to make achievement be about achieving!