Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is front and center in discussions of the Common Core State Standards, because the letter served as the text for the lesson demonstration that David Coleman offers to illustrate close reading.
But we see another connection, one which we have been discussing of late. One idea that Dr. King worked to convey, both in this letter and throughout the rest of the Civil Rights Movement, was that the Movement wasn’t just for African Americans. Ending segregation and other forms of systemic racism, he argued, would be better for everyone. Ultimately, this was one of the most powerful tenets of his message, and one that demonstrates his brilliance.
We’ve been thinking about standardized testing and how it seems to have gone amok in education. We could embrace the standards much more easily if they weren’t packaged with the guarantee of excessive testing. We have wondered, how does one interrupt the testing cycle in a country where testing is big business?
Our recent thought is that we have to help educators understand that testing isn’t a problem just for schools, teachers, and students labeled as failures. Testing hurts all schools, all teachers, all students. It reduces instructional time, condenses content to discrete information, minimizes higher-order thinking skills, and leads schools and students who perform well on them to narrow their definitions of success.
So, as we approach the standardized testing season in many school districts, consider how you will handle high test scores, because that will be your moment of influence. What if, instead of accepting those accolades and making speeches at “blue ribbon” banquets, school and district administrators said, we reject this label of our students. The testing system is too flawed and we have betters ways of evaluating what our students know.
If those who struggle with performance on tests are the only schools and teachers who speak against testing, it sounds as though they are making excuses. We need those who have high scores to let people know that they think the testing system is flawed, that it interferes with learning, and that it may not measure what everyone thinks it measures.
In closing, we return to Dr. King’s letter and recognize how universal and timeless it is. The lines below were pulled from the third paragraph of the letter:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
While they were penned decades ago, these words offer uncanny insight into American education’s testing predicament. Oh, the irony, Mr. Coleman. Oh, the irony.