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Testing and Social Studies in Capitalist Schooling

Donna-Marie Cole-Malott is a PhD candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Pennsylvania State University, and a former high school English teacher. Curry Malott is a professor of education at West Chester University and the author, with Derek Ford, of Marx, Capital, and Education (Peter Lang, 2015).

In a New York Times editorial on August 15, 2015, the editors, following the NAACP, cautioned that the movement for students to opt out of high-stakes standardized exams was detrimental to minority students and their communities.1 The rigorous accountability measures of high-stakes exams, it was claimed, compelled teachers and schools to do a better job educating traditionally oppressed students.

Such views ignore the history of high-stakes testing, which has served to perpetuate class inequality and advance white supremacy since intelligence testing was developed during the First World War. More than anything else, standardized testing measures students’ access to resources and proximity to dominant cultures, rather than innate ability or quality of teaching. The accountability movement has successfully exploited the existing inequalities of a white-supremacist, capitalist society to argue that high-stakes testing, one of its primary tools, is helping to overcome those same inequalities.

The New York Times editorial argued that individuals had no valid reasons for opting out of standardized tests, implying that teacher unions were behind the push for opting out, since failing students’ scores would negatively affect their professional ratings. This despite the fact that the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), has been at best ambiguous when not outright opposed to Opt Out. The Times was responding to recent findings released by New York State that 20 percent of students between grades three and eight opted out of high-stakes tests in 2015, with some school districts reaching an 80 percent opt-out rate. Education reform elites increasingly fear that the Opt Out trend is contagious, spreading to states and districts around the country.

A Life of Testing in Schools

When our daughter began first grade in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we, like parents across the country, were introduced to life in today’s public schools, which is a life of testing, organized around statistical outcomes. Our formal introduction came toward the beginning of the school year at a parent orientation at her school. The event began with a short presentation in the auditorium by the school principal, focusing on the school’s consistently high math and reading scores, and examining each grade level individually, first through fifth. Not mentioned of course was the fact that higher average test scores tend to be a reflection of the class and racial makeup of a school’s student population, which creates a structure of privilege and under-privilege. These same factors also affect the property tax-based funding of schools.

All of this is of course independent of any special qualities possessed by individual teachers. The high math and reading scores at Exton Elementary, for example, reflect the white, middle-class privilege enjoyed by more than 80 percent of the school’s students. Leaving this simple yet extremely important insight out of the discussion perpetuates the view that schools with lower scores are evidence of ineffective educators and inferior students, as opposed to the realities of white supremacy and class inequality.

After the principal’s introduction, parents were directed to their children’s classrooms. The teachers followed the principal’s lead by taking parents through a summary of the year, sharing their plans for improving our children’s reading and math skills. Missing from this presentation was any discussion of how our children would be challenged to become more critical and creative thinkers.

Social studies offer a valuable doorway into such learning, so students’ intelligence is not abstracted from the larger social, political, and economic world. However, social studies are not part of the Common Core standards, and are not subject to high-stakes standardized testing. This gives teachers, principals, and superintendents little motivation to stress their significance. As a result, social studies were missing from our daughters’ teachers’ academic plan. Wayne Au has noted in his research that school districts and administrators are beginning to argue that social studies should also be an area of high-stakes testing.2 This argument, according to Au, ignores the possibility that doing away with a culture of testing altogether might be the answer, not adding additional tests to an already over-tested body of students. Yet we can hardly blame principals and teachers for the exclusion of social studies from the curriculum, given that they are not included in standardized tests. Their jobs are on the line if they do not contribute to the schools’ narrow curriculum—a scary prospect in today’s extremely thin labor market. In many school districts across the country, teachers caught departing even momentarily from the Common Core are subject to administrative discipline.

Curtain Call for Social Studies

The displacement of social studies continues a process inherent in capitalism. With manufacturing, the division of labor reduced the diversity of tasks completed by each worker. As work was reduced to fragmented and repetitive operations, laborers were alienated from much of their intellectual capacity. With the rise of automated manufacturing in the nineteenth century, workers became in effect mere minders of machines, and the individual laborer grew yet more deeply alienated from his or her own mental capacity. The resulting degradation of work fueled new rounds of resistance among workers, rendering ideological control more necessary. As a result, common schooling emerged not because capital needed more skilled workers, but because they needed a relatively undereducated, compliant workforce.3

Similarly, standardized testing functions as the schools’ factory machinery, alienating teachers from more and more of their intellectual capacity while leading to the overall intellectual degradation of ever-greater segments of the population. This educational warfare has inspired the heightened resistance represented by the Opt Out movement, as well as the struggle to stop school closures in the most oppressed and exploited brown and black communities. A major 2015 study by the Council of the Great City Schools shows that the culture of testing has begun to overwhelm the nation’s public schools with disgruntled teachers and unengaged students.4 Statistics show that students are more heavily tested as they progress through school, and by the eighth grade the average student is subjected to more than twenty-five hours of standardized testing. And these numbers do not reflect the untold time spent preparing for those tests. As a result of a growing Opt Out movement, the U.S. Department of Education and President Obama, supporters of high-stakes testing in practice and in policy, are being forced to take a rhetorical stand against over-testing: the Department of Education has advised districts around the country that no more than 2 percent of class time should be dedicated to actual testing.

However, as long as standardized testing continues to serve as the measure of academic success, reducing tests and test prep by itself will not reverse the educational inequality that has plagued working-class and nonwhite school districts since long before the testing movement. The position of the NAACP, the New York Times, and others, that testing accountability is needed to correct unequal educational outcomes, assumes that poor performance by minority students will result in more resources being provided for their education. This expectation has no basis in reality. Standardized testing has become little more than a profitable way to justify school closures, teacher firings, and increasing privatization. Because high-stakes standardized tests serve the interests of capital, schools will continue to move in this direction unless an organized resistance movement can stop it.

The push for high-stakes standardized testing is linked to the intensification of ideological control represented by the direction of social studies in schools. Global capitalist education reform, and the United States in particular, have been moving toward policies that “restrict critical analysis of historical and contemporary events,” with a renewed emphasis on “flag education” and imperialist forms of bourgeois patriotism.5 While in the United States, state-mandated social studies standards have often stressed the importance of multiple perspectives, such as comparative economics, there has more recently been an emphasis, driven by right-wing activism and corporate interest groups, on uncritically teaching “the importance of free enterprise.”6 What legitimate social studies remain will most likely continue to be based on the rote memorization of predetermined facts and traditional narratives—that is, written from the perspective of the capitalist class.7

E. Wayne Ross, Sandra Mathison, and Kevin D. Vinson conclude “that the Common Core State Standards are the most recent incarnation of curriculum documents that define what will be taught and how it will be taught in schools…with an emphasis on ‘world-class’ standards, 21st-century skills, and a logic that sees schools as serving the needs of corporate capitalism.”8 Although these needs have so far shifted the focus of schools further away from social studies, which are excluded from the Common Core, the terms of their eventual inclusion are hardly of less concern. Ross, Mathison, and Vinson argue that despite official claims that “the Common Core offers a more progressive, student-centered, constructivist approach to learning as opposed to the ‘drill and kill’ test prep and scripted curriculum of” No Child Left Behind, once the “tests for the Common Core” are fully implemented, such possibilities will quickly dissipate.9

At the elementary level, the Common Core State Standards have placed so much emphasis on math and reading scores that researchers have found that social studies instruction is being squeezed out. The Common Core thus represents a more aggressive attack on social studies than NCLB. Sadly, what Ross has identified as a “traditional” social studies instruction, for all its shortcomings, would actually be an improvement—for it at least offers a curriculum that can be challenged by critical educators and students. What limited space was left for social studies after NCLB and Race to the Top’s focus on math and reading is now under assault by Koch brothers-style activists, who stock school boards with right-wing ideologues and launch censorship campaigns. Recent battles over the Advanced Placement history syllabus in Jefferson County, Colorado, where conservative school board members demanded jingoistic revisions to course materials to promote “American exceptionalism,” are telling.10 It is apparently no secret that college prep classes are one of the few places where critical thinking is encouraged. Yet too much theory or analysis, which might help students understand the larger causes of social and historical issues, is often avoided in the name of “the facts speaking for themselves.”11

Testing Anxiety

Early on in her first grade year, our daughter’s teacher contacted us to offer her additional reading support. We were surprised, since we believed she was a strong reader. After meeting with her teacher, we discovered that in the first month of school students were tested not just on their ability to read, but on how fast they could sound out words, and if they spoke aloud when sounding out the words or if they did so silently. They were tested on how fast they were able to read and how efficiently they responded to questions related to their reading—without stopping to think. We immediately feared that the love she showed for reading might somehow dissipate if it became regimented and structured by such time-based metrics of “efficiency.” We pushed back immediately, asking her teacher not to offer her such tests, because we believed as educators that she was on the right track—it was in a sense our first time “Opting Out” of testing, and we are certain it will not be the last. Our daughter’s teacher made us aware that the school was working to reach end-of-year benchmarks, and even though first-grade students would not be made to take any standardized tests until the third grade, they would spend the next two years practicing and preparing for the test.

The focus in our daughter’s first grade class was solely on reading, and now in second grade the focus seems to be entirely on math. Au, among many others, has persuasively argued that the focus on math and reading “narrows the instructional curriculum and aligns it to the tests.”12 Consequently, other subject areas that are not tested, including social studies, literature (beyond mere reading), art, music, physical education, even science, are neglected or cut altogether. The work of covering content outside of reading and math in meaningful ways must therefore happen outside of school, and while for parents in professional and technical strata it is often possible to attempt to fill the void, for working-class, poor, and minority students it is much more difficult.

Consequences for Multicultural Education and Minorities

In recent years, efforts to advance multicultural education in public schools have faced increasing hostility from districts pressured to perform well on standardized tests in order to secure federal funds. While many teacher union activists and families have fought for multicultural curricula and critical pedagogy, districts have abandoned these innovative approaches as test preparation pressures mount.

Many scholars argue that standardized tests are inherently biased, and are designed to serve the needs of capital. T. S. Williams has even posited that since minority students do not reflect the dominant culture, they may never perform successfully on these exams.13 Wherever the emphasis is placed, it is clear that race and class are the central factors contributing to the performance of minorities on standardized tests. Although we ourselves live in a suburban town where the great majority of students perform well on high-stakes tests, we are only a thirty-minute train ride from Philadelphia, where communities must fight simply to keep their schools open, because their students are not able to pass these same tests. While more privileged school districts have taken the lead in the important Opt Out movement, impoverished areas are faced with fighting school closures. Both of these movements against corporate school reform are vitally important, and the more united they become, the stronger they will be.


  1. “Opting Out of Standardized Tests Isn’t the Answer,”New York Times, August 14, 2015.
  2. Wayne Au, “Social Studies, Social Justice: W(h)ither the Social Studies in High-Stakes Testing?”Teacher Education Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2009): 43–58.
  3. Curry Malott and Derek R. Ford,Marx, Capital, and Education: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Becoming (New York: Peter Lang, 2015).
  4. Ray Hart et al., “Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis,” Council of the Great City Schools, October 15, 2015,
  5. Joel Westheimer, “Teaching Students to Think about Patriotism,” inThe Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities, 4th ed., ed. E. Wayne Ross (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014), 130.
  6. Ibid., 131.
  7. C. Gregg Jorgensen, “Social Studies Curriculum Migration: Confronting Challenges in the 21st Century,”The Social Studies Curriculum, 3–24.
  8. E. Wayne Ross, Sandra Mathison, and Kevin D. Vinson, “Social Studies Curriculum and Teaching in the Era of Standardization,”The Social Studies Curriculum, 33.
  9. Ibid., 34.
  10. Karen Tumulty and Lyndsey Layton, “Changes in AP history trigger a culture clash in Colorado,”Washington Post, October 5, 2014.
  11. Glenn Rikowski, “Crisis in Education, Crises of Education,” paper presented at the Institute of Education, University College London, October 22, 2014.
  12. Au, “Social Studies, Social Justice,” 45.
  13. T. S. Williams, “Some Issues in the Standardized Testing of Minority Students,”Journal of Education 165, no. 2 (1983): 192–208.
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