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Indiana Representative Bob Behning, who chairs the House Education Committee, accused Black families of not “having respect for learning” in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee. In his remarks, Behning said that state standards were “too wide,” then went out of his way to attack Indianapolis Public Schools for recent low scores on the ILEARN standardized tests, given to students in grades 3 through 8.
I’ll give you an example of where we are today. In Indianapolis Public Schools today, [3% of] African-American kids passed both [English/Language arts and Math] sections of ILEARN. Think about that: 970 out of 1,000 were not proficient in ILEARN. I would suggest that part of the problem is, and there’s a number of things: poverty impacts that, for sure; um, having respect for learning; all of—there’s a lot of things that come into play…Ind. Rep. Bob Behning, February 23, 2022
The data Behning is referencing comes from the 2021 ILEARN English/Language Arts and Math tests, held amid the significant disruption to education caused by the pandemic. Because the results were significantly below previous years’ results, as expected, legislators voted to hold schools harmless, meaning they would not be blamed or lose funding over low scores. Statewide in 2021, 8% of Black students passed both the reading and math portions of the test.
Students in poverty (approximated by those receiving free or reduced price meals), English language learners, and students receiving special education accommodations all scored at around the same level as Black students, both in IPS and across the state. But Behning did not suggest that poor families, families whose primary language is not English, or families of students with intellectual disabilities do not respect learning. His racist line of attack reveals the contempt he holds for Black people despite efforts to conceal it with “politically correct” phrases.
Millions of dollars diverted away from schools for standardized testing
Black students, students in poverty of all national backgrounds, students with intellectual disabilities, and students whose families use languages other than English are not considered by the corporate-run education system. Their oppressions are characteristically different, but ultimately produce similar educational outcomes measured by corporate standardized tests. The fight against corporate domination of education and for better schools for these students are connected.
ILEARN exists because of state and federal “accountability” requirements that were created in part to give politicians data to support a pretense to blame teachers and their unions for the problems in education. When schools fired teachers, closed, or were subjected to takeovers and loss of unions in the wake of these measures, charter, private, and religious schools were given control and taxpayer money, despite no significant difference in their test scores.
American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C.-based firm, received nearly $90 million from the state to design and administer the test. ILEARN only exists in an English-language version and a Spanish-English combined translation that is only available for the math, science, and social studies portions. A glossary exists for Arabic, Burmese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
This fact already explains the low pass rate for English language learners, who make up 7% of Indiana students. Schools should have the resources from the state to provide instruction in a student’s home language, and standardized tests developed for tens of millions of taxpayer dollars should be fully available in all languages used in Indiana’s students’ homes. Better yet, the state should end its war on schools and redirect ILEARN funding to local needs.
Standardized tests are designed without considering intellectual disabilities. Instead of giving time for thought or creativity, these tests measure the speed with which students can correctly identify correct responses. Alternative methods of measuring student understanding that are equitable and inclusive for diverse student communities must be developed and not for profit.
Racist and ableist, overseer mentality must be purged from schools
One reason for low performance by Black students that racist politicians and their corporate sponsors don’t raise for investigation is the racist, ableist overseer mentality in schools. Take this passage from W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America”: How many schools treat students today, Black and white, like how Du Bois relates ways enslaved people were treated?
They had no right of petition.… they could hold no property … they could not appeal from their master; they could be punished at will.… [They] owed to [their] master … a respect “without bounds, and an absolute obedience.”
How many schools demand quiet compliance, in ways that are both racist and ableist, and use this as a measure of teachers’ “classroom management” ability in job performance evaluations? How many schools’ codes of conduct and rules demand student compliance with teacher directions, even when they are patently unjust—much like the ideological preparation to passively accept police violence advanced under the slogan “comply now, complain later”?
This deeply rooted anti-Blackness damages the school as a vivid and healthy cell of social life, even in schools that have few or no Black students. This framework is not inherent to public education. It can be uprooted from schools, but doing so requires engaging in militant struggle. All people, even young people, have the right to rebel against reactionary oppression, and the progressive millions who marched across cities and towns large and small in Indiana to reject racism in 2020 have every right to ensure schools are free from this scourge today in 2022 and beyond.
As the far right mobilizes to entrench itself in its war on schools, from its attacks on trans girls who play sports to efforts to legislate new ways for racist, anti-teacher partisans to censor the curriculum, it is important that progressive people in Indiana do not forget who holds the power: Workers and students have the ability to unite and fight for a better world. They have a duty to win!