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The Culture of Testing (Part 2) March 12, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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For many of the young Black men and women who take standardized tests, neither the language of the questions, nor the subjects addressed reflect or validate the local environment in which the test taker was raised, the values, interests, and experiences that young Black man or woman was exposed to, or the stories he or she read or was told. Too many of the scenarios presented in the word problems and too many the settings addressed in what used to be called the “reading comprehension” sections depict activities, places, and ideas that he or she has never heard of or experienced.

It is essential that young Black men and women, boys and girls have the opportunity to see, hear, visit, read about and otherwise encounter a broad range of experiences that transport them literally and figuratively beyond the boundaries of their communities. Such opportunities will not only broaden our young people’s vocabularies and decrease their alienation from the standardized testing experiences, but it will also help them develop interests, and hobbies, their passion for which might well become the motivation for excelling in high school and moving on to college and even graduate education.

And such activities don’t have to focus exclusively on dance and theatrical forms rooted in the European or white American experience. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre tours the U.S. regularly; and The Dance Theater of Harlem is currently holding a national audition tour, open to young people between the ages of 8 and 24.

Black-oriented Broadway productions like The Lion King and Black written, produced and directed theatrical productions like The Color Purple are currently on tour. My mention of these big-budget national shows should not, however, overshadow the often exceptional local Black theater groups (and dance groups, for that matter), many of which are considerably more affordable than some of the big Broadway touring companies.

My passion for this issue — the increased exposure of Black boys and girls to a broader range of settings and experiences — is quite clear. This issue is — big surprise — very personal to me. I was one of those Black kids whose parents took it upon themselves to make sure that I had a range of experiences. Newly migrated to the NY metropolitan area from the deep south, and living modestly on one public schoolteacher’s salary (my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in middle school), they joined the American Museum of Natural History, where we became regulars. Between subscriptions to Natural History magazine (free to members), the late and great Omni magazine, and Smithsonian and weekly trips to New York’s discount book shops, museums, flea markets, and salvage shops, piano lessons, ballet lessons, and frequent (and economical) trips to the public library, my parents created an environment for us that was as culturally stimulating and intellectually rich as any I can imagine.

When, at the age of 16, I took myassigned seat in the school library rearranged–for the day–to function as a testing center, I was no more or less nervous than the other kids in the honors track at my overwhelmingly white high school. My experience taking the SAT affirmed this belief. I left the testing center with a feeling of accomplishment and cautious optimism. It never even occurred to me to feel alienated, largely because three prior years of taking classes with my intellectually precocious peers taught me that, although some of my classmates had traveled abroad or grown up on the college campuses where their parents were faculty and administrators, they knew no more of the sciences, the arts, history, literature, or mathematics than I did.

I wish that kind of confidence and that kind of breadth of experience for all Black children. I’m still not quite sure how my young, new-migrated parents knew to saturate their kids in such a broad range of the experiences and tastes, colors, and sounds — the range of possibilities — that the world had to offer. I have a feeling it has something to do with the value placed — in the pre-integration communities of their youth and in the historically Black college where they met, in their homes, and in their churches — on the importance of learning and on a very specific definition of what it mean to be “educated.”

Not every Black child will have the happy privilege of being born into a stable family of intellectually curious, college-educated, emotionally available parents. Not every child will have the benefit of being born into the safe, stable, and supportive environment that he or she deserves. The challenge, now, is how to fill the gap — how to enter the lives of those children whose families, however well-intentioned, struggle to provide even the most basic staples of survival and help instill in them a sense of self-love, possibility, and entitlement to a life as remarkable as they can imagine.

The now familiar mantra, “each one teach one” seems too gradual for the dramatic transformation that needs to take place in so many young Black lives. We need broad action that penetrates deeply into all Black communities in need, and we need it soon. We need magic, but not the type of magic that we see in the pages of Harry Potter or on the stages of Las Vegas. We need the kind of magic that happens when a people moves as one to aid and transform the lives of their most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

The kind of magic that young African American children need is the magic that Amiri Baraka is speaking of at the end of Ka’ba, his love poem to Black communities in struggle. Baraka writes,

We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

Posted by Ajuan Mance




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