Freedom of Speech, American Public Education, and Standardized Tests: A Critical Enquiry (1)

By Fazzaro, Charles J. | Journal of Thought, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech, American Public Education, and Standardized Tests: A Critical Enquiry (1)


Fazzaro, Charles J., Journal of Thought


When you have [thus] formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters. The stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains, but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas; it is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain; this link is all the stronger in that we do not know of what it is made and we believe it to be our own work; despair and time eat away the bonds of iron and steel, but they are powerless against the habitual union of ideas, they can only tighten it still more, and on the soft fibers of the brain is founded the unshakable base of the soundest of Empires. (2)--J. M. Servan, 1767

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech,.... --Amendment I: Constitution of the United States of America, Ratified on 15 December 1791.

Introduction

In 2001, the assessment provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) linked "standardized" achievement tests of knowledge to federally funded programs in American public schools. Because virtually all public school systems depend on federal funds for some essential programs, the NCLB assessment provisions effectively locates within the Federal government the most fundamental aspect of public education policy--the power to authorize what counts as knowledge ("truth"). This intrusion would be of little concern if throughout the long history of thought there was absolute consensus regarding what counts as truth. But this is not the case. If knowledge is inextricably intertwined with thought, and speech (in its broadest sense) is the expression of thought, then government authorized "standardized" achievement tests of knowledge would be antithetical to Free Speech provisions of the U. S. Constitution. Even before NCLB, at all levels of government sponsored education policy the use of "standardized" tests of knowledge to measure academic achievement has gone unchallenged on the principles embedded in the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. At its most fundamental level, the argument herein is a challenge to the intrusion of government, through public education policies, into the private affairs of one's conscience, one's thoughts as First Amendment protected speech relative to what counts as "truth."

The fundamental question considered herein is: Do government-sponsored policies that mandate the use of "standardized" achievement tests of knowledge in American public schools violate a student's First Amendment free speech rights? The argument unfolds through a consideration of nine interrelated questions relative to the importance of knowledge in a democratic society. Because at base this critical enquiry is about the role of education in the allocation of values through politics, the first question to be considered concerns the notion that the purpose of public education in American is to prepare students for citizenship.

1.0 What Is the Primary Purpose of American Public Education?

Although as an institution American public education over its history has arguably acquired many purposes, the belief that the primary purpose of American public education is to prepare children to assume the fundamental political office of citizen has extended from the Founders to the present. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson, in notes explaining his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" for the state of Virginia, wrote:

   Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the
   people. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And
   to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain
   degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be
   essentially necessary. An amendment to our constitution must here
   come in aid of the public education. (3)

Even before the Constitution of the United States was ratified the Founders recognized the importance of education to a free, democratic society. …

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