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Posted at 01:22 PM ET, 04/18/2011

Resistance to test-based school reform is growing

There are growing protests from teachers and parents across the country over high-stakes standardized testing and other school reform measures — many of which the Obama administration has encouraged states to undertake — as well as over huge cuts in public education.

The pushback has largely been local, though a national march on Washington is being organized for this summer as states move to enact reforms that call for more charter schools and vouchers and that make standardized testing more important than ever in evaluating schools, students and teachers.

In North Carolina, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this spring field tested 52 (yes 52) new standardized tests, including four exams each for kindergartners and first-graders, and kids lost as much as a week of instruction. That won’t stop the district from adding even more tests next year, for art, music and physical education, and many teachers and parents fear that this is becoming the face of public education.

The explosion in testing in that district, and soon in others, is a result of a move to an assessment system in which teachers are evaluated largely on the basis of how well their students do on such tests. It is known as the value-added system because each district comes up with a formula that is supposed to reflect how much “value” a teacher adds to a student’s growth.

Assessment experts have warned against this, saying it is an invalid use of the scores, and research has shown these systems to be unreliable, but that hasn’t stopped states from passing laws to require pay-for-performance.

Nor did it stop the Los Angeles Times Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school system, from recently releasing value-added ratings of its teachers based on year-to-year growth. The Los Angeles Times said that this was “the first in a series of high-stakes moves that will thrust the district into the center of the national debate over education reform” and noted that district officials said they had been influenced by the Times’ own controversial value-added ratings of about 6,000 teachers last year.

Though President Obama said recently that kids are tested too much, his administration’s policies have contributed to the increase in high-stakes testing, which began with the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act of President George W. Bush. Obama’s Race to the Top initiative supports performance pay, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for radical change in public school districts.

The nation watched for weeks as Wisconsin teachers protested in the state capitol in Madison, speaking out against plans by the governor, Scott Walker (R), to strip them and other public employees of most of their bargaining rights. But there have been other, lesser-known protests over school reform and funding measures, including:

* A small but growing number of parents in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other states are refusing to allow their children to take standardized tests.

* Parents have organized groups — in person and online — in Florida, New York, Indiana and other states to share information, sign petitions and organize protests against reforms. And many are blogging about experiences in their districts.

* Teachers, who think efforts to link their pay to student test scores and to eliminate tenure are a direct assault on their profession, are organizing what they hope will be a massive march on Washington on July 28-31. They’re calling it Save Our Schools & National Call to Action. Its Web site says:

“We, a collection of people from all walks of life and every corner of this nation, embody a mixture of ideas and opinions regarding how we can improve educational opportunities for all children. We stand united by one belief — it’s time for teachers and parents to organize and reclaim control of our schools.”

* A growing number of teachers maintain blogs about what really works in classrooms and why the administration’s approach is doomed to fail. Many say they have been emboldened by education historian Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which lays out evidence that compelled her to change from a No Child Left Behind supporter to an outspoken opponent of that law as well as charter schools and other business-driven reform efforts.

* Students are taking a stand, too. For example, at Catherine Ferguson High School in Detroit, a small group of students conducted a sit-in to protest plans to close half of the public schools in the city — which will lead to high school classes of as many as 60 students — and open a slew of public charter schools. The Catherine Ferguson school was one slated to be closed. In Central Falls, R.I., a small group of students protested reform plans at their high school, which became famous last year when a plan to fire all the teachers became national news.

In Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray and other city officials protested a congressional budget deal that in part revives a voucher program for low-income students that had been defunded.

In Indiana, a new bipartisan nonprofit organization has been established called Indiana Coalition for Public Education with a mission to oppose legislation in the state legislature that would:

* fund private school vouchers

* expand private school tax credits

* allow private colleges and agencies to be authorizers of public charter schools

* put for-profit managers in place to take a profit from operating public schools.

A number of parent, teacher and activist groups have also been created in Florida, where teachers and education activists say their new governor, Rick Scott (R), is pushing reforms that will decimate the public education system.

One of the first was Testing Is Not Teaching, a Facebook group that started in Palm Beach County last year to fight legislation that included pay-for-performance and a virtual end to teacher tenure. The governor at the time, Charlie Crist (R), wound up vetoing the legislation, but Scott is highly ambitious when it comes to reform, even espousing support for a plan to essentially “voucherize” the entire public school system by giving every parent a voucher for their children to attend whatever school they choose. That, many fear, would be the end of public education in the state.

In Texas, groups including a coalition called Save Texas Schools and the Dads Club at Arlington’s Butler Elementary School have been planning protests and taking other steps to persuade the state legislature not to cut $10 billion from public education, as planned, according to the Austin Chronicle.

Collectively, these efforts could end up pushing policy in a different direction — or could just as easily be the equivalent of howling at the moon.

But what anybody who cares to look at the evidence knows is that judging teachers by student test scores is bad assessment and bad policy. It’s disturbing that the people who most need to understand this — the folks in Washington and state capitals who are making the laws, Republicans and Democrats alike — don’t.

As protests grow louder and longer, they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned.

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By  |  01:22 PM ET, 04/18/2011

 
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