The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Revolt against high-stakes standardized testing spreads

By Lisa Guisbond
As attention turns from analyzing ethnic and gender gaps among voters, let’s focus on another kind of gap that will linger long after Election Day. It’s the yawning chasm over the use of high-stakes standardized testing that exists between teachers, parents and students at the local level, and policy elites, foundations, entrepreneurs and mainstream editorial writers on the national level.

The latter group continues to promote testing as a way to force improvements and address inequalities in learning outcomes — despite more than a decade of failure. Meanwhile, more and more people at the local level are joining a national grassroots rebellion against high-stakes testing. Promises of new and better standards and assessments are not persuading test-weary public school stakeholders that a slight variation on what has failed will suddenly succeed.

This broad-based dissatisfaction showed up in some surprising places on Election Day. Indiana voters ousted Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a devotee of test-driven reforms, in favor of 33-year veteran educator Glenda Ritz.  Idaho voters soundly rejected several “reform” measures, including test score-based performance pay for teachers.

It won’t be news to loyal readers of the “Answer Sheet” that there’s a rebellion brewing. But it’s worth a moment to consider the full dimensions and status of this revolt and think about how to further expand and strengthen it. Hundreds of school boards have now passed resolutions loudly stating, “Enough is enough.” Parents groups are rallying to provide support. Test boycotts are expanding. Academic researchers are increasingly speaking out. The growing resistance is attracting increased attention from policymakers and the media. As the scope of the opposition expands, some local organizers are focusing on winning policy changes in their states and communities.

Former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott helped spark the revolt in January, saying publicly that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. Then school boards in Texas that had passed resolutions stating that tests were “strangling’ education,” gained hundreds of endorsements within weeks. FairTest organized a dozen other education, civil rights, and religious groups to launch the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing. Groups of parents, students, teachers, principals, school board members and education researchers from around the nation endorsed similar statements. All decry the way high-stakes testing policies are harming our schools, teachers, students and families.

Here’s an update on the status of the high-stakes testing rebellion around the nation:

The National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing has more than 13,700 individual and almost 460 organizational endorsers. It calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration “to overhaul [NCLB,] reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.” The Pennsylvania School Boards Association as well as individual boards in Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia endorsed it.

Florida activists adopted their own versions, and the Florida School Board Association passed a variation at its annual conference in the spring. The National Parent Teacher Association said the resolution is consistent with its policy positions. Regional groups continue to announce new initiatives based on the Resolution, including the Massachusetts group Citizens for Public Schools.

The Texas school board resolution has been endorsed by more than 830 school districts representing more than 4.3 million – 88% – of all Texas public school students.

Top-down testing mandates, in large part, drove Chicago teachers to strike. The teachers’ arguments were bolstered by 88 researchers from 16 Chicago-area universities who had signed an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposing the city’s plan for using student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. The letter said, “The new evaluation system… centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education of Chicago’s children.” More than 1,100 New York researchers endorsed a similar letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

A letter protesting New York State’s teacher evaluation policy and its reliance on student test scores has been signed by 1,512 principals from urban, suburban and rural schools, more than one-third of all New York principals.

The nation’s second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, unanimously adopted a resolution at its annual convention saying the focus on standardized testing has undermined education. The National Education Association has approved similar resolutions in the past.

The Niagara (NY) Regional Parent Teacher Association passed an emergency resolution in late September. It says,

The intent of this resolution is to ask the State Education Department to suspend its testing program until such time as it can create a new one that reliably measures educational progress without harming children and lowering the quality of education.

School boards, parent organizations and others continue to pass variations on the resolutions and consider how to win the political battle to change testing policies.

Parent groups in a number of states, including Colorado, California and New York, that helped parents opt their children out of last spring’s tests are planning to continue and expand their boycotts.

At the local level, parents, students and teachers can unite to achieve concrete changes, such as halting the proliferation of “interim” or “benchmark” tests imposed by districts that are in addition to state or federal mandates. Winning changes against entrenched state and federal high-stakes testing policies will be a longer, harder task. But the upsurge in opposition to destructive high-stakes testing increases the likelihood of such victories.

FairTest’s web site has fact sheets, papers and materials to help testing opponents in their efforts.