By Monty Neill
This spring, the testing resistance movement has exploded across the nation. It will continue to grow as the testing season heads into the final stretch. How can assessment reformers marshal this energy and use it to accomplish positive change?
Protest activities around the country reinforce the three core demands of Testing Resistance and Reform Spring: test less, end high stakes, and implement multiple forms of performance-based assessment of student learning.
Parent, student and teacher concerns include:
* There is too much testing. It crowds out other subjects, even recess, depriving children of an engaging, well-rounded curriculum.
* The tests are not useful to teachers, parents or students because they don’t assess important areas of learning, questions and answers are secret, and scores are not returned in a timely manner.
* Parents, teachers and students object to spending millions of dollars on testing and computer infrastructure for online testing while schools suffer increased class size and cuts to arts, sports, and other engaging activities.
* As a result of stress and anxiety, students are crying, vomiting and soiling themselves during standardized exams. Children fear that if they fail, their teachers will suffer. Some justifiably worry they will be denied promotion to the next grade or graduation.
* Computer systems around the country are crashing during test administration, often compounding the stress, especially for students less familiar with technology.
* The tests are unfair, particularly to students whose first language is not English and to students with disabilities, as well as students who attended ill-funded schools in low-income communities.
* Parents dislike the use of student test results to judge teachers. They know that federal mandates to evaluate teachers based on student scores produce inaccurate ratings, a huge increase in testing, and more teaching to the test.
* The exams are too long and full of errors: unclear questions, obscure reading passages, math problems embedded in confusing language, more than one right answer – or no right answer.
* Parents object to huge, profit-making companies using their children as unpaid “guinea pigs” to try out questions for the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests.
Most resisters say they don’t oppose all standardized testing. They want it cut way back and the stakes dramatically lowered. Many say that evaluation should be in the hands of teachers, not states and testing companies. They point to real work kids do in classrooms as the best evidence of student learning.
In some states, thousands of students and parents are opting out. Elsewhere, organizing drives are just getting started. Activists across the country understand this will be a multi-year effort.
In addition to expanding the movement, there are two other critical issues to address.
One is to continue strengthening alliances across boundaries of class and race. To win, assessments reformers must build a broad, diverse movement with political muscle.
In several communities, urban students across the nation have taken the lead by walking out of test sessions. Hundreds of parents of color in low-income New York City boroughs of Harlem and Brooklyn recently publicized their opt out actions. They know that test overkill most damages schools serving low-income, minority and second language students, and that authorities are using test scores to justify closing schools, with resulting disruption of community life.
Parent, teacher and student activists at the recent United Opt Out conference in Denver planned concrete steps to diversify the movement. For example, students working to build the Colorado Student Union are organizing meetings with both urban and suburban peers.
Our nation has historically failed the often-segregated schools attended by students of color. Thus, parents and communities demand accountability from schools and systems. Unfortunately, too few people know there are far better ways to provide information about schools than focusing on test results. Test reformers must develop and promote high quality assessment and evaluation that responds to the needs of all communities.
Second, while the resistance is shaking up the education establishment and has won important victories, meaningful policy changes have been implemented in only a few states and districts. The assessment reform movement needs to focus on important goals, such as:
* Districts must sharply reduce the number of standardized exams they require on top of federal and state mandates (e.g., “benchmark” tests). They should also end high stakes uses of exams for purposes such as grade promotion.
* States must eliminate testing requirements that are not federally mandated and drop high school graduation exams.
* Federal law should reduce required statewide assessments to once each in elementary, middle and high school, as recently introduced legislation will do. It should allow states to use sampling rather than test every child. Test scores must not be the basis for punitive actions against schools; genuine assistance must replace punishment.
* The federal government also must end its requirement that states evaluate teachers “in significant part” on student scores in order to receive waivers to NCLB.
Since students deserve high-quality assessments that enhance learning, districts and states need to work with teachers to overhaul assessment. To know how well students are learning, the best evidence comes from reviewing their ongoing school work. This will also ensure the use of multiple measures. For those concerned about a lack of objectivity or comparability, there are effective ways to validate teachers’ judgments. Limited use of standardized testing can act as an additional check on the system, as can school quality reviews. Without such structural changes, schools will remain vulnerable to an inevitable counter-attack from profiteering corporations and testing zealots.
Winning these changes will take political clout. As the resistance grows, we must find ways to turn anger and mobilization into concrete changes. Activists have employed various tactics toward that end. These include forums with elected officials (or empty chairs if they refuse to participate), working with legislators to draft bills, rallies and lobby days at state capitols where the public meets with their elected representatives, and letters-to-the-editor that identify policymakers who are blocking assessment reform. Building alliances across communities is essential. Texas parents and their allies persuaded the legislature to eliminate two-thirds of the state’s graduation exams through careful “inside” (legislative meetings and lobbying) and “outside” (rallies and grassroots mobilization) strategies.
Efforts to placate the opposition with changes that are more cosmetic than substantive will inevitably continue. Activists should not be fooled. New Yorkers, for example, launched an enormous escalation of their opt out campaign just days after a mostly irrelevant “reform” bill passed in Albany, showing they would not be tricked. (On the bright side, the new law states that tests cannot be a “major” part of grade promotion decisions.)
Authorities also may promote “solutions” that benefit more privileged communities, thus re-dividing people by race and class. Examples include proposals to allow high-scoring districts to test less or to design alternative accountability systems, even though it is low-income schools and districts that most need these options. Reformers should welcome sound changes to assessment and accountability systems but insist they include all communities. By rejecting schemes to divide us, the testing resistance and reform movement can grow stronger and win fundamental changes.
The resistance movement has grown from modest roots to a flowering movement with increasing power and sophistication. That is a fantastic start for winning long-term victories.