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The rise of the anti-standardized testing movement

Anybody who has been paying attention to K-12 public education knows that there is a growing movement against high-stakes testing and corporate education reform. How did it start? Here’s an account, by Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, formally known as the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the abuse and misuse of standardized tests.

By Monty Neill

Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014. The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories, such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.

To understand how parents, students, educators, community leaders and other allies built the movement, my colleague Lisa Guisbond and I interviewed more than 30 activists, primarily parents, from across the nation. We tracked news stories, read research reports and blogs, and talked with policymakers. FairTest has released a detailed report on our findings.

The most visible, dynamic form of resistance was to boycott the tests.  In New York, 60,000 children and their parents refused to take federally mandated state tests in grades 3-8 – up from a few thousand in 2013. More than 1,000 opted out in both Chicago and Colorado, as well as in smaller numbers in other regions. Teachers boycotted at two schools in Chicago and one in New York City, while some high school students in several states walked out on tests.

Test resistance and reform campaigns used many tactics. The Providence Student Union dressed as guinea pigs, for example, to protest being used in testing experiments, and with allies launched effective legislative work that led to a moratorium on Rhode Island graduation exams. Across the nation, assessment reformers organized public forums, community meetings and house parties. Activists made powerful use of social media – Twitter, Facebook, websites, listservs – to communicate internally, build a base and educate the community. In some places, petitions proved useful tools to inform the public, expand support and pressure public officials, while rallies brought people together in highly visible ways. The growing resistance was reflected in expanded, often sympathetic mainstream media coverage, which also influenced policymakers.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers stepped up their attacks on high-stakes testing and increased support for organizing. The Oklahoma Education Association allied with parent groups to soften grade 3 test-based promotion and helped defeat the pro-testing state education secretary. Oregon and Massachusetts NEA affiliates called for three-year moratoria on all testing consequences to allow time to overhaul state assessment systems. The Massachusetts Teachers Association is holding teacher-led testing forums across the state, and the Oregon Education Association is working with state officials to design a possible new assessment system. The Chicago Teachers Union helped organize boycotts and opt outs. Parents reported that as they organized, local unions increasingly joined with them to resist the testing onslaught.

School boards are also resisting test overkill. In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for the next year’s state exams. This fall, the Lee County, Florida, school board voted to opt out of all state-mandated standardized tests. Though it later retreated, it also voted to drop all district-required exams, as did some in Texas over the past two years. The Lee County board and others across Florida, with parent and teacher allies, are pursuing strategies to slash state test requirements.


Activists often encountered hostile bureaucratic responses, which tended to be more harsh in lower-income schools and communities, particularly ones that are heavily black or Latino. Chicago authorities bullied parents into rescinding opt-out letters, then interrogated children without parents present when they refused to take the tests. School district officials threatened to fire teachers who boycotted — but did not follow through.

Some schools and districts required children who refused the test to “sit and stare,” to remain at their desks doing nothing for hours. Parents forced many to back down. Some states, such as North Carolina, encouraged humane behavior, while most kicked the issue to districts.

A year ago, it seemed leaders and parents in many locales were disproportionately white and middle class, though students of color often took the initiative in cities and there were active parents of color. This racial imbalance has begun to change. A New York City alliance found that parents and students named testing as the second biggest education problem, after funding. Parents of color in many communities stepped forward in leadership roles. These parents participated in boycotts as well as community meetings, house parties and other actions in growing numbers. They linked testing to consequences such as school closings.

Part of the problem is fear of sanctions, such as unfounded claims schools will lose money, particularly schools receiving federal Title I funds. . The belief that test-based accountability will help schools persists in some areas, but parent activists report that this perception is changing as parents increasingly see the destructive consequences of test mania.

Finally, the testing resistance and reform movement pulls in parents and community members from widely varying political perspectives. Sometimes alliances that cut across normal political lines are functioning well; in other cases, groups are working in parallel, at times uneasily.

Moving Forward

The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments. Progress has been made, but much more must be done. To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, political ideology. And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.

Congress likely will take up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2015. Grassroots activists will press to end every-grade testing  and punitive sanctions.  States can cut extra testing, as can districts. More states could drop graduation tests, and grade promotion exams need to be challenged.

Assessment is a valuable educational tool and communities deserve to know how well their schools are doing. Thus, high-stakes standardized testing must be replaced by educationally sound assessing.  FairTest has called for an indefinite moratorium on accountability testing to allow time to develop new assessments that build from the classroom out. .

Candidates for a variety of offices are running and increasingly winning on testing reform platforms. But the movement will also have to win over many current legislators and members of Congress in order to change the laws in ways called for by parents, students, educators and their allies. By building larger, stronger, grassroots campaigns, assessment reformers will create more momentum to reversing test-obsessed policy and improve accountability systems in K-12 education.