By Monty Neill
Thousands of high school students in half a dozen New Mexico communities walked out on their exams. The Nathan Hale School Senate in Seattle voted not to administer the Common Core test known as the SBAC, created by the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. As New Jersey begins giving students the Common Core test known as PARCC, created by the multi-state Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, some communities are reporting test refusal rates of more than 40 percent.
Since mid-February, there have been stories of boycotts in more than a dozen states, though the main testing has not yet started in most jurisdictions. Bills to explicitly authorize parents’ right to opt their children out of standardized exams have been introduced in at least 11 states. In Connecticut, the state superintendent’s association has advised districts to approve parental opt out requests and provide students with alternative settings during testing time.
Local school leaders have increasingly joined the resistance. The school boards in Lewiston, Maine, and Manchester, New Hampshire, informed parents they had the right to refuse. From New Jersey to Oregon, many boards have passed resolutions recognizing this right. In Florida, Lee County voted to end all its district-mandated tests (which add greatly to the burden), while other districts cut back some tests. The Florida boards also are a major source of pressure on the legislature to reduce the number of exams and the stakes attached to them.
In response to the growing movement, states and districts are changing laws and policies. In 2013 and 2014, four states repealed or delayed graduation exams. In 2015, Arizona has already halted its exit test, while Oklahoma, Utah, Pennsylvania and Texas are debating whether to do the same. Other states and districts ended or softened grade promotion testing or eliminated other exams. More are certain to do so this year. California is changing its accountability system to greatly de-emphasize testing. And many states have established commissions to review the amount of public school testing. The Ohio governor just signed a bill protecting students from the most punitive consequences of the Common Core exams.
States also are increasingly rejecting the federally funded PARCC and Smarter Balanced Common Core exams. The number of states participating in PARCC dropped by half over the past year, while several states dropped Smarter Balanced. More are likely to join them in the coming year. Of course, to meet federal testing requirements under No Child Left Behind, these states have had to adopt other standardized exams.
This movement is growing as Congress, for the first time since the passage of the test-centric No Child Left Behind nearly 15 years ago, Congress is debating whether to reduce federally mandated testing. One proposal would cut back testing from every year in grades 3-8 to once each in 3-5 and 6-9, as well as once in high school, for reading, math and science. The House refused to allow a vote on such an amendment (perhaps because leaders feared it would pass). The Senate education committee is expected to decide in mid-April whether to allow such “grade span” testing. FairTest will post updates and provides so check for updates as well as links for sending emails to members of Congress.
It seems certain that any bill that advances through Congress will end NCLB’s punitive sanctions – except perhaps for the lowest scoring districts, which overwhelmingly serve students who are low-income, of color, or are English language learners. It appears that neither the House nor Senate will require states to use student scores to rank teachers, but if they use discretionary federal funds to evaluate teachers, they will have to include student “growth” scores.
Another important development has been the rapid increase in state and local teacher unions openly battling the overuse and misuse of tests and backing the right of parents to opt out. Nationally, the National Education Association is pushing Congress to require only grade-span testing, and it voted to support parental opt-out rights. As unions have stepped up, community-parent-union alliances have grown.
Not surprisingly, authorities in some states, districts and schools are attempting to repress the movement. Authorities often falsely tell parents that opting out will cost their schools federal funds. But states with waivers no longer have to impose NCLB’s sanctions. In states without waivers, almost every school is failing anyway since 100 percent of their students must now score “proficient” under the unreachable goals set out in NCLB.
State and administrative pressure against refusing is strongest in low-income communities of color, where local schools are most likely to rely heavily on federal funding. However, communities of color increasingly recognize the damage testing causes. Several recent surveys found most people of color are critical of testing. They also recognize that low test scores are the primary excuse for closing or privatizing schools, as has been done in Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Boston, New York and other cities.
Despite misinformation and repression, the movement continues to expand as it seeks to roll back the standardized testing onslaught and establish assessment as a tool to support rather than undermine learning. (You can follow developments through FairTest’s weekly compilation of news stories.)