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 I recently wrote about a new book by Harvard University professor Daniel Koretz, “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better,” which details exactly what the title suggests: how the standardized-test-based accountability movement in public education pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations has failed to improve schools.

Parents, students and public education advocates have been telling policymakers for years about the many problems with excessive high-stakes standardized testing, including narrowed curriculum and evaluation systems that assessed teachers on the scores of students they didn’t have. While there is still a great deal of it in districts around the country, 2017 saw some reductions in the amount of testing as well as the high stakes attached to student scores.

This post discusses what happened in this arena in the past year. It was written by Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the abuse of standardized tests, and by Lisa Guisbond, assessment reform analyst at FairTest.

By Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond

Assessment reform campaigns rolled back the amount of testing and reduced high-stakes exams in many states and districts across the United States this year. A new FairTest report, “Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?” explains how and why local activists were successful. It is based on interviews with groups around the nation.

Widespread public awareness of the damage caused by the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, coupled with effective grass-roots organizing by parents, teachers, students and their allies, is increasingly producing positive changes in state and district testing practices. Local victories often occur in communities with large percentages of African American or Latino students and low-income families.

There has also been progress in implementing better assessments. Here are some examples of victories taken from FairTest’s report:

  • Eliminating high school graduation exams. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13. Idaho eliminated its grad tests in 2017. Rhode Island, where student-led protests forced the state to adopt a moratorium on exit exams, dropped the tests completely in 2017. Other states cut some tests or expanded alternatives. At least seven states made their rollback of graduation testing retroactive, granting diplomas to tens of thousands of young adults. Research shows these tests cause a great deal of individual and social harm without providing benefits.
  • Cutting the amount of state or district testing or the time spent on testing. Maryland’s legislature capped the amount of time districts can devote to testing. Instead of testing all kindergartners, Maryland will now test representative samples. New Mexico passed a law eliminating the requirement that ninth- and 10th-graders take at least three periodic tests each year in reading, English and math. West Virginia eliminated English language arts and mathematics exams in grades 9 and 10. Public pressure forced Hawaii to drop three end-of-course high school exams along with ending use of ACT tests in grades 9 and 10. Other states cut some tests in some grades. Responding to anger across the nation, PARCC cut the length of its still-excessive exams by 90 minutes.

Advocates also won major cuts in the number of tests that districts add on to those mandated by states. Districts eliminating or significantly reducing local mandates include Las Cruces and Santa Fe, N.M.; San Diego and Sacramento; Knox County, Tenn.; Clay County, Fla.; Vancouver, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Jefferson County, Ky.

If states eliminate punitive accountability sanctions, as the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows, districts will be under far less pressure to boost scores. Activists can use that opening to push for an overhaul of district assessment as well as push states to reduce testing to the federally mandated minimum.

  • Ending or reducing the use of student test scores to judge teachers. Connecticut joined at last six other states that have done so since ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind (Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma). New Mexico joined other states that have reduced the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations. (On why these tests are harmful, see fairtest.org/teacher-evaluation-fact-sheet.)
  • Opting out. New policies in Idaho and North Dakota brought to 10 the number of states that allow parents to opt their children out of some or all exams. The opt-out movement in New York state held steady at a nearly 20 percent refusal rate, while increases were noted in other locales.
  • Implementing performance assessment. Half of New Hampshire school districts have or soon will replace standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments. Across the nation, many districts that cut their own test mandates are joined by local unions in implementing such assessments.

How test reformers won

FairTest analyzed how Maryland and a group of seven local unions who are part of the National Council of Urban Education Associations made gains. The investigation revealed a number of common themes, strategies and tactics. Among the findings, which activists can adapt to local circumstances, are:

  1. Educate, organize and mobilize. Tactics included organizing school-based and union-wide meetings, public forums and rallies (with students and parents); making local videos, showing films, and using social media; and including testing reforms in contract negotiations.
  2. Survey teachers or parents. Surveys help activists determine the reform campaign’s primary goals and demands, mobilize people, and provide evidence for the demands to the public and policymakers. (See a model, usable survey at fairtest.org/time-to-learn-survey-impact-of-testing.)
  3. Build alliances among teachers, parents, students and others, such as civil rights groups.
  4. Win over or replace school committee members and the superintendent. In some cases, a series of elections over time were needed for test reformers to gain a majority on a school board, which led to replacing the superintendent as well as reduced testing.
  5. Take advantage of existing opportunities for input. Look for openings to include less testing in contract negotiations or to participate in a districtwide strategic planning process.
  6. Determine the goal(s) and demand(s). In some districts, the goal was to end all district-mandated testing; in others it was to reduce testing. In states it has been to end tests not required by the federal government, or stop the misuse of test results. In some locales, there has been a push toward higher quality teacher-controlled, performance-based assessment.
  7. Develop a strategy for winning. In every victory, the leading organization(s) planned a campaign. They had to be flexible to adapt to changing circumstances.
  8. Frame the message to appeal to target audiences. Go positive (e.g., “more learning, less testing”). Focus on the benefits for students.
  9. Build the opt-out movement. Some local unions have promoted opting out, often in collaboration with parent-led groups. In some districts, the opt out movement helped win the victory.

Though they are just a start, these victories are important for the benefits they provide to children. They also show that determined, organized groups can win.