Options In The Standoff Over Test-Based Education Policy

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Education Opportunity Network

Options In The Standoff Over Test-Based Education Policy

What happens when people feel they aren’t being listened to? They raise their voices louder.

For some time now, teachers, parents, and students have spoken out against the extraordinary emphasis on standardized testing that has become the bedrock of the nation’s education policies. Critics have questioned the whole idea that teaching and learning is a pursuit that can be expressed and judged by numbers and rankings, which seems to be a forgone conclusion to policy makers and economists.

While leaders of the policy establishment calling itself “education reform” have noticed the clamor, they remain unmoved. As operatives at Brookings Institute recently wrote, “The testing and accountability movement is in a bit of trouble.”

They duly noted that New York City’s new mayor Bill de Blasio wants to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse.” It’s not lost on them that Texas, a bastion of test-based education policy, recently passed “several bills with overwhelming bipartisan majorities that cut back the number and use of tests.” They see how No Child Left Behind’s false promise to make all children “proficient” in test taking by 2014 has led to the confusing bureaucratic tangle of “waivers” issued by the Obama administration. And they can’t ignore – although they clearly disrespect – the “white suburban moms” who are upset about being told their schools and their children are failures based on a new array of tests they know nothing about and had no say-so in adopting for their schools and their children’s education.

Faced with such a storm of criticism, they bizarrely conclude that the only viable way forward is “more tests.”

Clearly, what we have is a standoff over testing as the chief means to determine the fate of the nation’s schools, its teachers, and indeed the well being of the vast majority of American school children.

As in every standoff, someone eventually has to give.

A Rising Anti-Testing Tide

Protesting against standardized testing is now a “rising tide,” concluded Veteran Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz recently. “As states grapple with the huge task of building new testing regimens to reflect the common core, they are having to turn some of their attention to fending off a growing number of parents who want their children to skip the tests.”

Gewertz found a hefty footprint left by opt-out efforts in Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Mexico. But this barely skims the surface.

Similarly, education journalist for The Wall Street Journal Stephanie Banchero recently wrote, “A long-simmering movement to scale back the use of standardized tests in K-12 education is beginning to see results, with policy makers and politicians in several states limiting – or trying to limit – the time used for assessments, or delaying the consequences tied to them.” Banchero cites influential anti-testing backlashes in Missouri, New York, and Connecticut.

Chicago is an especially obvious focal point for the anti-testing movement. In late February, hundreds of Chicago students in 25 schools vowed not to take state-mandated tests beginning in early March. Then some 40 teachers at a Chicago elementary school vowed to boycott the test as well. “We’re taking a stand against over-testing. Our students take tests every single month, and we’re sick of seeing them stressed out,” explained one of the boycotting teachers to a local reporter.

Soon another elementary school joined the boycott. The administration responded with a robocall campaign over the weekend to threaten recrimination should parents and students opt out of the test, which prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to call for an investigation.

Chicago parent Matt Farmer explained at The Huffington Post why so many parents back the effort to boycott the tests: “Teachers don’t want their kids to have to forfeit all that instructional time over two weeks for a worthless standardized test that the Mayor’s kids certainly won’t be taking at their private school.”

According to the most recent update from Progress Illinois, more than 1,500 students from about 74 schools have been opted out of the test by their parents throughout the district.

In Providence Rhode Island, another flashpoint in the resistance,  a state official has spoken out against the local district’s chief administrator who expressed opposition to a high school graduation test that has been rebuked by Providence high school students. This prompted the Providence School Board Chairman to fire back and tell  the state official to “get her head out of the sand and recognize the harmful impact this flawed policy is having on real students.”

A Call For Congressional Hearings

Against this background of fomenting unrest, this weekend in Austin, Texas, some 500 public school advocates spoke out against the nation’s current public school policies and called for new and different policies. The first-ever national conference of the Network for Public Education featured outspoken critics of current education policies, including education historian Diane Ravitch, Texas school superintendent John Kuhn, and Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union.

The culminating action from the meeting was a call for Congressional hearings “to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools,” according to a press release on the NPE website.

The full text of NPE’s call for hearings states that although, “it makes sense to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, and standardized tests can help discern whether they are,” tests have now “become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education,” and over-emphasis on testing “has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny.”

NPE asks Congress to pursue at least 11 lines of inquiry, including “Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need?” and “Are tests being given to children who are too young?”

How will NPE’s call Congressional hearings be received?

Writing at The Answer Sheet, the education blog for The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reported on the call for hearings from the NPE meeting and noticed the response it got at a SXSWedu conference occurring in the same city on a subsequent day.

When the subject came up Tuesday at a panel on accountability featuring Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s former communications director, Peter Cunningham, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Strauss noted, “One of the founders of NPE, veteran educator Anthony Cody, asked if the panelists would support” NPE’s action.

“Weingarten quickly said she would. Then, Cunningham said he would support it, as well,” Strauss reported.

“Nobody in Washington expects Congress to get its act together to actually rewrite NCLB anytime soon,” Strauss concluded. “But legislators are really good at holding hearings on topics that are important to them.”

A Parent Writes To The President

Also at The Answer Sheet blog, parent activist Bertis Downs – who lives in Athens Georgia, and is a former legal counselor and manager of the band R.E.M. – wrote a different sort of appeal but with the same concern that test-based policies are ruining our public schools.

In his letter to President Obama, Downs states, “The policies currently promoted by your Department of Education are actually hurting– not helping– schools like ours. It is clear we will reduce schools’ efficacy if public education remains fixated on tests that only measure limited concepts – tests that regularly relegate less advantaged children into the ‘bottom half’ and limit their access to broader education.”

Downs asks the President to ponder, ” Why does the law distill the interactions of our teachers and students over the course of a year into a high-stakes multiple choice test? Is this really a valid system of accountability for teachers, based so heavily on their students’ test scores? If so, why are so many public school parents, teachers and students pushing back against it? And why aren’t the private schools insisting on it?”

Not On The Test

So in an election year, the President, members of Congress, and state lawmakers face a multiple-choice question of their own about how to respond to the increasingly vocal and strident opposition to an education regime based on an unpopular and unfounded level and frequency of standardized testing.

For sure, the dissenting crowd is providing some possible answers: slow-downs or moratoriums, Congressional hearings, something more valid.

But “more of the same” isn’t one of the options.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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