Does populist outrage matter anymore? Anyone following the growing resistance to unpopular standardized testing in the nation’s public schools may soon see.
Thousands of teachers, parents, students, and public school advocates poured into the streets of New York City to call attention to the plight of public schools and to protest new proposals considered by the state legislature.
As a report from progressive news outlet Common Dreams recounts, the protestors’ demands ranged across an array of threats to public education – including lack of resources for schools and the rapid expansion of charter schools – but chief among the complaints was the increased emphasis on high-stakes testing.
The protests echo demands that rang through the halls of the state capital in Albany two days earlier when, according to a report from a local Fox News outlet, teachers “stormed” the building to express their opposition to a new state budget that puts “more emphasis on testing.” Teachers oppose the testing not only because of the effects over-testing has on student learning but also because the tests will be used in teacher evaluations, placing 50 percent of their performance assessment on student scores.
For these reasons and others, teachers across the state are increasingly advocating for parents to resist the influence of standardized tests by opting their children out of the exams. The head of the state’s teacher union endorsed a boycott of the tests. And for the first time, Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher union, spoke out in support of parents who opt their children out of tests, according to a blog post by education historian Diane Ravitch.
Many parents are taking the advice. As education journalist Valerie Strauss reports from her blog at The Washington Post, “New York state has been at the forefront of the opt-out movement, with some 60,000 parents last year deciding not to allow their children to take these tests. Activists say they expect more this year.”
Strauss turned the rest of her post over to New York educators Carol Burris and Bianca Tanis who write, “New York is on the leading edge of a growing national Opt Out movement – a movement that galvanizes the energy of parents, teachers and administrators who are pushing back against the Common Core tests and standardized test-based reforms.”
Burris and Tanis point to a recent survey showing, “by more than a 2 to 1 margin, New Yorkers trust the teachers union more than the governor, and less than 30 percent want test scores to determine teacher pay and tenure.” They point to “a coalition of pro-public school, anti-testing advocates” sponsoring forums across the state to encourage parent to oppose testing.” The forums, they contend, “have drawn hundreds of parents and teachers.”
The opt out movement is becoming so strong, Burris and Tanis maintain, many district school superintendents are taking steps to discourage opt outs for fear of being noncompliant with directives from state board of education.
So after all this outpouring of populist demand, how did state lawmakers respond?
A quick recap in The New York Times notes that negotiations between Governor Andrew Cuomo and state senators produced a bill that enforces “tying teacher evaluations more closely to students’ state test scores.” The resulting legislation will ensure, according to an Albany news outlet, public education governance that “continues to rely heavily on standardized test results.”
Testing mandates sailed through the state Assembly as well, where according to state news outlet Capital, lawmakers passed a bill which “creates a new educator evaluation system” based on a 50 percent wieght from the scores.
New York-based teacher Daniel Katz writes, “The governor’s education agenda only enjoys a 28 percent approval rating. 65 percent do not want tenure tied to test scores. Yet, despite overwhelming disapproval, the Assembly was unable to hold fast with the voting public.”
What’s worse, the legislation that passed ensures test scores will not only become 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation but “no teacher found ‘ineffective’ by the test score component can be found higher than ‘developing’ overall, and an ‘ineffective’ test score component will override an observation based rating.”
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In other words, tests rule.
What happened in New York has implications nationwide, as the rollout of new tests in practically every state are prompting widespread opposition.
There’s little doubt a nationwide rebellion against standardized testing is raging. From Redmond, Washington to Toledo, Ohio, thousands of teachers have expressed opposition to the emphasis on standardized testing and how the scores are used to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, schools. Parents from California to Florida are opting to withhold their children from mandated tests. A school district in New Jersey recently reported nearly 39 percent of its students were opting out of federally mandated tests.
The Center on Fair and Open Testing keeps a weekly summary of news stories related to the resistance to testing. Each week’s tally features clips from scores of states. The most recent installment began, “The U.S. assessment reform movement is growing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. This week’s clips include stories from 30 states as well as updates from the fight to rollback federal testing mandates.”
But to what effect?
Recently, in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, education gadfly Alexander Russo declared media attention to protests against standardized testing were overblown. “Parents’ willingness to opt their children out of the tests has been high in just a few schools and smaller school districts,” he writes. “Only a handful of teachers have endangered their jobs by refusing to administer the tests.”
Russo criticizes a report by PBS education reporter John Merrow that called grassroots resistance to testing “something big.”
He concludes, “There’s no question that something big is happening in New Jersey and around the country, but it’s not what most reporters are describing.”
Quite likely, journalists aren’t describing the resistance well because anger, by it’s very nature, often comes across first as incoherence to those who aren’t yet angry. But make no mistake; it really is “something big.”
There are signs that government officials are responding. Here and there, – in Connecticut, in New Jersey – public school administrators are buckling to parent demands to allow students to opt out. And some states, beginning with Texas in 2013, have been reducing their numbers of standardizes tests, more recently South Carolina. Even formerly test-happy Florida Governor Rick Scott recently signed an executive order to reduce testing.
Rage against standardized testing has reached the nation’s capital as well. As a report for The Huffington Post notes, lawmakers in DC recently introduced bills allowing states to reduce testing.
For sure, the emphasis on testing isn’t going away anytime soon. The biggest impediment, no doubt, is “the money,” explains NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz in a piece appearing at Strauss’ blog. Indeed, testing companies pour millions of dollars into lobbying for pro-testing policies, Strauss reported in yet another post.
But all the money in the world won’t be able to wash away the dirty business of test-driven education, as more and more personal stories come forth revealing the damage being done to teachers, and in turn, to students and families.