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Standardized Tests Hurt Kids and Public Schools: Teachers, Parents Take a Stand Against Corporate-Backed Test Regime

Teachers, parents and activists are organizing to fight standardized testing in schools -- and the big companies that profit from the tests.

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What they can buy, often, seems to be the point.

Robertson pointed out that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing policy network that cranks out model legislation for the states (now with help from the Gates Foundation) has been deeply involved in pushing testing and “merit pay” in schools. She noted that the profit motive has snuck into even the passing of national standards for teaching materials. “They've got the common core standards, now they can say these are the textbooks you need, the test prep, we're going to roll out the state test for you.”

Abby Rapoport at the Texas Observer reported that federal law requires states to use standardized tests, but doesn't specify which test, so testing companies compete for fat contracts to do the state's testing. Back in 2005, Questar, one of 17 companies at the time that created, printed and scored standardized tests, did approximately $2.2 billion in business a year. And testing has only increased since then.

Meanwhile, the same testing companies administer state tests also sell textbooks, test prep materials and much more. Rapoport wrote:

From textbooks to data management, professional development programs to testing systems, Pearson has it all—and all of it has a price. For statewide testing in Texas alone, the company holds a five-year contract worth nearly $500 million to create and administer exams. If students should fail those tests, Pearson offers a series of remedial-learning products to help them pass. Meanwhile, kids are likely to use textbooks from Pearson-owned publishing houses like Prentice Hall and Pearson Longman. Students who want to take virtual classes may well find themselves in a course subcontracted to Pearson. And if the student drops out, Pearson partners with the American Council on Education to offer the GED exam for a profit.

“There's a huge amount of money to be made off of children who have to take high-stakes tests,” Hirschmann noted, and so the testing companies think nothing of spending a bit on politicians. “Pearson has been offering trips; David Steiner, the former [New York state] commissioner of education, went on one of these junkets and Pearson has the contract.”

Meanwhile in Texas, Rapoport reported that in the most recent legislative session, an unprecedented $5 billion was hacked from the public education budget. “Despite the cuts,” she noted, “Pearson’s funding streams remain largely intact.”

While public school (and charter school) students have to take test after test, it's worth noting that often private school students have no such requirements, meaning that once again, the pressure of testing falls hardest on those who can't buy their way out. Many of the very people making education policy (including President Obama) send their children to private schools, while mandating constant testing for other people's children.

Hirschmann said, “The private schools here in NY got together, starting in 1996 when the high-stakes tests came in. They wrote a letter to the commissioners, they said we will never do these tests.”

Other countries, too, see little benefit in constant testing. A recent story in the Atlantic looked at Finland, which ranks near the top in every international survey of education, and found:

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, Finland's education system focuses on equality and cooperation, not competition.

What Can Be Done?

The testing regime isn't working—except to put money back into the pockets of big testing companies. So activists are moving forward with plans to fight the education reform regime however they can, with United Opt Out pushing to make a splash this Saturday.

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