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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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Early January is back-to-school time—students preparing for a new semester, a year half over. For many students, that means getting ready for a seemingly endless stream of standardized tests – tests meant to measure their progress, their teacher's competence, their school's quality, and their own readiness to take the next step in their education.

This January, though, a group of teachers, parents and activists are organizing against the tests. They have called the first national Opt Out Day for January 7, a day of actions across the country loudly withdrawing consent from a testing regime they say is hurting kids.

Peggy Robertson, a Colorado-based former teacher who is one of the founders of United Opt Out and a Save Our Schools March steering committee member, told AlterNet, “In our opinion, an act of civil disobedience is paramount to stop this.”

“It's very clear that this testing is being used to dismantle the public school system,” she added.

United Opt Out is calling for parents and children to opt out of taking their state's standardized tests. But January 7 isn't just about opting out, which Robertson recognizes isn't an option for everyone. In some states, that could have disastrous consequences for students, who might not be able to graduate or move on to the next grade. So they are pushing January 7 as a beginning, a launch date for 2012, for a movement that seems to be gathering steam, to change the narrative around testing as the only way to fix struggling public schools.

The activists are calling for an array of actions, including rallies, teach-ins and a postcard campaign expressing to state and local education officials their opposition to corporate education “reform,” from privatization of public schools to endless testing.

Jane Hirschmann has been fighting the creep of standardized testing in New York schools since 1996, with the coalition Time Out from Testing. She told AlterNet, “I feel like there's an awakening right now, I feel like there are more parents talking about it, there are more parents angry about it.”

The way Robertson envisions opting out is much like a strike—if enough students do not take the tests then the data becomes statistically invalid and the school districts will have to negotiate. Like any other form of civil disobedience, it requires mass participation or it won't work. Hirschmann noted that even if students opted out of the tests, they're stuck with a curriculum that is designed around testing.

Still, Robertson is optimistic, noting that pockets of resistance are forming around the country. She's working with groups in Indiana, Florida and California, and is planning an action in her home state of Colorado. “If we can get lots of people to opt out, what are they going to do, stop an entire class from graduating? Are they really going to keep an entire third grade back?” she asked. “You know that we have the power to change this.”

The Spread of High-Stakes Testing

How did testing become so prevalent, and so potentially harmful, that parents would be willing to turn to civil disobedience?

“I used to be a teacher,” Robertson said. “I got out because I couldn't take it anymore, I couldn't take the CSAP [Colorado Student Assessment Program tests], being required to do everything around that.”

“There's no discussion anymore among anybody about what makes good teaching or good learning,” Hirschmann said. The only questions are "How do we get good test scores, how do we use the test scores?”

How did we get to this point? A lot of the blame certainly goes to George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind, but it's worth pointing out that support for standardized tests, as well as charter schools and other popular forms of school “reform” is bipartisan, despite mixed results.

“What it's done is turn schools into test prep factories. The curriculum is totally a test curriculum,” Hirschmann said. She explained that her children, the oldest of whom is 32, had arts courses, field trips, a rich curriculum. “I go back to their schools, I start talking about the curriculum my kids had in third and fourth grade, and they're dumbfounded.”

Hirschmann noted that No Child Left Behind (and its Obama-era successor, Race to the Top) aren't responsible for all or even most of the tests students have to take. “New York State has the most draconian testing policy in the country. Bush only said you have to evaluate children in English and Math in grades three through eight and once in high school (most people do it in tenth grade). Our state has five tests that a child must pass in order to graduate.”

Cynthia Liu at K-12 News Network explained that as No Child Left Behind created the need to teach to the test, test companies created more offerings—not only administering the tests for school districts, but test prep materials as well, and making a healthy profit. Then, she noted, “conservative Democrats enamored of technocratic 'ed reform' demanded that teacher performance be predicated on student standardized tests scores,” and those test scores are used to fire teachers (and as a side “benefit,” bust the teachers' unions).

“Somebody's profiting out there,” Robertson said.

Jonathan Keiler, a Maryland teacher writing at Education Week, explained the way test scores became a commodity—and create incentives for cheating or gaming the system along the way.

Value-added evaluations [in other words, pay increases related to high test scores] both directly and indirectly monetize student performance, and because money is a basic commodity, the process then turns student scores into a commodity. Of course, that performance is not monetized for the students; it is monetized for the teachers and administrators. By making student scores the basis for evaluation, the students and their scores create a market for the teachers and administrators whose livelihoods depend upon the results.

We are rewarding teachers for turning out kids with good test scores, even if they are not necessarily well educated.

When student scores become like orange juice, pork bellies, or yen, the people with the greatest incentive to cheat are the weakest teachers and administrators.

Where could this lead? Schools could become little more than test-preparation institutes, ignoring subjects and skills that are not assessed, with faculty members who resent and distrust one another. Meanwhile, many honest and dutiful teachers will go down in flames.

Cheating scandals have already erupted. In one notable case, in schools that Michelle Rhee, education reform darling and former Washington, DC schools chancellor, held up as a model of her brand of education.

Jeff Bryant at Campaign for America's Future said that by making test scores the primary measure of school accountability, the education reform crowd could link every financial aspect of schools to test scores -- from teacher salaries to federal funds. He wrote, “[S]tandardized test scores are now the 'currency' of education that enables all sorts of resource swaps that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, including charter schools for traditional public schools, online learning for face-to-face teaching, and experienced, tenured teachers for Teach for America amateurs.”

Hirschmann said one of the purposes of the testing regime is to “deprofessionalize the profession of teaching.” Parents tend to trust teachers, but now, she said, “The teacher can't even teach to the child anymore because it's not child-centered, it's test-centered. Everyone's talking about what they can do, what they can bring in, what they can buy to raise the test scores.”

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.

In Robertson's hometown of Denver, she'll be with a group holding a teach-in at the capitol, signing postcards to elected officials declaring opposition to the testing regime and other forms of education privatization, and then marching to the education department to drop off the cards. Groups that she's working with around the country are organizing their own events.

“United Opt Out has been around six months, and what we have been able to accomplish literally just through social media has been great. But if we could get other venues to get this word out, I think the momentum is ours. I think that door is open,” she said.

In New York, Hirschmann and Time Out from Testing are working on a referendum for parents across the city that can be used to pressure legislators. “You have to start locally,” she said. “Since we know how to do that--we've done it before--we think now is a time that parents are open to discussion, to hearing about this, to maybe taking action.”

She noted that thanks to organizing from Time Out from Testing and others, there are now 28 schools in New York that do not take the five high-stakes regents' tests. Those schools, which are in low-income areas, outperform the national average on graduation rates and college performance.

Down the road a bit, plans are being laid to Occupy the Department of Education in Washington, DC in March.

“We're going to be marching, we have rallies, we have teach-ins, we hope those four days will allow us to get some attention,” Robertson said.

She added: “I hope people nationwide will stand up and say 'My child is more than a test score.'” 

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.
 
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