The Rebellion Against Testing in the US Continues to Grow

The rebellion against high stakes testing in the United States that began early last year continues to grow. In recent weeks, there have been some significant developments with teachers in Seattle refusing to administer tests and Republican legislators in Texas deciding to cut back tests.

In Seattle, teachers at four schools have refused to administer district-required tests known as Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). Teachers at Garfield High School started the boycott by announcing that no teachers at the school would be giving the MAP tests, even though they are required to do so. Nearly all teachers in the school signed a letter to the school district administration saying they are not against testing, but they think the MAP exams fail to help them or their students and waste valuable class time.

The boycott has spread. Three other Seattle schools joined it and teachers in many other schools have publicly supported the stand. Fifty parents at one school have opted their children out of the tests.

The Seattle Education Association President, Jonathan Knapp, told The Seattle Times that he wants the school district to set a date to stop using the MAP exams. He also said that concerns over those tests are part of larger questions about the costs of testing, and how much time schools devote to it.

The union listed its concerns as:
• The test does not line up with state standards.
• The test does not line up with district curriculum.
• The test takes valuable time away from student learning.
• Many students do not take the test seriously.
• The testing time frame takes valuable time away from students in the school being able to access computer labs and libraries for other projects.
• The data obtained is of minimal use to teachers in planning lessons and meeting individual student needs.

The teachers’ boycott has galvanised support across the nation. The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said:

Thank you for taking a courageous stand against the fixation on high-stakes testing and its harmful impact on our ability to give our students the high-quality public education they deserve.
Your actions have propelled the national conversation on the impact of high-stakes testing. Every educator understands that appropriate assessments are an integral part of a high-quality education system. But an accountability system obsessed with measuring, which punishes teachers and schools, comes at a huge cost to children. This fixation on testing has narrowed our curriculums and deprived our students of art, music, gym and other subjects that enrich their minds and make learning fun. Teachers have been forced to spend too much time on test preparation and data collection, at the expense of more engaging instruction. Ironically, this fixation on high-stakes testing actually does the opposite of what its proponents tell us it will do.

The National Education Association, the largest professional organisation in the US, also came out in support of the boycott. President Dennis Van Roekel said:

Today is a defining moment within the education profession as educators at Seattle’s Garfield High School take a heroic stand against using the MAP test as a basis for measuring academic performance and teacher effectiveness. I, along with 3 million educators across the country, proudly support their efforts in saying ‘no’ to giving their students a flawed test that takes away from learning and is not aligned with the curriculum. Garfield High School educators are receiving support from the parents of Garfield students. They have joined an ever-growing chorus committed to one of our nation’s most critical responsibilities—educating students in a manner that best serves the realization of their fullest potential.

More than sixty educators and researchers, including some of the most well-respected figures in US education, issued a public statement in support for the boycott calling the action a “blow against the overuse and misuse of standardized tests”. The teachers have also received support from Parents Across America.

The Seattle education superintendant has threatened teachers with suspension unless they administer the tests. Teachers have been given until February 22 to administer the tests. At a rally in Seattle this week, teachers said they will not back down. One teacher said: “They’re playing hardball, so game on”.

The other major development was in Texas where the Republican dominated Congress is about to cut back on testing. Legislators will consider everything from a two-year moratorium on testing to a reduced number of state exams. The Dallas Morning News said legislators were responding to a “hue and cry” of criticism from parents and teachers. Currently, high school students have to pass 15 exams to graduate and during the 180 day year they spend up to 45 days doing various standardised exams.

In the first session of the Texas House of Representatives this year, the newly re-elected Republican Speaker, Joe Strauss, said

By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools. Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization. To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing: The Texas House has heard you.

The Republican Lieutenant-Governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, said that the number of tests high school students have to pass will be reduced. The Republican Texas Senate Education Committee chairman said that the 15 high school tests “are too many”.

A Bill has been introduced into House to scale back the state’s testing requirements. The author of the Bill, Republican Bill Callegari, said

The standardized testing system in our schools has proved all too consuming. When I served on a school board, standardized tests were used as a diagnostic measure to gauge students’ progress. Now, these tests represent the proverbial tail that wags the dog—commanding significant school district resources and classroom time.

Another Republican representative, Dan Flynn, has tabled a Bill to impose a two-year moratorium on tests. It would allow superintendents to use the money saved by not testing on teacher retention and instructional materials. He said:

Parents and teachers (not tests) educate children, and we need to devote our time and effort to ensure great results in the classroom, not on a test.

“These high-stakes tests create unnecessary barriers to graduation, take valuable classroom instruction time, and divert significant public funding to a for-profit testing company instead of the classroom,” said one parent group that is lobbying for change.

A House of Representatives draft budget for 2014-15 does not include any funding for standardised tests. According to The Dallas Morning News, this is the first time this has ever happened since tests were introduced in 1980. While the draft budget is unlikely to be approved, the move highlights the extent of the discontent about testing in Texas schools.

The proposed reduction in tests is a significant development. If Texas cuts back on testing it is likely to have national repercussions and provide further impetus to the nationwide rebellion. High-stakes testing was born in Texas when former US President George Bush was governor and its system formed the basis for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation introduced by Bush when he became president.

California is also considering reducing the number of standardized tests that students must take next year. The state’s top education official has proposed reducing the number of standardized tests that students must take next year as California moves to a new testing system. The Superintendant of Public Instruction has proposed a plan that would drop testing for second graders in math and English next year, and most high school tests would also be dropped.

The recent events in Seattle and Texas are part of a growing revolt against standardised testing in the US. It was sparked early last year following former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying that standardized testing is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. Within weeks, school boards in Texas passed resolutions stating that tests were “strangling’ education”. The Texas school board resolution has now been endorsed by 880 school districts representing 4.4 million, or nearly 90%, of all Texas public school students.

Since then the rebellion has spread across the country as other organizations joined the revolt and a national resolution on high-stakes testing based on resolutions passed by Texas school boards gained extensive support.

The National Resolution on Testing has more than 13,700 individual and almost 460 organizational endorsements. It calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration “to overhaul [NCLB,] reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.” The Pennsylvania School Boards Association as well as individual boards in Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia endorsed it.

Florida activists adopted their own versions, and the Florida School Board Association passed a variation at its annual conference in the spring. The National Parent Teacher Association said the resolution is consistent with its policy positions. Regional groups continue to announce new initiatives based on the Resolution, including the Massachusetts group Citizens for Public Schools.

The nation’s second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, unanimously adopted a resolution at its annual convention saying the focus on standardized testing has undermined education. The National Education Association has approved similar resolutions in the past.

School boards, parent organizations and others continue to pass variations on the resolutions and consider how to win the political battle to change testing policies. Parent groups in a number of states, including Colorado, California and New York, that helped parents opt their children out of last spring’s tests are planning to continue and expand their boycotts.

All this shows that the long hard work by parent, teacher and other organisations in demonstrating the harm done by high-stakes testing is starting to show results. When Republican legislators have to respond to concerns by parents and teachers about excessive testing, the tide can be seen to be turning.

In Australia, the battle is just beginning. High stakes testing under NAPLAN and My School has a much shorter history, but already evidence is accumulating about excessive test preparation, teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, and incentives to rort results just as it has in the US. Parents are withdrawing their children from the tests in increasing numbers. Principals and teachers are speaking out against tests. Academics are speaking out and nearly 150 have signed a letter opposing high stakes testing.

The Say No to NAPLAN group is doing sterling work in publicising the harm done by NAPLAN and My School. The campaign will continue to grow in Australia as it has in the US and elsewhere.

Trevor Cobbold

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