A Cautionary Tale from New York on High Stakes Testing

Lectures by US Professor of Education, David Hursh, in Melbourne and Sydney last month described the rise of market-based education policies in New York State. He showed that over the last twenty years, control over education policy has shifted from the local level to the state and federal levels.

As a result, he said, unelected and unaccountable entrepreneurs and corporations dominate curricular and assessment decisions. Students and teachers are increasingly assessed by tests that are intended to portray them as failures. However, parents, students, educators and community members are fighting back to regain control over education.

Professor Hursh said that the corporations, institutions, and individuals who stand to benefit from education privatisation were behind the current US reform agenda which assesses students, teachers and schools through standardised tests.

The push was to create publically funded, privately operated charter schools which attract more able students and funding away from public schools. This would lead to public schools increasingly burdened with educating students charter schools do not want – those who live in poverty or who have disabilities. Remaining public schools would be in a downward spiral with a higher percentage of students requiring more services and decreasing funding.

“As the results of standardised tests become high stakes, the emphasis on them and potential for cheating increases,” Professor Hursh said. “We have numerous examples of cheating on tests where the superintendent ordered teachers to come in on weekends so they could together erase the pencil marks in the wrong bubbles and fill in the correct ones.”

“That schools might be taken over by the state Department of Education seems both possible and frightening when we recently learnt that the Commissioner of Education has for the last three years hired twenty three secret advisors with expertise primarily in testing, to advise him on education policies,” he said.

Advisors are funded by philanthropic foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a foundation set up by the Chancellor herself. Bill Gates through his gifts and education projects has a greater effect on education policy than anyone else.

But resistance to standardised testing in New York is growing. According to Professor Hursh, 700 people attended a public meeting and several hundred voiced their displeasure with the Commissioner and Chancellor in response to the rushed implementation of the Common Core curriculum and test last year.

His message to parents, students and teachers who are realising that public education is at risk: “Be organised and work together to keep our public schools public. I hope it is not too late.”

Trevor Cobbold

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