Test Season Reveals America’s Biggest Failures

Jeff Bryant

It’s testing season in America, and regardless of how the students do, it’s clear who is already flunking the exams.

Last week in New York, new standardized tests began rolling out across the state, and tens of thousands of families said “no dice.”

According to local news sources, over 33,000 students skipped the tests – a figure “that will probably rise.”

At one Brooklyn school, so many parents opted their students out of the tests the teachers were told they were no longer needed to proctor the exams. At another Brooklyn school, 80 percent of the students opted out. Elsewhere in Long Island, 41 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk reported thousands of students refusing to take the test, and an additional district reported hundreds more.

Reflecting how the testing rebellion may affect upcoming elections, the Republican opponent to New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rob Astorino, announced his intention to opt his children out of state tests.

What is happening in New York is indicative of a groundswell of popular dissent – what Peter Rothberg, a journalist for The Nation and a New York City parent, called a “nationwide movement” – against the over-use and abuse of standardized testing in public schools.

One would think all this consternation begs some response from people whose job it is to react when the populace is enraged. But so far, major media outlets and an entrenched education regime that’s prevailed in policy making for over 30 years are proving they’re not up to the task.

A Storm Surge Out Of Texas Sweeps The Nation

Growing resistance to testing in New York follows a similar popular rebellion in Texas, where a grassroots movement led by parents abruptly undid over 30 years of test supremacy in the state’s education system, according to a new series in The Dallas Morning News.

“No state has been more important than Texas in the growth of standardized testing,” the News reporter noted. “And not just here. Gov. George W. Bush took the model and his education advisers to Washington when he became president. The Texas system provided the scaffolding for No Child Left Behind – and the seed of the new Common Core program that calls for even more testing. In Texas and across the nation, the push for more testing seemed unstoppable. Until it was stopped.”

Despite their success in thwarting the testing juggernaut, more Texas parents are still opting out, the News reported in another article. These parents claim, “An unhealthy focus on test scores has warped what happens in the classroom, so that too much time is spent on testing strategy and on drills that are designed to maximize test scores at the expense of other valuable skills.”

In Massachusetts, school districts that had been warned by the state not to allow parents to withhold their children from new state tests have been caving to demands and give parents permission to opt their children out.

In Connecticut, resistance to the state tests is growing so rapidly that “the state Department of Education released guidelines telling school districts just how to deal with parents who want to opt out.”

In Pittsburgh, hundreds of Pennsylvania parents who had opted their children out of state tests caught the attention of a local news outlet that interviewed one of the mothers leading the fight.

In Colorado, “a growing cacophony of assessment protests” has prompted public school officials to release new guidelines for opting out of tests because of so many “teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing.” Dozens of activists in the nationwide test resistance movement gathered at an event in Denver to listen to speakers, conduct panels, and share strategies on resisting the tests. A report on the meeting noted that while only 1 percent of parents in Colorado opt their children out of tests, “the movement appears to be gaining traction.”

On the West Coast, anticipating the rising test rebellion in Washington, the state’s largest teachers’ union just “passed a motion to support parents and students who opt out of statewide standardized tests.”

At The Lost Angeles Times, one of the paper’s top editorial writers, Karen Klein, declared, “My family is opting out” of new tests in California. “I’m not one for whining about standardized tests,” Klein wrote. “I had gone along with the mind-numbing academic program for far too long.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch called Klein’s column an important “defection” because of the Times’ previous editorial support of high-stakes testing and other features of the current education establishment. This turnaround “suggests,” Ravitch concluded, “that the patina of certitude attached to the standardized testing regime may in time crumble as more parents realize how flawed, how subjective, and how limited these tests really are.”

Media Either Mute Or Misrepresent

Outside of local news and blogs, the nation’s test rebellion has garnered little notice from major broadcast outlets, and when it has, the reporting has misrepresented the movement.

In reporting about the tests in New York, a reporter for The New York Times managed to find a few students who claimed the tests were easier – a claim not supported by any other accounts, anywhere, and refuted by the reporter’s own quote from a state official who said the tests were designed to be “more challenging.”

The reporter, Al Baker, minimized opposition to the tests as “a growing, albeit relatively small, number of parents.” Rather than interviewing any of those parents, he chose to include a quote from a parent who said “she was eager to see” how her son did. Hey, too bad the only “results” she’ll see are a relatively meaningless score and percentile rank many months down the road rather than any item-by-item account that could revel something about her son’s abilities.

In its coverage, NPR chose to run an op-ed equating parents who were opting out of tests to parents who refused to allow their children to be vaccinated for infectious diseases. For sure, withholding your children from vaccinations runs the risk of spreading whooping cough or measles. But the writer, Alan Greenblatt, never explained what the “risks” are to withholding students from tests. If he took the time to listen to the people opting out, he might learn that what’s posing the most “risk” to children and education is the tests themselves.

As The Nation’s Michelle Chen explained, there are very specific reasons for wanting to ditch the tests. “There’s something to hate for everyone in these standardized tests,” she wrote. “Students become miserable and bored with constant test-prep; parents and caregivers grow frustrated with curricula that seem to be failing their children … and teachers have raged against the imposition of formulaic, stress-inducing reading and math drills.”

In New York City, three teachers supporting parents opting their children out of tests wrote a letter to the city’s school chief Carmen Farina explaining their decision. In the letter, posted at the Answer Sheet blog site (not part of the paper’s printed editions) at The Washington Post, the teachers called their support “clear acts of conscience” to protest tests that lead to “ranking and sorting of children … encourage students to comply with bubble test thinking,” and “push aside months of instruction to compete in a city-wide ritual of meaningless and academically bankrupt test preparation.”

But the media outlet that scored an A for most tone-deaf coverage was the Beacon of the Beltway, The Washington Post. Choosing to completely ignore the rising chorus of teachers, parents, and students opting out, the Post instead chose to feature an op-ed by Michelle Rhee, the founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst, a lobbying group and prodigious donor to political campaigns.

Rhee stated that refusing the tests “makes no sense” because “all parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom.”

Too bad these tests don’t really do that. Responding to Rhee from her blog site at The Washington Post (again, not part of the paper’s printed editions) Valerie Strauss wrote, “Parents who want to know how their children are doing can know — from grades and non-standardized tests their children take in class. The scores of the most important end-of-year standardized tests don’t actually come back to the districts until the summer, making it impossible for teachers to use the results to help tailor instruction to a particular child — if in fact the tests actually gave important information to the teacher. Which by and large they don’t because so many of the tests are badly drawn. Even Rhee admits this in her op-ed.”

The Education Establishment Pushes Back

While the media generally ignore or misrepresent what the testing resistance is all about, an education establishment long used to enforcing top-down mandates is resorting to misinformation and intimidation.

In New York, some school administrators discouraged parents from opting their children out, told them their children would be penalized, or made children not taking the test “sit and stare” rather than reading and drawing quietly.

In Connecticut, state leaders and school district officials have become so alarmed at the growing number of parents opting their children out of tests that they have resorted to misinformation and punishments, according to local blogger Jonathan Pelto, that include denying any “accommodations” for students opting out and withholding use of laptops or other electronic devices, something normally allowed.

Similarly in Chicago, when parents declared their intentions to opt their children out of tests, and teachers refused to administer tests, school officials responded by pulling school children as young as eight out of class and interrogating them about their parents and teachers who had opted them out.

The campaign of misinformation and intimidation goes all the way up the line to the halls of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

Although the objects of scorn for these parents and educators are state required tests, their anger is not addressed at their state capitals alone. Parents understand that the tests are products of years of top-down mandates imposed from Washington. Most states have competed for federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. And practically all states have been granted waivers to the federal No Child Left Behind law. These federal grants and waivers required states to institute vast testing regimes for the purpose of evaluating teachers and rating school performance. So states are intent on enforcing the tests so as not to lose their federal grants or the waivers that protect them from federal sanctions.

One of the states in danger of losing its federal waiver is Washington, where state lawmakers have yet to believe there is a valid reason to tie test scores to teacher evaluations. Few states are willing to run this risk – only Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon so far – so most other states are intent on imposing the tests.

Also, the new tests are alleged to align to new Common Core Standards, which have now become so hugely controversial that two states – Indiana and Oklahoma – have reneged on their pledges to impose them, and many other states are scrambling to rebrand the standards as something other than a federal mandate.

This week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did all he could in front of a U.S. House committee to back away from the federal government’s link to the Common Core and its aligned tests, stating, “I’m just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they’re common or not is secondary.”

But crack reporter Michele McNeil at Education Week was quick to point out, “The administration’s original $4 billion Race to the Top program awarded 40 points to states for developing and adopting common standards. All 12 of those winners have adopted the standards, and have not backed off. What’s more, a separate, $360 million Race to the Top contest to fund common tests was based on the premise that states needed help developing such assessments based on the common standards. But technically, aligning to the common core wasn’t required (you just probably weren’t going to win without it).”

Proponents of the Common Core now may want to decouple the standards from the tests that parents and teachers are increasingly rebelling against. But that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do. And misinforming – misleading, actually – people about how the two are so entangled is not going to be effective.

How About A Little Honesty?

What’s called for is an honest debate about the tests – how good or bad they are, what are the real limits to their usefulness, and whose ends are being served here (certainly, it doesn’t seem to be the students).

So far, only parents and teachers engaged in opting out seem to be having that debate while an entrenched education establishment does all it can to stifle opposition, and an apathetic media either misses the story or looks the other way.

One of those teachers Elizabeth Phillips, from PS 321 in Brooklyn, New York, wrote in an op-ed at The New York Times, “We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools … We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.”

Phillips called for some transparency in a debate where the people in authority want to hold all the cards and the media act as indifferent bystanders. She suggested, “The commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests,” then explain why “these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.”

That might be a pretty good start, but why stop there? One wonders how Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan would do.

Comments