José Vilson teaches middle school math in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. His book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, stormed the heavily guarded gates of the education reform debate, battered them down, and made people sit up straight and listen to a social justice teacher about what our children and schools need.
Below is José’s important reflection on the book I edited, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing–and his thoughts on the movement that so many of us are building to defend and transform public education.
A Not-Review of More Than A Score [Edu-Activated]
In the spring of 2014, a few books dedicated to the “Education Spring” revolt came out from various publishers, one of which was mine, and the other was More Than A Score, a collection of stories edited by Jesse Hagopian from numerous dissidents from across the nation. [Full disclosure: Haymarket Books came out with both of our books). As I consider many of them colleagues in this work (and some of them friends), I was happy that so many of them got to tell their story.
So why a review from me almost a year later? Simple. As any of the activists in this volume can tell you, these stories are still relevant to the work of moving the profession forward.I read these chapters in the authors’ voices. I was intrigued by Rosie Frascella and Emily Giles’ story of co-leading the charge to have her entire Brooklyn-based school opt out of unnecessary exams, much to the chagrin of NYCDOE and the United Federation of Teachers. I was enthralled by Barbara Madeloni’s vision for a new education system, including racial dynamics as part of her call to activate. I recalled Karen Lewis’ ascension to the leader of Chicago edu-resistance, envisioning how they organized for better schools and not just a better contract for teachers. Stephanie Rivera’s chapter on becoming a future student reads as a precursor to the ways she’s currently managing the school system as a rookie teacher.
John Kuhn’s tale of resistance in perhaps the most reform-friendly state in the nation rang of hope. I laughed aloud at the chapter co-written by Cauldierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg, and Tim Shea of the Providence Student Union, who resisted their state’s education reforms through creativity and art, two ideals that their legislators sought to reduce by overtesting their students. Folks like Helen Gym, Nikhil Goyal, Brian Jones, Malcolm London, Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Jia Lee also turned in chapters worth having in your back pocket.
But my favorite was easily Jesse Hagopian’s, which was the real beginning of the book. He sets the chapter through the framework of a century’s old resistance to eugenics. This framing allows for discussions of WEB Dubois, one of my favorite public intellectuals. Here’s a bit from Jesse himself:
Resistance to these exams surely began the first time a student bubbled in every “A” on the page in defiance of the entire testing process. Yet, beyond these individual forms of protest, an active minority of educators, journalists, labor groups, and parents resisted these early notions of using testing to rank intelligence. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing – especially in service of ranking the races – came from leading African-American scholars such as W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long. Du Bois recalled in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”
This read like a call to reframe the notions of “the civil rights issue of our time,” coded language to tap into the imaginations of black folk, and consider we’ve already been here with standardized testing. This is the path towards connecting the education resistance movement to black lives mattering. In Brian Jones’ chapter, he talks to friend and Chicago activist Xian Barrett how he deals with questions of inequity and why some parents have bought into the current education reform structure. His advice: “When parents raise those difficult issues, that’s when you have to deepen the conversation.” The aforementioned chapters do just that.
This is truly what is meant by nuance, and I’m thankful for these folks, not just in their writing, but in their works. Let’s move.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, know as FairTest, just released its wonderful report on the immense growth around the country of the movement in opposition to the abuses of standardized testing. The victories included universities getting rid of their SAT/ACT requirement, states dropping the requirement for an exit exam to graduate from high school, and hundreds of thousands of families opting their children out of harmful high-stakes tests. As Fair Test revealed in a press release today,
Around the U.S., well over half a million public school students refused to take standardized exams during the 2015 testing season, according to a preliminary tally released today. The count by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a leader of the national assessment reform movement, is based on news reports and detailed surveys by local activists.
Among the largest state opt-out figures (with sources):
– 240,000 New York (news reports and New York State Allies for Public Education counts)
– 110,000+ New Jersey (Save Our Schools New Jersey)
– 100,000 Colorado (Chalkbeat Colorado and SEEK for Cherry Creek)
– 50,000+ Washington State (news reports)
– ~20,000 Oregon (news reports)
– ~20,000 Illinois (More Than a Score)
– 10,000 New Mexico (news reports)
– ? ? Other states not yet reporting
“The opt-out movement and other assessment reform initiatives exploded across the country this year as more parents said ‘enough is enough’ to high-stakes testing overkill,” explained FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill. “If anything, the estimate of half a million opt-outs in 2015 is low because many states have denied requests to make test refusal data public. This intense grassroots pressure is beginning to force policymakers to roll back standardized exam misuse and overuse.”
It’s hard to describe the elation I experienced as I read in the FairTest report about one victory after another for communities around the nation in the struggle to demand that education is more than a score.
Over the past several years I have been writing, speaking, organizing, and doing everything I could think of to demand that critical thinking and creativity be allowed back into our schools. Ever since my colleagues at Garfield High School boycotted the MAP test in 2013 and helped to inspire this uprising, much of my life has been given to this great struggle against the testocracy–and it is beyond words for me to see these standardizing despots now on the run as families around the nation stand up to defend their children and public education.
Best of all is the educated prediction that FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer made today: “In the 2016 testing season, we expect many more families to refuse to take part in unnecessary testing, which undermines educational quality and equity.”
Here now is the summary of the testing reform victories from 2015:
Testing Reform Victories 2015:
Growing Grassroots Movement Rolls Back Testing Overkill
By Lisa Guisbond with Monty Neill and Bob Schaeffer
The growing strength and sophistication of the U.S. testing resistance and reform movement began turning the tide against standardized exam overuse and misuse during the 2014-2015 school year. Assessment reformers scored significant wins in many states, thanks to intense pressure brought by unprecedented waves of opting out and other forms of political action. Even President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, long advocates of test-and-punish ‘reform’ strategies, now concede that “there is too much testing.”
Across the country, educators, parents and students launched petitions, organized mass rallies and held public forums. High school students refused to take excessive exams and walked out. Teachers struck to demand (and win) testing reforms and better learning conditions. Administrators and elected school boards adopted strong resolutions against high-stakes testing. All this growth built on the successes of test reformers in previous years.
Parents and teachers who launched campaigns against standardized exam overkill in their schools and districts have emerged as effective leaders who continue to build a stronger movement. The mainstream media no longer ignores or marginalizes calls for “less testing, more learning” and “an end to high-stakes testing.” Instead, the assessment reform movement and the reasons behind it are consistently covered in depth by major newspapers, TV and radio outlets from coast to coast.
Public opinion shows a powerful shift against overreliance on test-and-punish policies and in favor of assessment reform based on multiple measures. Education policy makers and legislators have been forced to respond by at least publicly acknowledging the harms of high-stakes testing and the need for a course correction.
Cries of “enough is enough” were loud enough to penetrate the Oval Office, prompting President Obama to acknowledge in October that high-stakes exams are out of control in U.S. public schools. Activists, however, continue to push to ensure that vague rhetoric from the nation’s capital is followed by concrete changes in policy. The Obama administration has refused to end its test-and-punish policies, so Congress must act. Both houses have passed bills to end the mandates for test-based teacher evaluations and school and district sanctions.
Meanwhile, the movement has won concrete victories at the state and local level. These include repeal of exit exams in several states, elimination of many tests, reduction of testing time, a surge of colleges going test-optional, and development of alternative assessment and accountability systems. The past year’s victories include:
- A sharp reversal of the decades-long trend to adopt high school exit exams. Policy-makers repealed the California graduation test, while Texas loosened its requirements, joining six states that repealed or delayed these exams in the 2013-2014 school year. California, Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona also decided to grant diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them because of test scores.
- Florida suspended Jeb Bush’s 3rd grade reading test-based promotion policy. Oklahoma, New York, and North Carolina revised their test-based promotion policies, and New Mexico legislators blocked the governor’s effort to impose one.
- States and districts that rolled back mandated testing include Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Dallas and Lee County, Florida.
- Opting out surged to new levels in New York, New Jersey and across the country – approaching 500,000 nationally – riveting the attention of the media and pushing governors and legislatures to act.
- A series of opinion polls documented increasing numbers of voters and parents who agree there is too much standardized testing and it should not be used for high-stakes purposes.
- The past year was the best one on record for the test-optional college admissions movement, with three dozen more colleges and universities reducing or eliminating ACT/SAT requirements, driving the total to more than 850.
- In California, New Hampshire, and elsewhere there are promising efforts to develop alternative systems of assessment and accountability, deemphasizing standardized tests while incorporating multiple measures of school performance.
- The movement’s growth and accomplishments are tremendously encouraging. But it’s far too early to declare victory and go home. In the 2015-2016 school year, activists will use lessons learned from their initial battles to further expand and strengthen the resistance movement and ensure political leaders go beyond lip service to implement meaningful assessment reforms.
- The movement’s ultimate goal goes well beyond winning less testing, lower stakes and better assessments. It seeks a democratic transformation of public education from a system driven by a narrow “test-and-punish” agenda to one that meets the broad educational needs and goals of diverse students and families.
The full report is available at:
The “More Than a Score” Anthem: The new song that explains the book and the movement against high-stakes testing!
A few weeks ago, I spoke in New York City at the Progressive Educator Network’s national conference. There I joined a wonderful panel that highlighted resistance to standardized testing.
After the panel I got off of the stage and an educator approached me and introduced himself as Caselli Jordan, a kindergarten teacher and musician from Philadelphia. When I saw the look of excitement in his eyes I knew the middle seat, red-eye flight, from Seattle to New York City was worth the trip. Caselli told me that immediately after my presentation, a song jumped into his head and he had to run out to the hallway to write it down. He hummed a little of the hook and I smiled. I was hyped to hear my words had helped inspire a song. He said he was going to work on it more. I told him I would love to hear it. Then other educators and parents came around to further discuss building the authentic assessment movement and our conversation was cut short.
As I was leaving the conference, I remember thinking what a good idea it would be to have an anthem for our movement against high-stakes testing–but I wasn’t sure if I would really ever hear from Caselli again. Then a few days ago, he and his bandmate Sterling Duns, who make up the group City Love, sent me a link to their new single “More Than a Score.” In the e-mail Caselli wrote,
I wanted to get in touch with you because in the weeks after the PEN conference in Brooklyn my bandmate Sterling Duns and I came up with a song about standardized testing. I actually started hearing the chorus while you were speaking in the panel and had to get up to leave and go record it 🙂 And after I told Sterling your powerful hypothermia analogy, he put that in his verse. Thanks for all the inspiration and we hope the song can be useful to you.
This song is a wonderful gift to me as it explains many of the key themes in the book I edited, More Than a Score: The new uprising against high-stakes testing—including that we must opt out of standardized testing that has become a billion dollar industry, is destroying everything that is good in educating, and has contributed to the school-to-prison-pipeline. And if my first grade son’s reaction to the song is any indication, it’s an instant smash hit that will rouse the youth to action! He has the song on repeat. And that’s high praise because he has been very active in the movement that helped Seattle win more recess for students, so his favorite line in the single is, “Maybe instead of tests we could have a little recess? (I love recess!).”
Share this opt out movement anthem far and wide. Let’s bring down the testocracy with a chart topping song that helps people raise their voices to bring back art class and cancel the tests!
By City Love
This is a song inspired by, and in solidarity with the opt out movements throughout the country. It is inspired by the words of Seattle Map testing boycott organizer Jesse Hagopian at the Progressive Education Network Conference in October of 2015.
Politicians, corporations, Gates foundation love that testing. But they don’t want us passing. But they won’t send their kids there. They went to private school! Why you think that is?!
Closin schools but building prisons payin guards instead of teachers. now how they gonna reach us? prison guards instead of teachers. build a school to prison pipeline. What you think of that?
$33,000 yearly for a single inmate. That’s a private school tuition. But students don’t get half that. What we gonna do?
More than a score, so you know we gotta opt out. (x4)
Im feeling lifted
Why yall trippin
Looking at scores
Wont tell u this brothas gifted
Yall want more
Whats yall barometer
Giving poor kids more test
Is like giving atherometer
While they outside
In the cold,
This things getting old
Yall blue ribbon givings
We need yall folks to prod less
The progress is tied
To the human not, not the project
the testing is just stressing
the guys giving the test then
Chose the schools that let in
And then exempt
From doing the one thing
They want others to do
Now tell me is that cool?
Spendin 1.7 Billion dollars yearly on the testing. That’s a whole lotta dough. That’s a whole lotta dough man. Whatcha think of that?!?
Teachin to the test and takin tests takes a lotta time man. Time away from learning. What we gonna do?
Maybe instead of tests we could have a little recess? Have a little art class? What you think of that?!
More than a score, more than a score. So you know we gotta opt out. (4 times)