As we enter the high-stakes testing season, a great uprising to opt out of these punitive and reductive exams is sweeping the country. So it’s no surprise that corporate education reformers–attempting to defend the multibillion dollar testing industry–have been launching aggressive attacks on the movement.
One such attack targeted one of the main rallying cries of our movement and the title of the book I edited, More Than a Score.
In “More than Score. Yes. Duh?” Erika Sanzi argues that it is obvious that students are more than a test score, “but that doesn’t mean that their scores on tests aren’t valuable to them, their parents, or their schools.” She goes on to ridicule people who believe that the overuse of high-stakes testing is distorting education, saying: “It is baffling that highly intelligent and otherwise rational people have chosen to latch onto this bumper sticker sounding slogan.”
Sanzi goes on to defend high-stakes testing, writing:
Our kids take swimming tests. They don’t lose the essence of who they are because they fail to float on their back for 30 seconds or tread water for a minute. They just try again next time. It’s probably safe to say we all know people who have failed their first driver’s license road test. They’ve all lived to tell about it, most even laugh about it, and it certainly doesn’t define who they are. It was a brief failure. Life is full of them.
Magnificent! Here you have the total confusion of the education “testocracy” distilled. Because the entire point of the opt out movement is to reduce the amount of multiple choice standardized tests and move to assessments like the driving road tests and swimming tests. However, imagine for a moment if we treated the swimming test like the standardized tests in school that Sanzi advocates. Imagine if we sat kids down in rows of desks and said:
This exam will test your ability to swim. Mark the bubble that corresponds to the best answer choice. Consider this sample question:
The fastest swimming stroke is the:
- crawl stroke
- fish kick
- None of the above
When you have completed this exam the results will be scored. If you score well, we will throw you into the deep end. If you score poorly, even if you are a great swimmer, you will remain in the shallow end. In addition, if too many of your classmates score poorly on this exam, we are going to close down your pool altogether.
As silly as this scenario seems, it is what corporate education reformers (including the Walton family, which helps funds the website Sanzi writes for) are imposing on our public schools. Worse, the attitude that if a child fails a test she should take comfort that it is only a “brief failure” is completely out of touch with the severely punitive nature of high-stakes testing these days, in which a low test score can mean a student does not graduate, teachers are fired, and whole schools are shut down.
The mass movement against standardized testing—including over 600,000 families opting out of standardized tests last year—objects to the fact that the average student in the public school system today will take an outlandish 112 standardized tests between pre-K and high school. However, this is not a rebellion against assessment. Our movement simply demands authentic forms of assessment.
Those that reflect actual student knowledge and learning, not just test taking skills; are educational in and of themselves; are free of gender, class and racial bias; are differentiated to meet students’ needs; allow opportunities to go back and improve; and undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators.
One important alternative to standardized testing is performance based assessment, which promotes inquiry, problem solving, and critical thinking. My colleagues and I at Garfield High School have began collaborating with the New York Consortium for Performance Based Assessment (The partnership is portrayed in one section of the new documentary, Beyond Measure). As Gail Robinson writes of the Consortium:
While most New York students must pass state exams in five subjects to graduate, the consortium’s 38 schools have a state waiver allowing their students to earn a diploma by passing just one exam: comprehensive English. (An additional nine schools have a partial waiver.) Instead, in all subjects including English, the students must demonstrate skill mastery in practical terms. They design experiments, make presentations, write reports and defend their work to outside experts.
The performance based assessment model is very similar to the process a PhD candidate undergoes in preparing a dissertation and defending it to a panel of experts. Multiple choice standardized tests are good at demonstrating students’ ability to spot what are called “distractor questions,” and students with the resources purchase test prep classes that are able to train students to eliminate wrong answer choices better than their peers. However, the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices is not authentic to most real life situations students will face. In the world outside of corporate education reform, students will need to be able to research issues, work collaboratively in groups, develop arguments, solve real life problems, and more. Performance based assessments at the Consortium schools allow students to engage in those real life skills–much the same as a swimming test.
The superiority of authentic assessment over multiple choice, standardized testing can be seen in part by the outcomes of the Consortium schools. A recent study shows that 77 percent of students who started high school at a Consortium school in the fall of 2010 graduated in four years, compared to 68 percent for all New York City students. Last year, 71 percent of students learning English at Consortium schools graduated on time, compared to only 37 percent of English learners around the city. Eighty-six percent of black students and 90 percent of Latino students at the Consortium schools are accepted into college, compared with the national numbers 37 percent and 42 percent respectively. Moreover, longitudinal studies show that Consortium school students complete college at higher rates–likely due to the emphasis on the very inquiry and critical thinking skills that are valued in college.
Parents and teachers across the country have united to demand an education system that recognizes children’s needs aren’t satisfied by filling in bubbles on an exam. So, before we throw our schools into the deep end, let’s demand authentic assessment now!
Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can view his TEDx talk “More Than a Score” or follow him on twitter: @JessedHagopian
“More Than a Score” TEDx Talk: Jesse Hagopian on the uprising against high-stakes testing and for a meaningful education
I recently gave this talk titled, “More Than a Score,” for the TEDx Rainer event at Seattle’s McCaw Hall theater. In this talk I advocate for the great uprising against reducing our children to a test score and I make an argument to opt in to authentic assessments–not only because it will better engage students, but also because the future of our society and planet depend on it.
Jesse Hagopian is a high school history teacher and associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse is the editor of, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com or on twitter, @jessedhagopian
Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.
Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:
Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.
Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.
1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.
Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one—certainly not the media—would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive—it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!
But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.
2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.
While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.
One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico—at schools that served 90% Latino students—walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.
In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”
Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, which documents the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.
3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.
Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However, the federal government has never—not even once—cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.
Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.
4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.
High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools—schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. 71 percent of the schools had a majority African-Americans teachers and staff. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.
A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners—measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.
5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.
Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”
One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing—especially in service of ranking the races—came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect”—what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.
6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.
Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts—including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.
If the testocracy is right—if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance—then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.
Conclusion: Hold the system accountable
Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers—without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system—end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behind bars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”
Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color—while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.
Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.
Jesse Hagopian is the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian
The infamous MAP test is set to be administered in my son’s school this week. The MAP is a computerized test meant to measure students in math and reading. Seattle Public Schools initially required MAP kindergarten through high school, with multiple testing periods per year. In 2013, Garfield High School launched a boycott of the MAP test and numerous schools joined in refusing to administer the test. By the end of the year the district announced that it would no longer be requiring the MAP test at the high school level. Since then, the increasing pressure of the opt out movement and scrutiny on the role of high stakes testing in our education system have continued to reduce the use of the MAP test in the Seattle Public Schools.
The opt out movement has pointed out that the MAP test consumes too much class time, monopolizes computers and shuts down school libraries, is not linguistically or culturally appropriate for English language learners, and has a questionable validity (consider this research from https://scrapthemap.wordpress.com: PowerPoint: The MAP test).
Most recently, the district reduced the number of times per year that kindergarten through 2nd grades are required to administer MAP from 2-3 times per year to only once a year. However, there continue to be high stakes attached to MAP that can make it difficult for schools to reduce the number of times it is administered.
For example, schools that receive desperately needed extra levy funds from the city can lose funding if their test scores are not high enough. This is an egregious misuse of standardized test scores. Money for vital programs serving children in high poverty schools should never be cut based on a test that was not designed to be used for high stakes decisions.
Given all the specific problems with the MAP test, and the larger issue of misuse of standardized testing in general, my wife and I wrote this letter to our school’s principal opting our son out of the test this week:
Happy New Year! We hope you had a restful break.
We are writing to opt our first grade son out of all MAP testing for this 2015-2016 school year.
We are opting him out of standardized testing because we have seen the way an over-emphasis on scores has distorted what matters most in elementary education–such as creativity, being a good friend, communicating emotions, and problem solving. Ranking students based on test scores in the early grades can damage the self-esteem of late bloomers, and can distort the higher scoring students’ perceptions of themselves in relationship to their peers–these were our experiences growing up and we don’t want these scores to interfere with our son’s development. One of the most exciting aspects of our son’s education is the Spanish immersion program that has cultivated his love for language and laid the foundation for him to communicate with many more people across cultures and around the world – and yet none of this will be measured by the MAP test.
Opting out is a difficult decision this year, because of the way the scores can be used for high-stakes decisions around funding. It deeply saddens us that policy makers would deny funding to a school for any reason, but particularly one so narrow and tangential to real learning. Our son has excellent teachers and we think there is no substitute for their assessment of his progress.
We are deeply committed to our school community and look forward to working with you on these issues in years to come.
2016 has begun with important news: We have endured the last days of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan roaming the halls of government, looking for teachers and students to intimidate. Arne, “the nation’s bully,” no longer runs the schoolyard. Educators and families around the country will remember him by many monikers, none of them sympathetic.
I should admit from the outset that my appraisal of Duncan isn’t informed by a dispassionate tally of his pluses and minuses. My evaluation of Duncan’s performance is the result of my personal interaction with the Secretary and his staff, his attack on the schools in my community, as well as a through review of his policies.
I wrote this essay for The Progressive magazine giving my assessment of Duncan’s tenure–let’s just say he didn’t pass the class.
Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education is set to resign at the close of the 2015, ending his tenure as one of the most destructive forces against public education in history.
“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama gushed announcing Duncan’s resignation last October. Obama’s words were meant as praise for the Secretary, but in this one aspect of the assessment of Duncan I have to agree with the President. There can be no doubt that Duncan inflicted policies that caused students and educators to cry out for help.
Duncan’s official title may have been Secretary of Education, but his real role has been the “testocracy tsar.” His signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies.
For example, in order for states to compete for grant money under Race to the Top, Duncan required them to increase the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations. Duncan’s championing of the Common Core State Standards—and the tests that came shrink-wrapped with them—has ushered in developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades that punish late bloomers, while further entrenching the idea that the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning can be reduced to a test score. For many, Duncan will be remembered as an educational alchemist who attempted to turn education into “testucation”—with the average student today subjected to an outlandish 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
In addition, Duncan has been widely derided as “the national school superintendent” for the way he held waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act over the heads of state officials. NCLB set an unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading for every school in the country by 2014. As per the plan, not a single state reached the proficiency goals, and schools could only escape sanction by the federal government if they were granted a waiver—which Duncan would only grant to states who would agree to more testing.
This hit home for me last year when my state of Washington refused to mandate standardized tests in teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan then took off his gloves and showed he wasn’t afraid to punish children by revoking the NCLB waiver for the state. With the waiver gone, nearly all of Washington’s schools were labeled failures, resulting in the loss of control of millions of dollars in federal money.
And yet, as harmful as Duncan has been to our nation’s children, it’s important not to credit him with having too much impact. Duncan wasn’t a mastermind or a skilled political operative. He was a corporate yes man who did anything that was asked of him by the richest people the world has ever known. As Anthony Cody and others have detailed, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, set the education agenda, wrote the policy, worked political backchannels, and lined up the corporations who would profit. Once the education reforms were neatly packaged, these billionaires trotted out their flunky, Secretary Duncan, who dutifully worked to sell their agenda to the nation.
One of Duncan’s primary objectives has been the privatization of education through the dramatic expansion of charter schools. But as The Washington Post reported, an audit by the Department of Education’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.” This lack of oversight laid the foundation for a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which found some $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.
Duncan also implemented his policies in a cruel and arrogant manner. He infamously proclaimed Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Duncan saw the destruction as a great opportunity because so many people were displaced that it allowed the privatizers to completely end public schooling in New Orleans. Today the district is 100 percent comprised of charter schools. Duncan wasn’t content replacing the arts, physical education, civics, literature, and critical thinking with high-stakes tests. He also sternly chastised parents who chose to opt their children out of standardized tests, dismissing the opt out movement as “coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were…” Duncan insulted white moms while simultaneously erasing the rising leadership of people of color who have long organized against high-stakes testing.
Duncan’s general attack on education got personal for me on July 9th, 2010, when he visited my hometown of Seattle to deliver a speech at an area school. I joined a throng of protesting teachers that day outside the school to picket his appearance and the corporate reform policies he was promoting.
As we rallied outside the high school, his handlers grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting. That half hour with the Secretary was all I needed to know. The following is a transcript from an article I wrote at the time:
Mr. Duncan: To be clear, we [the Department of Education] want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don’t have a curriculum department.
Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point. Because I think that merit pay…
Mr. Duncan: Let me finish, let me finish…
Mr. Hagopian: …Directly influences curriculum. When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test], what it does is narrow the curriculum to what’s on the test, even if you don’t set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.
Mr. Duncan: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.
Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?
Mr. Duncan: I do, I do…
Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the curriculum.
Mr. Duncan: Can I finish? It’s a voluntary program. Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really innovative things.
Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn’t part of Race to the Top?
What my meeting with Secretary Duncan demonstrated, more than anything else, was his refusal to listen to educational professionals about how to improve public education. His dismissal of professional expertise has greatly contributed to the plummeting moral among teachers.
Yet, I have also discovered that the best antidote to despair is collective struggle. The one positive aspect of Duncan’s legacy is that his policies have sparked the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Increasing numbers of teachers have flat out refused to administer standardized tests, students around the country have lead walkouts against the tests, and during the 2015 testing season, parents opted out some 620,000 public school students around the U.S. from standardized exams. This mass movement forced Duncan in his waning days as Secretary to begrudgingly acknowledge his policies have led to an “overemphasis on testing in some places,” and that “testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”
As thrilled as I am to see Duncan resign, President Obama’s replacement, John King, will likely only serve as a new testocracy tsar. As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department:
For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”
Secretary John King will be tasked with carrying out the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which eliminates the “Adequate Yearly Progress” annual test score gain requirement. However, the new law maintains the detrimental mandate to give standardized reading and math tests to children in every grade, from 3-8 and once in high school—empowering states to sanction any school labeled as underperforming.
Federal education policy will continue to follow the whims of the richest people in the world—people who did not attend public schools and would never dream of sending their children to one—until the opt out movement joins with other social justice struggles to fundamentally shift the balance of power away from the executive board room and towards the classroom.
So, join me in a New Year’s toast to Duncan’s dethroning—and then join the struggle to overthrow the testocracy all together.
Jesse Hagopian is a Progressive Education Fellow and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian
Never in U.S. history have more students, parents, and teachers engaged in acts of resistance to standardized tests. During the 2015 testing season, over 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams, according to a report by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).
I wrote this essay for the National Education Association’s “Education Votes” blog to sum up the top five victories against against the “testocracy” and its test-and-punish model of education, accessible here: http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/12/28/five-2015-victories-that-put-cracks-in-the-testocracy/
Please share the stories of our victories for a meaningful education–and join us in this uprising in 2016!
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:
In a stunning turn of events, President Obama announced last weekend that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students.” Rarely has a president so thoroughly repudiated such a defining aspect of his own public education policy. In a three-minute video announcing this reversal, Obama cracks jokes about how silly it is to over-test students, and recalls that the teachers who had the most influence on his life were not the ones who prepared him best for his standardized tests. Perhaps Obama hopes we will forget it was his own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who radically reorganized America’s education system around the almighty test score.
Obama’s statement comes in the wake of yet another study revealing the overwhelming number of standardized tests children are forced to take: The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Because it’s what we have rewarded and required, America’s education system has become completely fixated on how well students perform on tests. Further, the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
To be sure, Obama isn’t the only president to menace the education system with high-stakes exams. This thoroughly bi-partisan project was enabled by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB became law in 2002 with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Obama, instead of erasing the wrong answer choice of NCLB’s test-and-punish policy, decided to press ahead. Like a student filling in her entire Scantron sheet with answer choice “D,” Duncan’s erroneous Race to the Top initiative was the incorrect solution for students. It did, however, make four corporations rich by assigning their tests as the law of the land. Desperate school districts, ravaged by the Great Recession, eagerly sought Race to the Top points by promulgating more and more tests.
The cry of the parents, students, educators and other stewards of education was loud and sorrowful as Obama moved to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score—one that would be used to close schools, fire teachers and deny students promotion or graduation. Take, for instance, this essay penned by Diane Ravitch in 2010. She countered Obama’s claim that Race to the Top was his most important accomplishment:
[RttT] will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test.
What Ravitch warned us about has come to pass, and Obama has now admitted as much without fully admitting to his direct role in promoting the tests. Duncan and Obama, with funding from the Gates Foundation, coupled Race to the Top with Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that came shrink wrapped with them. Together these policies have orchestrated a radical seizure of power by what I call the “testocracy”—The multibillion dollar testing corporations, the billionaire philanthropists who promote their policies, and the politicians who write their policies into law.
These policies in turn have produced the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. To give you just a few highlights of the size and scope of this unprecedented struggle, students have staged walkouts of the tests in Portland, Chicago, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond. Teachers from Seattle to Toledo to New York City have refused to administer the tests. And the parent movement to opt children out of tests has exploded into a mass social movement, including some 60,000 families in Washington State and more than 200,000 families in New York State. One of the sparks that helped ignite this uprising occurred at Garfield High School, where I teach, when the entire faculty voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The boycott spread to several other schools in Seattle and then the superintendent threatened my colleagues with a ten-day suspension without pay. Because of the unanimous vote of the student government and the PTA in support of the boycott—and the solidarity we received from around the country—the superintendent backed off his threat and canceled the MAP test altogether at the high school level. Can you imagine the vindication that my colleagues feel today—after having risked their jobs to reduce testing—from hearing the president acknowledge there is too much testing in the schools? And it should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools.
However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night. A Facebook video from Obama isn’t going to convince the Pearson corporation to give up its $9 billion in corporate profits from testing and textbooks. The tangle of tests promulgated by the federal government is now embedded at state and district levels.
More importantly, the President exposed just how halfhearted his change of heart was by declaring he will not reduce the current federal requirement to annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading, with high school students still tested at least once. A reauthorization of NCLB is in the works right now, and all versions preserve these harmful testing mandates. As well, Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2% of the school year still requires students to take standardized tests for an outlandish twenty-four hours. And it isn’t even all the time directly spent taking the tests that’s the biggest problem. The real shame, which Obama never addressed, is that as long as there are high-stakes attached to the standardized tests, test prep activities will continue to dominate instructional time. As long as the testocracy continues to demand that students’ graduation and teachers’ evaluation or pay are determined by these tests, test prep will continue to crowed out all the things that educators know are vital to teaching the whole child—critical thinking, imagination, the arts, recess, collaboration, problem based learning, and more.
Obama’s main accomplice in proliferating costly testing, Arne Duncan, said, “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state, and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”
Yes, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Honesty would require acknowledgement that standardized test scores primarily demonstrate a student’s family income level, not how well a teacher has coached how to fill in bubbles. Honesty would dictate that we recognize that the biggest obstacle to the success of our students is that politicians are not being held accountable for the fact that nearly half children in the public schools now live in poverty. As Congress debates the new iteration of federal education policy, they should focus on supporting programs to uplift disadvantaged children and leave the assessment policy to local educators. They have proven they don’t understand how to best assess our students and now they have admitted as much. It’s time to listen to those of us who have advocated for an end to the practice endlessly ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes tests. It’s time Congress repeal the requirement of standardized tests at every grade level. It’s time to end the reign of the testocracy and allow parents, students, and educators to implement authentic assessments designed to help support student learning and nurture the whole child.
Jesse Hagopian is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and teaches history at Garfield High School. Jesse is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Jesse Hagopian and Pedro Noguera Take on the Testocracy in Nationally Televised Debate: “Is public education in the U.S. broken beyond repair?”
Last Thursday I flew to New York City to take on Peter Cunningham, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education (under Secretary Arne Duncan, during President Obama’s first term), in a debate hosted by Al Jazeera America’s program The Third Rail. We debated the question, “Is public education in the U.S. broken beyond repair?”
I have to say, those 45 minutes in the green room before we went on to do the show seemed like they would never pass. First I had to settle my nerves. I knew my years of experience teaching and seeing the misery of high-stakes testing was causing in our schools was going to be hard to dispute. But this was the former Assistant Secretary of Education and surely he would have slick responses and cherry picked data to try to mask the truth? But it wasn’t the coming debate that was troubling me most. Try to imagine just how awkward a situation it was. Mr. Cunningham now runs a website devoted to shutting down the “education spring” uprising against corporate education reform; I’m a teacher trying my best to help that movement bloom. I am used to challenging the rich and powerful, but here I was sharing coffee and chitchat with one of the primary spokespeople for the privatization of our schools and the reduction of education to merely a “testucation.”
When we finally entered the TV studio, I was relieved for the conversation to turn from the weather to the mighty storm of resistance that parents, students, and teachers are building in opposition to the “testocracy.” We tussled over many major questions relating to the corporate model of education reform. Mr. Cunningham argued in favor of charter schools. I pointed out that of course he supported charters because he received $12 million from Billionaires Eli Broad and the Walton’s (the Wal-Mart family) who support the privatization of education. I went on to explain, “My problem with charter schools is that they’re anti-democratic. They’re not under the control of a democratically elected school board…[and the charter system] siphons off public funds to private schools…[Creating] a profit model from public education.”
Mr. Cunningham argued in favor of the use of high-stakes testing in education. I argued, “High-stakes testing has pushed out everything that matters in education.” I cited how recess and the arts are vanishing in schools as they become test-prep centers, rather than incubators of creativity. And I noted that while they push these standards and tests on our children, “It’s amazing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, the President himself, send their kids to schools that don’t use the common core.”
At one point Mr. Cunningham inexplicably defended Arne Duncan’s comments that the opt out movement is just white suburban moms—a comment that Duncan himself had to apologize for. I explained the reality that every family has the right to protect their child from being reduced to a test score and that this opt out movement is actually growing rapidly in communities of color—including the many hundreds of Latino students who walked out of the PARCC test in New Mexico last year, the Black students in Baltimore who occupied the school board meeting in opposition to the labeling of their schools failing so as to close them down, and the Seattle NAACP chapter calling for opt out as part of the Black Lives Matter struggle.
One of the overriding themes that I tired to express (in the limited format of a few minuet debate program) was the idea that the superrich have horded the wealth at the expense of our children. Today, over half of the students who attend public school live in poverty. Then these billionaires—such as Mr. Cunningham’s sponsors—claim that the reason why youngsters don’t have a better quality of life is due to unaccountable teachers.
The best part of this The Third Rail debate was when they brought in the great Pedro Noguera, Professor of education at New York University, who powerfully and succinctly and expressed the primary issue with education reform today:
The problem I see is the we’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.
We all cordially shook hands at the conclusion of the debate and conversed on the finer points that we hadn’t had time to cover while on stage. The lingering education disputes soon turned back to small talk, but this time I no longer felt awkward because I had a great image in my mind: The Walton’s huddled around the TV scowling as they decided whether to cancel Mr. Cunningham’s funding for his inability to defeat the logic and experience of lowly educators.
Watch these clips from the debate and decide for yourself: Do we need more testocrats or more educators helping to transform the schools?
Given my intense relationship with this specific standardized test–an exam that has forever altered the course of my life–this was a particularly unsettling moment for me. As an authentic assessment activist, I had helped organize a boycott of this test at Seattle’s Garfield High School, I edited the book More Than a Score to tell the story of this movement against the MAP and the subsequent uprising against high-stakes testing, and I speak regularly around the country to share the lessons of the movement to “Scrap the MAP.”
I had long been committed to a fight for public education, but now it just got personal. Now they were trying confine my own boundlessly vibrant son into a test score bubble.
I had felt a great sense of accomplishment in our 2013 MAP test boycott, which resulted in a decisive victory when the superintendent ended the school year by announcing an end to the MAP test requirement for the high schools. Now, however, the announcement that it was MAP test week for my son felt a cruel irony. It was hard to have to face the fact that, despite how powerful our movement had become, we hadn’t defeated the test altogether and elementary school students were still being subjected to it.
The idea that our school system implements standardized testing in the early grades to make students “career and college ready” (in the language of the Common Core standards) is an utter absurdity–especially when you consider that one of the most popular career choices for a 5-year-old is being Spider Man. And yet high-stakes are attached to the the MAP test–already in kindergarten!–using it as an arbitrator of who will be placed on the advanced track. In schools around the nation, there is an astonishing proliferation of the use of standardized testing in the early grades, which is having a frightening impact our our children. Children are increasingly experiencing severe stress from these tests, to the point where administrators now have a protocol for what to do when a child throws up on a test booklet–something that comedian John Oliver highlighted on his program Last Week Tonight when he said, “Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of students will vomit.” As a recent report from Defending the Early Years points out kindergarten literacy standard will simply crush the spirits of the late bloomers, linking school with “feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion.”
The new Common Core standards, and the tests meant to measure student’s progress toward them of them, are dramatically developmentally inappropriate and punish the students for developing in different ways and at different rates. As Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emeritus of early-childhood education at Lesley University and a senior adviser for Defending the Early Years, wrote in the book, More Than a Score,
When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) came out, many of us in early childhood were alarmed. There had not been one K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS. We could see that the standards conflicted with the research in cognitive science, neuroscience and child development that tell us what and how young children learn and how best to teach them. The pressure on young children to learn specific facts or skills increased, even though these expectations are unrealistic, inappropriate, and not based in research or principles of child development.
Moreover, young kids often struggle with the basic mechanics of answering questions on the new computer administered tests. As one Seattle elementary teacher wrote about Common Core testing this year,
Our school does not have a technology teacher and not all students have computer access at home, so many students have not learned computer or keyboarding skills. I watched more than one student hitting the space bar over and over because they did not know how to go down to the next line to start a new paragraph.
These tests have led to drastic cuts in recess, arts, music, physical education, and other critical components to a robust education of the whole child–and this is especially true in schools the serve predominantly low income and students of color, as our education system has become singularly obsessed with “raising achievement.” Again, Professor Carlsson-Paige:
Young children learn actively through hands-on experiences in the real world. They need to engage in active, playful learning, to explore and question and solve real problems. As children do this, they build concepts that create the foundation for later academic success. And perhaps even more importantly, through active, play-based, experiential learning, children develop a whole range of capabilities that will contribute to success in school and life: problem solving skills, thinking for themselves, using imagination, inventing new ideas, learning social, emotional, and self regulation skills. None of these capabilities can be tested but they are life-shaping attributes that are ready to develop in the early years.
And as the Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner pointed out in a Boston Globe Globe article titled, “Is the Common Core Killing Kindergarten”, “Overuse of didactic instruction and testing cuts off children’s initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their engagement in school.”
For these reasons, and due to the bitter struggle we waged during the 2013 boycott, the MAP test is practically a cuss word in my household. So when I asked my son if he wanted to take the MAP, it should be no surprise that he told me he was against taking it. He had obviously been paying close attention to this mass uprising against standardized testing, because he replied, “I take the tests my teachers makes, but not one that someone who doesn’t know me makes.”
With that, we wrote him an opt out letter, and my son joined the movement. Several other families opted their kids out of the test as well, and the parents took turns helping to provide alternative activities for the kids during the the test.
My son was especially thrilled to go to school the day he was going to help teach a lesson to his fellow five and six-year-old dissidents during the opt out period. His idea for the lesson was for a parent to read a book to the students about Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro League pitcher, and then they would make baseball cards of their own, complete with the stats on the back. Miles brought the sports page in, as well, to help them with the stats and to show them how to read a box score. My son opened the lesson by telling everyone about the Negro Leagues, a league started by Black people when the Major Leagues wouldn’t let them play, and then the parent read the book. However, before they could get to the baseball card activity, the rest of the class returned from MAP testing early, unable to actually take the test because of a glitch in the computer program. His class had lost the morning of instruction.
On the day the test was rescheduled, the students who opted out helped to make hats for the end of the year promotion ceremony to mark their passage to first grade. I asked my son what he thought of his experience opting out of the test. He said, “It was fun. I got to teach my friends about something, and we got to make our graduation hats…I didn’t have to worry if I was going to fail.”
I can tell you kindergarteners never looked better in mortarboard caps then when they wore them at their joyous promotion ceremony this week. Maybe next time they will decorate them with the slogan, “Scrap the MAP!”?