About a month and a half ago, astute journalists covering the historic Chicago teachers’ strike realized the issues brought up by the strike weren’t just about money, but were also a reaction to the tsunami of testing that is overwhelming teachers and students.
It was part of a growing national rebellion against high-stakes testing. It was also an opportunity to challenge the idea that we can test our way to better schools and smarter students.
And it’s not just teachers who refuse to take it anymore.
Across the nation, hundreds of school boards have passed resolutions saying things like, "the overreliance on standardized, high-stakes testing ... is strangling our public schools." Parent-led test boycotts are expanding. Academic researchers are also speaking out. A group of Chicago researchers issued a statement backing up teachers’ concerns that too much testing is harming students. New York professors issued a similar statement.
To help spread the word, FairTest organized education, civil rights, and religious groups to launch The National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing. It now has more than 13,600 individual and 460 organizational endorsers.
High-stakes testing is detracting from learning rather than enhancing educational quality.
Why a testing rebellion? As long as most of us can remember, there have been standardized tests. They may have made students sweat, but they didn’t drive thousands of teachers into the streets or cause parents to organize protests. That’s because the problem isn’t just the tests themselves. It is the way state and federal policies have made raising test scores the primary mission of schools. It’s the way high-stakes testing is detracting from learning rather than enhancing educational quality. Tests and test prep are squeezing out art, music, social studies, gym and even recess.
There is a growing recognition that test-driven education, as embodied by “No Child Left Behind,” has failed. Students made greater gains before the law, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. No less an authority than the National Research Council found that a decade’s worth of high-stakes testing policies has brought little learning progress.
Test makers have lost credibility after years of expensive and disruptive errors. For example, after the passing rate on Florida’s fourth-grade writing exam plunged from 81 to 27 percent, the Florida board of education lowered the passing score at an emergency meeting. The board realized student writing wasn't any worse, but a new scoring guide penalized students for trivial mistakes. More and more parents understand that test makers are profiting from a testing bonanza with little or no accountability.
Finally, a nationwide epidemic of cheating has demonstrated that when so much rides on test results, teachers and administrators feel pressure to cut corners. Cheating scandals have emerged across the country, in Atlanta, El Paso, New York, and Washington, D.C., a total of 37 states in the past four years alone.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Alternatives to high-stakes testing have shown impressive results in the U.S. and abroad. For example, schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium use performance-based assessments in place of standardized exams. A recent report shows that their schools significantly outperform others in New York City while serving similar student populations. Finnish schools also use performance assessments. Their students outperform the world with well-trained teachers who have autonomy to address their students’ learning needs—and no high-stakes testing!
Concerned parents, teachers, students and activists can help the rebellion grow in their communities. Talk it up with friends, family and colleagues, then approach school boards, parent teacher organizations, and other groups for support. FairTest’s web site has fact sheets, papers and other materials to use in these campaigns.
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Lisa Guisbond is an Assessment Reform Analyst at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). After many years as a writer and editor, Lisa became interested in education policy as a public school parent with an interest in special education. She is Vice President of Citizens for Public Schools and is the principal author of NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? and the Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child. She co-authored Failing Our Children: How 'No Child Left Behind' Undermines Quality and Equity in Education. Her writing on education and assessment has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Education Week and The New York Times.