The Progressive Magazine: How a Grassroots Revolt Against Testing May Change Education

A revolt involving hundreds of thousands of Americans against the federal and state government has been brewing over the past couple of years. What caused this grassroots revolt? Parents and students have had enough of high-stakes testing required by federal law and implemented by the states and have chosen to “opt out” of the tests.

High-stakes tests swept the nation with the passage of No Child Left Behind during the presidency of George W. Bush. Politicians told the public that the tests were a bold new education reform.

Actually, high-stakes testing has a long, dark history. High-stakes tests were born in China to sort their society more than 1500 years ago. In the United States, for the last 100 years, standardized tests have been used to sort and track children. Contrary to current rhetoric, they were not created for civil rights purposes.

The NAACP recognized the negative impact on minority students as high-stakes tests decades ago. In 1979, the NAACP filed Debra P. v. Turlington, a lawsuit against the state of Florida, challenging the state’s high-stakes examination based on the negative impact on minority students’ opportunity to learn and graduate from high school.

The Fifth Circuit Court disagreed with the NAACP and ruled in favor of Florida. The court even erroneously stated that tests actually “eradicate racism.” This framing of high-stakes tests is the essence of a policy makeover that transformed them from a thousand-year-old sorting mechanism into a civil-rights cause. Never mind that high-stakes exit tests have had a clearly disparate impact on students of color, compounding the effects of severe inequality and underfunding of schools.

Now that the federal government is requiring high-stakes testing, some civil rights organizations in Washington D.C.— spurred on by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights— have supported them, tests have been politically retread as “social justice.”

antitesters131125_1_560.jpgIn fact, recent research from Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University demonstrates that high-stakes testing has actually slowed our nation’s progress towards closing the academic achievement gap. Stanford researchers calculated that at the new slower pace experienced under No Child Left Behind, it will take eighty more years to close the achievement gap.

No Child Left Behind required that schools that do not raise their scores fast enough could be closed or turned over to private operators. A decade of research has shown that the privatization approach to education spurred by testing has not only deprived communities of publicly controlled anchor institutions, it has usually failed to improve educational outcomes while increasing segregation. Test-driven “accountability” has also led to mass firings of teachers of color in cities such as Chicago.

Unfortunately, there has not been much difference between the Obama administration and the previous Bush administration on education policy. Obama’s Race to the Top required states to evaluate teachers “in significant part” based on student test scores in so-called “valued added measurement” and “growth” models if they were to win grants or obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and many other research organizations have concluded that the required measures are unreliable and as a result unfair to teachers and principals.

For the past decade, because of our nation’s emphasis on test scores, schools have dramatically increased the time students spend on testing and test preparation. One study indicated urban students are subjected to an average of 112 standardized tests during their school years. Moreover, research shows that time spent on testing has diminished time for science, social studies, art, second language studies, and recess.

The good news is that a new day may be dawning.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the latest re-authorization of the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), allows states to introduce a dashboard approaches to evaluate the success of states, districts, schools, teachers and students, with standardized test results used as just a single factor in these evaluations.

ESSA could usher in a new era, in which communities will be able to use high quality assessments including student performances, portfolios, and presentations instead of high stakes standardized tests.

The new ESSA law could be a game changer and quell the ongoing revolt against over-testing. States can now use data on school climate, engagement and other factors that are important to communities as they evaluate schools.

For the first time in this current era of accountability, communities have the ability to advocate and implement multiple measures dashboards in our states to understand the successes and failures of our schools.

If students, parents, and school officials seize the opportunity to use this power, they can remake schools.

Julian Vasquez Heilig is The Progressive’s Westcoast Regional Education Fellow. He blogs about education and social justice at Cloaking Inequity.

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