The failure of testing

President Bush wants to "test every child, every year." But a growing movement of families and teachers insists this is a formula for mediocre schooling and stressed-out kids.

Published May 11, 2001 7:25PM (EDT)

"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

-- Albert Einstein (from the opening page of the Web site of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform Standards of Learning)

In the familiar arc of a typical school year, May used to be a merry, merry month of giddiness and anticipation. Warm weather, tube tops, the proximity of summer -- it was the pixilating curtain raiser to liberation in June. Now, however, it is a mean season of standardized testing in which the stakes are high and the feelings of dread and resentment are pervasive. And this year, as students, parents and school administrators across the country take a stand against academic brinkmanship, May has become a month of rebellion.

In just the past two weeks, protests against high-stakes testing have sprung up in Marin County and Oakland, Calif., and in Scarsdale, N.Y., where an impressive SWAT team of parents managed to get 67 percent of the 290 eighth graders in the district to boycott the state's standardized tests. (More than 35 percent of students at one Marin high school and more than 22 percent at another boycotted tests last week.)

More demonstrations are planned for this month at schools in Seattle, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Albany, N.Y., and Tucson, Ariz. -- just the latest round of rebellion to follow a pioneering spate of protest in states like Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida over the past three years. Using old-fashioned strategies of grass-roots organizing, along with recently acquired savvy about the media, parents, teachers and students are joining forces to publicly oppose the use of standardized tests to make important decisions about the fate of students, the future of school funding and the direction of curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade.

While there are those among the anti-testing rebels who oppose all standardized tests on the grounds that they fail to measure creative intelligence and discriminate against low-income, urban and minority students, many of today's protesters, including teachers who believe in the value of standardized tests, specifically oppose the use of student scores as the sole criterion for "high-stakes" decisions such as whether to promote children to the next grade, allow them to graduate or put them on a tracking system in their schools.

Says Michele Forman, a Middlebury, Vt., teacher who was named the country's "Teacher of the Year 2001, "It's like doing brain surgery with a jackknife. Learning and teaching is messy stuff. Students just don't fit into bubbles."

School administrators -- most of whom support standardized testing as a diagnostic tool -- also are fighting such testing, the scores of which are used more and more frequently to cut school funding, redefine curriculum or make wholesale changes in administrative staffing.

Chief among the demands of the protesters against high-stakes testing is that lawmakers reject President Bush's proposal to test "every child, every year" from Grade 3 to the end of high school as a way to evaluate school performance and assign funding. Not only does the constant tallying of test scores obscure the finer points of student and teacher achievement, say critics of the plan, it creates an intolerably stressful learning environment for children.

Late last month, a group called the Alliance for Childhood, which includes four of the country's most highly regarded child and adolescent psychiatrists, issued a statement warning the federal government to "rethink the current rush to make American children take even more standardized tests." Signed by Robert Coles, Alvin Poussaint, Stanley Greenspan and Marilyn Benoit, among others, the statement cited evidence that "test-related stress is literally making many children sick."

Proponents of high-stakes testing nationwide call teacher opposition to testing a predictable reaction to increased accountability. They believe that teachers are part of "the education monopoly" and are prepared to avoid scrutiny at any cost. Referring to a Marin County School Board member's support of test boycotts on the grounds that testing "warps the curriculum," conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Which is true. It warps the curricula so that schools have to teach certain things to all California children. How terrible. Boo hoo."

Other critics dismiss the parent backlash on high-stakes testing as an expected blip that is not yet worthy of serious attention.

"It's the reliable 'less than 5 percent' of protestors who, plus the usual coterie of education professors and ideologues, always appear along with the tests," writes Richard Phelps, author of "Why Testing Experts Hate Testing," published by the conservative Fordham Foundation in the right-wing watchdog online magazine Education News. He adds, "The movement is a long way from achieving critical mass."

The Education Leaders Council, a conservative think tank, responded to the Alliance for Childhood's warning about the stress of tests with a statement by its chairman, Jim Nelsom, who is the Texas commissioner of education. "We agree that testing certainly can be stressful," he said, "but learning to manage stress is a part of learning to live.

"My fear," he continued, "is that this statement by the Alliance for Childhood is just one small part of a larger choreographed effort on the part of opponents of testing to attack the Bush education plan."

Every state in the country except Iowa has some form of statewide standardized testing. Initially, the exams were meant to function as a simple diagnostic tool, part of a larger program of assessment, like portfolios of work showcasing what students have created and achieved over a period of time. In fact, makers of standardized tests have issued disclaimers with their products, discouraging the use of scores for any high-stakes purpose.

According to the Web site of the American Educational Research Association, a professional organization that represents designers of the tests, "decisions that affect individual students' life chances or educational opportunities should not be made on the basis of test scores alone ... when there is credible evidence that a test score may not adequately reflect a student's true proficiency."

But as increased funding for public schools has dwindled and anxiety about declines in students' basic skills has intensified, states have begun to use standardized tests for purposes that their creators never intended. Thirty-eight states, including districts in North Carolina, Texas, California, Colorado and Kentucky, now award teachers merit pay, give administrators bonuses and, in some cases, grant student scholarships to state universities based on students' performance on standardized tests.

And in many of these states, incentives for high scores are coupled with new penalties for disappointing scores. In some districts, students cannot be promoted to the next grade if their scores fall below a certain level. Younger students with low scores might be placed on remedial tracks; older students with low scores might not be allowed to graduate from middle school or high school. Some state boards of education use low test scores to declare a school "nonachieving," a move that can lead to the closure of the school, the firing of its teachers and the distribution of private-school vouchers to students of the school.

At the moment, only 15 states meet the "test every grade, every year" ideal proposed by President Bush in his education bill, which turns, in part, on the use of student test scores to determine school viability. Nonetheless, the mere prospect of the rule has been a huge factor in the spread of awareness and rebellion against high-stakes standardized testing.

Some of the earliest complaints about such tests bubbled up in impoverished urban neighborhoods and working-class districts where testing was seen to discriminate against students who are poor, black, Hispanic and/or urban. Failure rates for poor students, as well as for those with special needs or in vocational programs, have been devastatingly high in state testing. Nearly half the students in Massachusetts, for instance, failed last year's math and English tests; in some cities, that rate was nearly doubled for black and Hispanic students.

Some blame for the low scores is attributed to bias in test design, but much of the disappointing data is accepted as concrete evidence of an "achievement gap," in which underprivileged students receive substandard education in public schools. Initially, concerned teachers and parents believed that test scores' proof of a gap would lead to an infusion of resources into low-scoring schools. But now many of them believe that the scores -- taken alone -- have been used to discredit the schools and unfairly penalize the teachers and students for their poor performances. Says Allen Flanigan, a parent active in test protests in Virginia, "High-stakes testing applies a crooked yardstick to mismeasure schools. It doesn't tell us anything about schools we don't already know from the massive amount of testing already done."

Adds Alisa Gilmore, an organizer of the anti-test protests this week at Oakland High School in California, "We don't need another test to tell us how bad our schools are -- what we need is money for smaller classes, new facilities, more counselors, student centers and qualified teachers." Gilmore, an activist with Kids First, a child advocacy community group, joined the protesters in demanding that California Gov. Gray Davis end high-stakes testing and redirect the $677 million allocated for testing to state schools with the greatest need.

In California, where Star 9 (Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition) tests have been used for the past three years in Grades 2 through 11 to assess student academic achievement, the improvement ratio that the state demands from each district's score is called the API -- Applied Performance Index. It is commonly referred to among its critics as the "Affluent Parent Index."

And increasingly, it is affluent parents, as well as home-schoolers of every stripe, who are organizing protests and boycotts of high-stakes testing -- with growing success. Many of these parents, whose children enjoy privileges that make them largely immune to test-based discrimination, oppose the tests because of their impact on curriculum and learning.

Says Flanigan, "Learning to be a good test taker is poor preparation for life. Accountability and testing have been tried before, and resulted in the 'Lake Woebegon' effect: the appearance of improvement without any actual improvement." He points to Texas as an example: Students there showed marked improvement on high-stakes standardized tests, but they showed no gains on nationally normed tests like the SATs.

Parents in affluent Scarsdale had similar complaints. Those who took their children out of school for the testing period earlier this month said their concerns are not just with the misuse of standardized test scores, but with the increased class time spent preparing for them. In Marin County, another region of sizable wealth, high school students worked as strenuously as parents to oppose testing, largely because they find "teaching to the test" to be stultifying. One flier circulated by the Marin Students for Liberating Education in last week's boycott of tests read:

"The Star Test is a fraud. Your teachers know it. You know it. It replaces excellence with mediocrity and real learning with test preparation. It steals your education and wastes your time. It distorts curriculum and leaves little time for intellectual inquiry. You can help stop this travesty. You can take a principled stand against it."

Some of the earliest -- and most effective -- testing protests began in Massachusetts, where members of the state Board of Education, appointed by Republican Govs. Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, increasingly championed the positions of right-wing think tanks with which they were affiliated. (Among the board members were Charles Baker, a founder of the Pioneer Institute, and Abigail Thernstrom, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who was just named by President Bush to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.) A loud proponent of high-stakes testing, the board instituted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests as "bars" to be leapt by students who hoped to graduate in 2003.

Linda Sarage, a Hatfield, Mass., sixth-grade teacher, responded to the move by inviting a few other teachers and neighbors opposed to the tests to come to a small meeting in December 1999. Much to her surprise, the group swelled, mostly by word of mouth, to 150 parents and teachers, including Mary Ginley, "Massachusetts Teacher of the Year" that year.

Shortly thereafter, the group joined forces with a similar organization in eastern Massachusetts called MassParents to form CARE, the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, an organization that has collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition asking state legislators to back down from demands to use MCAS as the single evaluation for graduation.

CARE has supported the systematic, town-by-town lobbying of school committees, which have issued position papers against MCAS as a high-stakes assessment and worked with legislators to introduce 45 bills intended to prohibit the use of MCAS for high school graduation, for admission to state colleges and universities and as a way to rank and penalize schools. (These bills will be heard this spring, and legislators know that there is a major group of state voters anxiously awaiting the outcome.) This past fall, CARE sponsored several highly successful district referendums that showed voter discontent with high-stakes testing.

"Most of the people volunteering to work with CARE are not normally activists," says Jackie Dee King, CARE coordinator in Boston. "Many people stand up in the audience where I give talks, in towns like Swampscott or New Bedford, and say, 'I'm not that kind of a person, but this thing has gone too far.'"

With 30 statewide chapters, CARE is part of a network of local and statewide school committees, school superintendents, labor unions, religious groups and civil rights groups. These organizations have now joined together under the banner of a group called the Alliance for High Standards NOT High Stakes. This group is facing off against a similarly organized business group, which supports the MCAS, called Business for Better Schools. The latter group is reportedly about to kick off an ad campaign to convince voters that if the MCAS is good for business, it's good for schools.

Meanwhile, with Gov. Cellucci's appointment by President Bush as the U.S. ambassador to Canada, acting Mass. Gov. Jane Swift, a champion of high-stakes testing, is in charge. She quickly declared her support of accountability for this year's 10th graders. CARE's response was to produce a button: "MCAS -- Not So Swift."

Parents and teachers are defiant. Says Sarage: "This is my passion. Working on MCAS issues is the only way I can walk into my classroom and hold my head high. This whole standardized testing movement is like being on a moving walkway. Working actively against it allows me to keep my sanity." Adds former state Judge Sumner Kaplan of the American Jewish Congress, which is a member of the newly formed Alliance for High Standards: "Businesses may have the money, but we have the people and the power."

Indeed, just two years ago in Wisconsin, parent-organized protests against the state's use of a single test as the basis for promotion or retention of students in Grades 4 and 8, as well as for graduation for older students, were extraordinarily successful. The parent-run Advocates for Education of Whitefish Bay Inc. (AFE) managed to push the state Legislature to include the right of parents to "opt out" -- to choose to have their children boycott the tests without retribution. And AFE is at it again, testifying before state legislators as the Board of Regents considers reviewing its new policy requiring mandatory student compliance with the tests for admission to a University of Wisconsin campus.

These are "some of the largest grass-roots efforts I've ever seen," said Wisconsin state Sen. Brian Rude.

In Ohio, the state Senate was packed for weeks this year by hundreds of parents, students and teachers testifying against Senate Bill 1, which proposed the use of the Ohio Proficiency Test scores to rank students into one of four educational tracks starting in kindergarten. Between February and March, members of Ohio Proficiency Test Protestors allied with Christian home-schooling parents to defeat the measure, which already has been seriously modified before going to the Ohio House.

Teachers in Pascoe County, Fla., openly rebelled against Gov. Jeb Bush's statewide Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) ranking system, which included cash bonuses designed to "keep high-performing teachers in low-performing schools." The educators tore up facsimile $1,000 checks in a rally outside a local high school in October, opting to pass up $122,000 in state incentive bonuses in order to protest the system in which schools are accorded letter grades according to their students' test scores.

Nearly 250 eligible teachers at four "D"-ranked high schools indicated that accepting the cash would make them complicit in what they saw as a flawed school ranking system based on a once-a-year snapshot of student performance. Six more teachers and a principal at Gulf Gate Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., which was identified as an "A" school in the FCAT rankings, also declined to take any bonus money.

"We believe that if we accept our bonuses we would be endorsing the grading of schools, and providing fuel to promote [Gov. Jeb Bush's] voucher program." (Students at "F" schools are awarded vouchers to attend private schools.)

Meanwhile, in Arizona, state education chief Lisa Keegan announced early this month that she is leaving her position to head her own think tank, the Education Lead Council. Keegan admitted that her long-term battles against parents and teachers who oppose the Arizona Instruments to Measure Standards made leaving "that much easier."

Many of the parents involved in the testing rebellion are less concerned with their children's futures as determined by the tests than they are with the current well-being of students who are aware of the frightening consequences of the annual drill.

"I became concerned when my kids, who did well in school, started to hate it. My oldest is a bright kid," says Mickey Van Derwerker, a mother of five from rural Bedford, Va. "He took the science test in third grade and barely passed. He was so anxious about simply taking the test that we had a hard time just getting him to school."

The experience compelled Van Derwerker to organize against Virginia's Standards of Learning, part of a statewide effort to reform the state's education system. Students are required to take SOL tests in Grades 3, 5 and 8, and at the end of core high school courses. They're expected to perform on these tests to a state-identified level set in the fall of 1998. Local schools have the option of using the test scores as part of a student's final grade, and they are required to include SOL test scores as part of promotion and retention decisions.

"A bunch of us decided to have a little meeting in the local library," says Van Derwerker. "In our town you have to have a name to reserve a room in a public building, so we made one up." She took index cards around town and posted them on supermarket community boards, at laundromats and on the sides of soda machines.

Van Derwerker's group became Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, which now has more than 5,000 members. (Its membership jumps every year right when test scores come back.) The parents involved in PARVUSOLS are mostly concerned about test-created stress, as well as the "dumbing down" of curricula to teach to the test.

In many states, like Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts and California, students have been the initiators of protest. Most recently, three dozen juniors at East Chapel Hill High in North Carolina, which is field-testing a state high school exit exam scheduled to be implemented in 2005, refused to fill in any bubbles on their practice tests. Hundreds of students signed petitions drawn up by the school's student government, which opposes the tests and has asked state legislators to end a rule requiring students to choose one of four graduation tracks in their freshman year.

Students across the country can gather information via a Web site created by SCAM (Students' Coalition for an Alternative to MCAS). Will Greene, who helped organize the group as a 10th grader in Sheffield, Mass., wrote:

"A large reason why so many students do not do well in schools is simply because school does not interest or seem important to them. Education reform should be focusing on trying to reach those students who feel disconnected with school, so they start wanting to learn instead of feeling forced to 'learn.'"

Last month, parent Richard Fahlander of Concord, Mass., wrote a letter to the Boston Sunday Globe protesting the MCAS, calling it a "Fourth Grader's Nightmare." He recounted a dream that his son had the night before his first MCAS tests in which men in trucks went around the neighborhood spraying people with something that put them to sleep forever.

"Andy wondered if failure was an option," wrote Fahlander, "if he would be consigned to some catalog of children who require special attention before they crash and burn in high school."

Reassured by his father, Andy went back to bed, but Fahlander says his son found it difficult to sleep that night. "We will weather the MCAS storm," he wrote, "but at what cost? How many science explorations have been shelved, how many field trips cancelled? Sure we all want high school graduates who can read, write and compute, but is sorting and ranking fourth graders the answer?"

Proponents of testing have a succinct and tidy message: "You can't manage what you can't measure," says Meghan Farnsworth, a Bradley Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Holding students to high academic standards without regular testing is like expecting high returns from a business without being able to check its quarterly earning report."

But many parents would prefer not to think of their childrens' education as a numbers game, and their resistance to high-stakes testing has burgeoned, despite reassurances from high places (the White House, for instance) that testing is for our own good. If Bush has hopes of making standardized test scores the basis of school accountability, he may very well flunk out with voters.

By Meg Robbins

Meg Robbins is a Massachusetts writer and educator and the mother of six sons.

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