As the 2014 academic year nears an end, teachers from an increasing number of public schools across the United States, Canada and Mexico are reflecting on teaching at least one unconventional lesson to their students and their neighborhoods this past year: How to resist standardized tests.
On May Day in New York City, for example, teachers of the International High School at Prospect Heights in New York City announced that they would be refusing to administer the New York City English Language Arts Performance Assessment Exam. In Seattle, teachers at Garfield High School also refused to administer the district test this year — much to the delight of some teachers in Florida, who ordered the delivery of a solidarity pizza to the high school. Meanwhile, as far north as Saskatchewan and as far south as southern Mexico, teachers across North America all did exactly the same thing.
This year’s resistance to standardized testing has rejuvenated teachers’ unions and built bridges between the classroom and the broader community that have eluded the educators and labor for decades. This emerging refusal to administer tests has also created bridges between teachers across international borders — a response, in large part, to the globalization of standardized testing and private testing companies.
“These are common elements in all our countries,” said Miriam Sanchez, a teacher in Mexico and member of the dissident union the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, better known as the CNTE.
This year, in Saskatchewan, Canada, the connections made between the teachers federation and the community allowed the province to become the first location in North America to ban high-stakes standardized testing entirely. The campaign began in 2013, after the provincial government announced the implementation of standardized testing. The teachers’ federation immediately began reaching out to the surrounding communities.
“We could see it coming,” said Mike Maukeisteyn, an elementary school teacher in Saskatchewan. “So we started educating the public to what standardized testing is, and we educated ourselves to what it would mean.”
After this initial research, the federation chose to focus its message on what it saw standardized testing doing to critical thought.
“It is used to create a work force, not develop critical thinking within our students,” said Maukeistyn. “They want us to only teach job skills. This isn’t teaching.”
The broader community agreed with the teachers’ analysis and supported the three-day strike launched by the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation. It was the federation’s first strike in the organization’s 82-year history. It ended victoriously: In April, the education minister announced that plans to phase in standardized tests were not going forward, acknowledging that even the words “standardized tests” had become “absolutely toxic.”
Often, these campaigns to resist standardized testing rely on direct actions like strikes, which in turn rely on cultivating broad community support for the union. This shift within teachers’ unions toward emphasizing community support, which Owen Davis analyzed last summer in an article for Waging Nonviolence, is often led by smaller and more radical groups of teachers pushing the union from within. In Chicago, for example, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, known as CORE, emerged in 2008 from within the Chicago Teachers Union. Two years later, when this caucus won the presidency, it pushed the union to be more democratic and more rooted in communities. This shift paid off in 2012 when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for two weeks. They were able to sustain their picket line thanks to neighborhood-level support, even as the conservative media attempted to pit families against the teachers.
These shifts within the Chicago Teachers Union also helped in the fall of 2013, when some teachers began organizing a boycott of the Illinois Standard Achievement Test. Leadership at Chicago Public Schools had told the teachers that it would work to reduce testing in schools. This, however, didn’t occur, and teachers soon learned that their students would be required to take a standardized test in February — even though the test would not count for grade advancement for the students. The only way for a student to avoid the test was if a parent wrote a letter opting out their students from the test.
“It seemed like a slap in the face,” said Anne Carlson, a special education teacher who teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade at a Montessori Magnet school. “We were told that the test would be ‘optional,’ but then the administration would come to us and say, ‘Yes they are optional, but you will be giving them.’”
Carlson and a few other teachers began a campaign to inform their communities that parents had the option to opt-out their students. When the time of the test came around, 75 percent of children had opted out — and so Carlson boycotted implementing the test entirely.
“My principal asked if I was going to administer the test,” Carlson said. “But I could not in good conscience give that test. I was acting in solidarity with those parents who opted their children out.”
Carlson is still waiting to see what sort of punishment she will receive. But she said that throughout the organizing and boycott Carlson felt supported by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators within the union.
“CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] couldn’t come out in favor of the boycott, but CORE was very supportive,” said Carlson. “I can not imagine doing this without them having our back.”
The connection between the teachers and the community has developed into a force that has been able to push back against reforms to the Chicago Public Schools.
The furthest along in the resistance to reforms and standardized testing are the teachers of Oaxaca, whose regional branch of the national union is known as Sección 22. During the summer of 2013, the teachers of Sección 22 led thousands of teachers from throughout Mexico to the streets of Mexico City to protest education reforms, which would severely limit their collective bargaining, drastically increase the amount of standardized testing, and tie teachers pay to the outcomes of those tests. From May to September they occupied the main square in Mexico City.
The teachers of Sección 22 and the more radical of the two national unions, the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, known as the CNTE, see themselves as the chief defenders of public education, and they have for years enjoyed the broad support of the community. In 2006, for example, what began as a dispute over a contract between the state government and Sección 22, erupted into a citywide rebellion, with the residence of Oaxaca City rallying to support their teachers. The rebellion lasted eight months, before the federal police were called in to put down the uprising.
Although Mexico’s national education reforms were passed in September 2013, teachers in Oxaca have refused to administer the tests and have gone as far as even blocking federal census workers, sent to count the number of students and teachers, from entering their schools. “The resistance to testing has resulted in the blocking of tests in the southern states of Mexico,” said Miriam Sanchez. “They are working with their communities to create other forms of value.”
Standard, but not equal
While standardized tests are lauded by many foundations and private test companies as a way to improve public education, teachers have challenged this narrative and instead highlighted how these tests contribute to the geography of racism and imperialism. In some cases, teachers have even gone as far as to offer alternative plans to reform public education in a way that actually works for communities.
During the test boycott in Chicago, Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, reminded the city that the standardized testing movement actually grew out of the early-20th century eugenics movement.
“What many people do not know is that the use of standardized tests has its origins in the eugenics movement,” Lewis wrote in a blog posted on the CTU website. “Where basic tenets assert that certain races are inferior to others biologically and intellectually.”
The teachers too have seen how testing can contribute to inequality in their communities, since low test scores have been used to justify school closures and school turnarounds, during which teachers are laid off and then must reapply for their jobs. These closures have disproportionally-impacted communities of color, leading to job and educational instabilities.
In Mexico, teachers have seen the same problems arise as a result of the increasing use of standardized testing in the communities — especially since there is a large divide between the northern states and Mexico City, where people have access to more resources and political connections, and the southern states, where the population is often poorer and the large indigenous population has long been the target of repression and resource theft.
“How do they expect the indigenous children to do well on the exams when they do not even speak Spanish?” asked Elena Lara, a representative of Oaxaca’s Sección 22, during the occupation of the central square in Mexico City in July 2013.
In response, in November 2013 Sección 22 proposed the establishment of a community supported education system. Inspired by the education philosophy laid out by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, teachers in Oaxaca have developed the Plan for the Transformation of the Education of Oaxaca. If implemented, the plan seeks to transform the education system of Oaxaca into a community-based and community-led system that represents the region’s diversity — a plan that is, in many ways, exactly the type of real teaching that a standardized test can’t measure.