The use of "high-stakes" standardized tests as the primary tool of school reform is sweeping the United States. Proponents of standardized tests-including most state legislatures, the President, Governors, boards of education, and the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers-wrap themselves in the rhetoric of higher, tougher standards. No one advocates low standards, but this movement is fatally flawed and will not fix our schools. Moreover, the obsession with testing is actually undermining efforts to attain quality teaching and learning in public schools. Rather than addressing issues that would boost achievement, such as smaller classes, more time for teacher planning, and equitable resources for all schools, politicians and policy makers have imposed more standardized tests on students without providing any evidence that testing improves teaching or learning. The tougher standards and testing formula gets a number of things wrong.
As author/educator Alfie Kohn points out, it gets student motivation wrong. The emphasis on testing in schools promotes anxiety and a preoccupation with test scores that often undermines students’ interest in learning and desire to be challenged.
Second, tests drive curriculum and instruction in ways that harm children. Time spent on test preparation and administration cuts into time for teaching and learning; and children internalize judgments as if tests were the final arbiter of one’s potential or worth. On the basis of test scores, children are denied access to learning opportunities through tracking, retained in grade, and may be denied a diploma, regardless of what they know or can do in authentic life situations.
Third, standardized tests demand more standardization of curriculum-tighter control of what goes on in the classroom by people who are not there. Standards and tests are designed to promote a particular and singular view of truth, knowledge, and learning.
The bottom-line is that high-stakes testing is not effective in increasing achievement and higher test scores do not necessarily mean better schools. Studies have shown that school improvement is rooted in effective leadership, high expectations for all students, a cohesive staff with a clearly articulated vision and knowledge of effective practices, and strong ties to parents and communities.
The current over-emphasis on testing takes away from changes that would improve schools. Across the nation students, parents, teachers, and principals are taking action against the growing use of testing as the means to school reform.
Parents in a number of states have the legal right to "opt-out" their children from state mandated tests. In Ohio and Michigan, members of the Rouge Forum-a grassroots group of educators, parents, and students-and others have been organizing boycotts of state tests. Parent Mary O’Brien is leading a campaign informing parents of their rights and encouraging them to "opt-out" their children from Ohio Proficiency Tests. O’Brien and other activists were recently successful in derailing a reading proficiency standard, imposed by the legislature, that would have required 40,000 fourth-graders to repeat a grade.
In Michigan the opt-out rate in some districts has been as high as 95 percent. Last year, nearly a quarter of students statewide did not take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests. A measure of how seriously the state takes the boycotts is that Michigan’s governor has offered scholarships of $500 to middle school students and $2,500 to high school students who pass the state tests.
High school graduation and "no social promotion" tests have come under fire in Nevada and Wisconsin. Students, parents, teachers, and principals protested Nevada’s graduation exam last month at the state legislature because it tests subjects that students are not required to take. Principals in Clark County are united in their opposition to the test and have written to Governor Kenny Guinn calling it unfair, while others are organizing to pursue legal options in an effort to have the test overturned or proved invalid.
Under a law passed last year, Wisconsin will stop school districts from passing children to the next grade if they twice fail even one part of the Wisconsin Student Assessment test. These tests cover language arts, math, science, and social studies. Parents are organizing against the tests and politicians are starting to respond. Governor Tommy G. Thompson’s recent proposal to drop opt-out provisions for the state’s high school graduation test produced a storm of protest from parents statewide. State senator Brian Rude described the protest as "one of the largest grassroots efforts I’ve seen." Richard Grobschmidt, chair of the Wisconsin Senate’s Education Committee, said that changes in the law are likely, due "almost exclusively" to protests from local PTAs and other parent organizations.
Students, of course, are the ones most directly affected by the testing craze and in Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and Michigan they have been organizing to challenge the over-use and misuse of standardize tests, despite negative repercussions in some districts. Thousands of students have refused to take tests to make a point.
Instead of taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, students from Boston, Newton, Danvers, and Cambridge met last month to organize their resistance. Fifty-eight students at Danvers High School signed a petition charging that the MCAS takes time away from learning real content and makes test-taking the focus of their classes. Seven students were suspended and one student arrested for refusing to take the MCAS.
The MCAS rebellion led by students and parents is now being joined by teachers and principals, who note that the massive testing scheme forces teachers to throw their curriculum plans out the window in order to focus on test preparation and teach bits and pieces of information students must memorize for the exam. One Boston teacher was quoted as saying that the test was literally "driving students away from school." Many teachers, and even the states’ education commissioner, David P. Driscoll, have expressed concern that the exams will result in a massive number of students dropping out.
California students walked out on the state-mandated test known as STAR and distributed leaflets with the message: "Protest government racism and standardized testing." Students in Marin County have mounted a letter writing campaign to school and government officials, noting that a large percentage of students in California speak Spanish, yet STAR is only offered in English.
Students at one of Chicago’s top academic schools, Whitney Young High School, deliberately failed the Illinois Goals Assessment Program exams in February. The protests spread to other schools as the Whitney Young students demanded, in a letter to school officials, that "the time and energy spent on standardized tests be reduced." The students went on to say that "teachers should be discouraged from teaching the answers to the tests except when the skills and knowledge are a part of the curriculum" and that "the school . . . show its academic superiority through the quality of its education and the accomplishments of its students rather than the numbers on its test scores."
Resistance to the standardized testing movement is not without risks. Students may be subject to suspensions, failing grades, or denial of diplomas. Teachers who have publicly criticized high-stakes tests have also been sanctioned. The superintendent of Oregon schools demanded that teacher Bill Bigelow be fired after a Portland newspaper published an article he wrote criticizing the state social studies test. Earlier this year, a monthly newspaper written by Chicago teachers published several parts of the "pilot" Chicago Academic Standards Examinations in an effort to force public debate about the tests. The school system sued the newspaper and editor George Schmidt. District officials won a court order requiring the confiscation of all copies of the paper and are taking action to fire teachers involved. Advocates of high-stakes testing do not want public debate on the nature or use of the tests. As Bigelow said, "Evidently, the [Oregon] Department of Education permits us to criticize the idea of the tests, but not the tests themselves. And woe to the teacher who crossed the line." Few states release test items and most adopt the position of New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills, who in response to the dismal results on the state’s recent fourth-grade English test, stated that the test itself should not be questioned. There is a need, however, for more open debate on the nature and use of high-stakes tests. In Massachusetts, for example, reading passages in fourth-grade tests were found to be primarily fifth- and sixth-grade level.
As the use, and misuse, of testing grows, more people are coming to understand the harmful effects it has on quality teaching and learning. Those who want to join the courageous folks resisting the misuse of testing in schools can get more information from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Massachusetts (http://www.fairtest.org) or by joining a national network of reformers coordinated by Alfie Kohn (http://www.AlfieKohn.org) or groups such as the Rouge Forum (http://www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum) and Whole Schooling Consortium (http://www.coe.wayne.edu/CommunityBuilding/WSC.html), which are working to promote democratic, inclusive, anti-racist education. It’s time to reclaim schools as places for learning, rather than places for testing.
E. Wayne Ross is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Binghamton.