Resisting the Tyranny of Tests


The spring testing season produced widespread resistance by test-weary students, parents, and teachers even as President George W. Bush’s education plan, which requires doubling or tripling the required number of tests students take in many states, sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives with support on both sides of the aisle.

Two Congresspeople from states where resistance to high-stakes testing has been the strongest, Rep. Peter Hoeskstra (R-MI) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), offered an amendment to strike Bush’s testing plan from HR 1, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and which included much of Bush’s education agenda, excepting federally funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

The Hoeskstra/Frank amendment was handily defeated and the House voted 384-45 for HR 1, including the cornerstone of Bush’s education plan, which requires states to test students in third through eighth grade every year in reading and math. According to the plan, schools whose students fall short of testing norms would at first receive extra funding and assistance. But if a school’s test scores continued to lag, it would be forced to take “corrective action,” such as replacing its entire staff or closing and reopening as a charter school. In addition, students at schools without adequate test scores would be able to transfer to other public schools. They could also use federal funds for private tutoring, through public or private religious organizations.

The Senate bill, S 1, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, calls for a “system of high-quality, yearly student assessments,” but does not specify that tests be comparable across districts or grades within a state. Despite the fact that U.S. students are already tested at an unprecedented level, support of the massive testing program remains strong in Congress. Sen. Paul Wellstone, however, has reintroduced the Fairness and Accuracy in Student Testing Act, a bill that stipulates that for any state or local educational agency receiving federal money, a single standardized test “shall not be the sole determinant…of any decision about the retention, graduation, tracking, or within-class grouping of an individual student.”

States currently spend nearly a half billion dollars a year to develop, administer, and score their tests—ranging from a high of $44 million by California to zero by Iowa, which has no state testing program. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) estimates the Bush testing plan could cost as much as $7 billion over 7 years for states to design and administer reading and math tests each year in grades 3 through 8.

While President Bush called the House vote “a giant step toward improving America’s public schools,” Rep. Hoekstra said, in reference to a recent New York Times expose of the testing industry that, “testing is not ready for prime time.” In an article titled “Right Answer, Wrong Score: Test Flaws Take Toll,” the New York Times detailed how tens of thousands of students have been adversely affected by scoring errors and flawed tests, with life changing results. The Times reported that test manufacturers “cannot guarantee the kind of error-free, high-speed testing that parents, educators, and politicians seem to take for granted.” Test industry leaders, such as a Kurt Landgraf of the Educational Testing Service (makers of the SAT) reacted to Bush’s plan to dramatically increase testing by saying, “I don’t know how anyone can say we can do this now.”

The New York Times also noted that tests have limited accuracy and for that reason making educational decisions based on a single test—which is the current practice in many states and part of the Bush testing plan—violates the standards of the educational measurement profession and is a practice that has been condemned by the National Academy of Sciences and numerous profession groups, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association. Eugene Paslov, President of Harcourt Educational Measurement, one of the four major test manufacturers in the U.S., recently admitted, “it is the industry standard that we recommend no single test be used for high-stakes purposes…They should be supplemented with other kinds of indicators. A certain degree of common sense too.” Harcourt makes two of the most widely used achievement tests, the Stanford 9 and Metropolitan, and has hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to produce high-stakes state tests such as the MCAS in Massachusetts. So, it is not surprising that Paslov stopped short of condemning the misuse of his industry’s product saying, “a client can choose to do what they want” with our tests.

More that half of states already reward or punish schools based on test scores, the Bush testing scheme would expand this practice to all schools receiving federal money. New research, however, shows that the methods used to identify “good” and “bad” schools are much less reliable than politicians and policymakers think. Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger recently presented a study at the annual conference of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education that found 50 to 80 percent of improvement in a school’s average test scores from one year to the next was caused by fluctuations that have nothing to do with long-term changes in learning. This finding has a devastating effect on the logic of test-based accountability systems, which are already in place in most states and at the heart of Bush’s reform plan. Kane, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor at UCLA, said, “Unfortunately, most of these [test-based accountability] systems have been set up with very little recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of the measures they’re based on.” Indeed, most states do not even conduct evaluations of their testing schemes and many states, including New York, can offer no evidence that the tests they mandate are valid or reliable measures of student learning.


Students, Parents, and Teachers Rebel

As the national testing binge continues, grassroots organizers across the nation declared May as “a month of resistance to testing” and major demonstrations were held in at least a dozen states as students, parents, and teachers decried increasing reliance on tests to decide who gets promoted, who graduates, and what is taught in schools.     

Demonstrations were held in Seattle, Detroit, Boston, Northampton, Massachusetts, Tucson, Marin County and Oakland, California, with the largest event in Albany, New York. Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that opposes most standardized tests, described the increased resistance as a sign that opposition to overuse and misuse of tests is growing. In an interview with Education Week, Neill said, “These demonstrations are usually just the tip of the iceberg.” The testing resistance movement in New York State reached a new level of intensity on May 7 as students, parents, teachers, and principals marched on the State Education Building in Albany and held a boisterous rally on the Capitol steps—the largest protest seen at the Capitol this year. The Albany demonstration followed on the heels of a well-publicized test boycott in Scarsdale, NY, where 67 percent of the 290 eighth graders in the district refused to take the state’s standardized test.

Twenty-seven buses full of students, parents, and teachers poured into Albany the morning of the rally. Most protesters were from alternative high schools in the New York City area, such as El Puente School for Peace and Justice, TeenAid High School in Brooklyn, Manhattan Village Academy, and Beacon HS. But representatives from schools in Rochester, Buffalo, and Ithaca as well as parents and concerned citizens from Albany also marched and lobbied lawmakers in their offices.

Carrying banners and signs with slogans such as “High Stakes Tests are Anti-Enlightenment” and “Schools Should Teach About Fascism—But Not By Example,” over 1,500 protesters marched from the Capitol grounds to the block-long colonnade of the State Education Building where they picketed for 45 minutes.

The student marchers offered penetrating critiques of the barrage of testing they currently face. A student from the Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE) said he was marching because the “Regents decide our fate.” Shardey Wilson of Beacon HS in Manhattan described the “Regents test for all students” initiative as a threat to “alternative schools [that] use rigorous portfolio assessments, not Regents tests that stress insignificant memorization.” Sam Logan, a student at the Urban Academy who was carrying a sign that read “Read, Remember, Regurgitate = Mills’s 3Rs” agreed with Wilson. Logan said that the Regents exams would end “a way of life, a way of learning at my school.” The Urban Academy is “more focused on analysis and figuring out your own opinion [through] class discussions, debates, research” according to Logan. “We learn to respect” what other people think, he added.

The catalyst for the Albany protest was the recent decision by New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills to revoke a waiver from the state’s Regents exams for public alternative high schools. Rather than demonstrating compliance with the state learning standards through performance assessments, such as portfolios and demonstration projects, students in alternative high schools will soon have to take and pass five Regents to graduate.

Saying that state mandated tests force teachers to abandon in-depth projects for test preparation, protesters called for boycotts of the state tests and the passage of a law mandating multiple forms of assessment for high school graduation, rather than the use of the Regents exams. In New York, fourth-graders take tests in English, math, and science. Fifth-graders are tested on social studies and eighth-graders take tests in these same subjects. By 2003 all students will have to pass Regents exams in five subjects to graduate from high school.

Assemblyperson Richard Brodsky, who is sponsoring a bill that would mandate multiple forms of assessment in New York schools, said, “This is a grassroots movement against a mindset.” Brodsky told the students lining the Capitol steps and stretching out on to the lawn that “if there was a portfolio in civics education this [demonstration] would be the best evidence that you’ve all got an ‘A’.” Brodsky then looked across the street to the State Education building and declared to Commissioner Mills “change is coming with you or without you.”

Brodsky noted the contradiction that 90 percent of alternative schools students meet the state standards and go on to college, yet the state insists that these schools abandon successful programs and conform to standardized, time-pressured, written tests. He maintained that high standards and alternative assessments can coexist and said that “bureaucratic rigidity is undermining the best of our educational system.”

Marcela Barrientos, one of several high school students to address the throngs gathered at the Capitol, gave perhaps the most powerful speech of the day. The Urban Academy student reminded her fellow students, “Our most important weapon is our mind.” Barrientos then asked, “We are working to meet and exceed high standards by using hands-on projects and analysis. Why is this a threat?” She continued, “For the rich there is choice, for the rest of us there’s standardized tests.”

Much of the rally focused on pressuring the legislature to pass the Brodsky bill that would supersede Commissioner Mills’s mandate of the Regents exams for all. Many legislators, however, are wary of overriding the Mills and the Regents, who set the education policy for the state. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (a Democrat) and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (a Republican), two of the state’s most powerful politicians have expressed sympathy for test critics. In recent days, the Brodsky bill has picked up co-sponsors in the Assembly and there is now a companion bill in the state senate.

While high school students made up the bulk of the crowd, parents were also out in force. Parents from Scarsdale, New York, who recently organized a district-wide boycott of state tests voiced concern about the “inflexibility of NYSED’s one-size-fits-all approach” for elementary and middle school students. Katherine Souther and Melanie Spivac said the state tests were “unfair to kids because they lower the standards of learning.” Souther and Spivac noted that in Scarsdale schools eight teachers were out of their classrooms for three days to receive preparation on how to administer the eighth grade English-Language Arts Exam, a significant loss of instructional time.

Souther said that “eighth graders had more than thirteen and a half hours of testing in a two month period” this spring. “The bar exam is not that long,” Souther noted.

The Scarsdale parents remarked that while protests are important in raising awareness of the public, the main issue was a critical examination of tests and their impact on the curriculum, particularly, the ways in which tests undermine community control and curb students’ passions for learning. According to Souther and Spivac, Scarsdale parents have decided by a 10 to 1 margin to drop test prep activities in classrooms in favor of the more authentic pedagogical strategies such as student projects, research papers, and other forms of authentic assessments, even though school scores on state tests might suffer. The Scarsdale PTA is in the process of creating a network of parent teacher organizations to resist state tests in New York because, as one parent said, “All children need access to quality education, but mandatory testing is not the answer…the [high-stakes testing] doesn’t work…we must stop this train in its tracks!”

Lauren Wilkinson described how parents at Vanguard High School in New York have organized against high-stakes testing by lobbying Commissioner Mills and state legislators. They too are asking lawmakers to support the Brodsky bill. Joan Harvey Klien was part of a contingent of six parents from Vanguard HS at the protest who were representing over 320 parents at the schools who have started the Parents Association of VHF to keep their school small continue the use of multiple performance assessments.

Teachers, principals, and teacher educators also spent the day marching and lobbying against test tyranny. Shawgi Tell a professor of education at Nazareth College marched with a group from the Teachers Forum, a group from Rochester, New York organizing for educational rights. Tell said “we are all uniting to oppose high-stakes testing…[we] demand that this attack on the people stop!” Teachers Forum argues that the target for the protest against high-stakes testing should not be a single individual, but “the system.” “It is the rich and their system which is the problem,” according to Tell, “high-stakes testing is an international trend spearheaded by U.S. monopoly capitalism.”

As students wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the message “We Support High Standards Not High-Stakes Testing” and carrying banners reading “More Testing Does Not Equal Better Schools” marched by, Jon Lee, a student teacher in Binghamton, New York, described the students as refusing “to take no for an answer.”

David Hursh, a professor of education at the University of Rochester and a member of the Rouge Forum and the Coalition for Commonsense in Education, described the New York State tests as “skew- ed.” For example, students at Fairport HS outside of Rochester have historically done well on Advance Placement exams but performed poorly on the state tests. According to Hursh this anomaly results from the state test’s focus on “low level facts and formulaic writing, rather than critical thinking.”

The New York tests are also skewed as a result of manipulation of the readability levels. According to Hursh, readability levels on New York’s fourth- grade English-Language Arts were originally found to be between the sixth and tenth grade, which “guaranteed low scores” by the vast majority of test takers.” Subsequently, however, “the readability levels were revised down, so scores went up and politicians and policymakers looked good.”

Official reaction to the demonstration was generally dismissive of the concerns raised by students, parents, and teachers. Roseanne DeFabio, the state’s assistant education commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment described the demonstration as a “frustrating development.” DeFabio repeated claims that the New York tests are valid and reliable measures of achievement. Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, however, obtained data from the New York State Education Department which he claims fails to provide evidence that these tests have any “predictive validity,” that is there is no proof that the tests measure anything meaningful about students’ abilities to tackle real-life tasks.

The New York Post reported Commissioner Mills’s response to the impressive display of civic activism on the part of New York students as, “These children should be in school.” New York Governor George Pataki agreed, telling the Post “I think it’s very unfortunate.” Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, assessed the day this way, “the truth of the matter is the learning experience of seeing how government works probably at least equals, if not outweighs, the experience of one day in school.”


The Future of the Resistance Movement

Test resisters understand that the mountains of tests foisted on to U.S. schools will slowly crush school quality and increase the destructive effects of racial and class divisions if not countered. Testing cannot solve education problems. High-stakes exams are a powerful intrusion on classrooms, taking up to 40 percent of teacher time, threatening academic freedom, creating an atmosphere antithetical to learning and deepening the segregation of children within and between school systems as research shows that these tests are more accurate measures of race and income than of learning.

The courts offer one avenue of recourse. While a major suit brought by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund against the discriminatory effects of the Texas tests was unsuccessful, a Tucson public-advocacy law firm has recently filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that minority students are disproportionately hurt by high failure rates on the Arizona state test (AIMS). More than 80 percent of Arizona’s African American, Latina/o, and Native American 10th graders failed the math and writing tests last fall. In California, Disability Rights Advocates, an Oakland-based non-profit, has filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the state’s high school exit exams, which they say discriminates against students with learning difficulties. The ACLU is suing Michigan over the inequitable distribution of scholarships based on the MEAP test scores. Only 7 percent of award recipients are black, even though African Americans make up 14 percent of the state’s population.

    The courts, of course, are not the only means of resistance. Students across the U.S. are boycotting mandated tests or parents are “opting out” their children from state tests. Students in Rochester, Ithaca, and Scarsdale, New York have boycotted-state tests this year, following the lead of students in California, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, and other states.

Teacher pay for student test score performance schemes is proliferating. In California, if students test scores reach targets set by the state, teachers can earn up to $25,000 in bonuses. But many teachers refuse to take incentives or are creatively investing their awards in resistance efforts. George Sheridan, a second-grade teacher in California’s Black Oak Mine school district donated his $600 bonus to Cal-CARE, a grassroots group of teachers and parents opposed to the tests. A dozen teachers in Colton, California are pooling their bonuses to hire a consultant to alert parents to the evils of the tests. Peggy Bryan, a principal in Campbell, California, sent a letter to parents explaining how to seek exemptions from the test for their children.

Professional education groups like the college faculty association of the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association and others have taken strong stands against high-stakes testing. The dean of the University of Colorado School of Education, William Stanley, recently resigned rather than yielding to state demands that the university’s teacher education programs be aligned to mandated content standards and the accompanying high-stakes test.

The revolt against high-stakes testing regimes and the anti-democratic “reform” agenda of corporations and education policymakers is picking up steam. This summer, test-resisters and others interested in building democratic schools and society will gather in Chicago as part of the conference “Freedom to Teach Freedom to Learn.” The aim of this conference is to explore issues of critical literacy, inclusive education, high-stakes testing, and democracy in schools and society.

In addition, the Rouge Forum, Whole Schooling Consortium, and Substance newspaper have launched an effort to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition opposing high stakes standardized tests and to organize and inform the public. The petition has at least two purposes. First, it is an educational tool, which raises many of the issues that high-stakes tests force on students and teachers. Secondly, it is an effort to demonstrate that many people are opposed to high stakes tests for profound reasons, not just not-in-my-backyard selfishness (to sign the petition go to: The petition is part of a strategy, along with a call for teach-ins this fall to build the resistance against the big tests and for social justice and democratic education.

In a world growing less democratic and more inequitable, high-stakes standardized tests are partisan weapons that deepen segregation. These tests are not authentic methods of assessment, but tools to regulate what people know and how they come to know it; assuming that one standard fits all, when one standard does not fit all. The tests are one prong of many (with school takeovers and privatization) in a full-scale assault on ideals of education for democratic citizenship, beliefs that have always criticized tyranny. Remarkably, liberal and conservative politicians alike, and the courts and the mainstream media, support these tests. Popular rank and file resistance to the tests, however, is already rising. Educators, students, parents, and community people have begun to take direct action. The best answer to the tyranny of the tests is organizing and test resisters are doing exactly that.                                   Z

E. Wayne Ross is a professor of education at SUNY Binghamton. SUNY Press recently published a revised edition of his book The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities.