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In Case You Missed It: Students, Teachers Push Back Against Testing

Back to Skills

I’m traveling overseas this week, and while I’m gone I thought I would share a recent post that you might have missed the first time around. Given that the rising tide of pushback against standardized testing shows no signs of dissipating, it seemed appropriate to revisit this post from March:

While it’s become a common refrain for students, teachers and parents to complain that too much time is spent preparing for – and administering – standardized tests in public schools, the level of dissatisfaction is arguably reaching previously unheard decibels.

In what’s believed to be the first such example of a campus-wide testing boycott, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle are refused to administer a state-mandated exam to their students. The teachers contend that the Measures of Academic Progress test doesn’t match what students are supposed to be learning, and therefore amounts to little more than an expensive waste – of both instructional time and district dollars.

One of the organizers of the student protests of the test is Caitlin Chambers, a senior at Garfield High School, who shared her views in an opinion piece with Cross Cuts, a local news site:

“Students have no incentive to take the test seriously. There’s no state-wide graduation requirement for passing the MAP … The test wastes valuable class time, pulling 805 students out of class for 320 minutes each, according to statistics compiled by Garfield teachers. It also wastes $480,000 every year, money that could be put to far better use in the classroom for textbooks, lab supplies, and general class materials.”

The Garfield teachers have the backing of the National Education Association, with the labor union’s President Dennis Van Roekel calling them “heroic.” (For more on the Garfield protest, check out the Seattle Times’ first-rate reporting.) The Chicago Teachers Union voiced its support for their colleagues in Seattle and launched its own campaign against an overabundance of high-stakes tests.

In Providence, a coalition of high school students traveled to the state capital to deliver a letter to Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, criticizing the use of the New England Common Assessment Program exam as a requirement for graduation.

In an opinion piece written by three Rhode Island high schoolers, published online by the Providence Journal, the students contend that:

“… Making the NECAP a graduation requirement does not improve the quality of the teaching we receive. It does not strengthen social services so we get the support we need. It does not make our curriculum more relevant and engaging. It does not provide us adequate supplies and textbooks. It does not give us more electives or guidance councilors or college advising or extracurriculars or smaller class sizes or affordable transportation to school. In other words, this policy does not, in any way, actually support our schools to help us succeed.”

To press their case about 50 determined — and apparently theatrically inclined — students, costumed in  ghoulish makeup and torn clothing, marched to the state’s Department of Education in Providence. “To take away the diploma is to take away our life, to make us undead,” Cauldierre McKay, a Classical High School student, told the Journal. “That’s why we’re here today…dressed as the zombies that this policy will turn so many of us into.”

But while some states are grappling with public demands to scale back the number of tests used in schools and the stakes attached to them  — such as what’s unfolding in Texas, for example –others are actually in the midst of adding new assessments aimed at improving both the quality of instruction and individual student achievement. In Louisiana, not only are schools adding end-of-course assessments, but students will now also be required to take the ACT college entrance exam. And as the Hechinger Report notes, teachers in subject areas that were previously exempt from the statewide testing system will now see their job evaluations tied to student test scores.

In Oklahoma, the weight attached to the high-stakes exams has been steadily increasing since the implementation of No Child Left Behind more than decade ago. The high-stakes tests are now used to determine a student’s eligibility to graduate, and are also a factor in teacher evaluations.

Additionally, with Oklahoma’s new assessment schedule, students will have to take two tests – reading and writing – at the same time. That requirement has teachers worried, especially because the writing test is already considered so difficult that it reportedly reduces some students to tears.

Jelana Mosely, an eighth-grade teacher in Ardmore, Okla., said she preferred when the writing test was given on its own in February, and she then had time to prepare her students for the reading test in April. The new schedule doesn’t benefit students, Mosely told the Daily Ardmoreite.

“You don’t play football and basketball all year around,” she told the local newspaper. “You play football, then basketball, so athletes can focus on one then the other.”

In a number of states, educators are watching closely to find out what the new Common Core State Standards will mean for the number of tests students have to take each year. So far, 46 states have signed on to Common Core, and the new assessments will be rolled out over the next two academic years. But it’s not clear whether those Common Core assessments will only supplement – rather than replace – existing tests, especially those used as high school exit exams to determine whether a student graduates.

The surge in anti-testing sentiment isn’t surprising, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, a national advocacy organization. When it comes to what Schaeffer called “high-stakes testing overkill,” the message from students, parents and educators is “enough is enough.”

The pressure on policymakers to reduce substantially the amount of instructional time devoted to test preparation and test-taking is expected to increase in the coming months, in part because of concerns about the additional burden of the new Common Core assessments. The battles are not just about cutting back on the volume of tests, Schaeffer told me, but also about ending the “arbitrary, politically driven consequences attached to them.” As an alternative, assessment reformers want schools to use “multiple measures based primarily on the real academic work students do — not flawed, snapshots that largely rely on filling in bubble forms,” Schaeffer said.

While the majority of states have received waivers from NCLB’s toughest provisions, they are still required to track student progress. And at least for now, that means high-stakes tests. As education policymakers and educators are learning already, striking the balance between unnecessary testing and high-quality assessments isn’t easy to do. It’s even tougher when those exams are being used not just to guide classroom instruction for students but to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers, a school’s quality, or the progress of an entire state.