Boycotters Might Be Winning the Battle Over Standardized Testing
In Chicago, home to the nation’s third-largest school system, the city superintendent has decided not to administer a test tied to the federal Common Core curriculum. The move eases the pressure on tens of thousands of students—and validates parents and educators who boycotted the test last year—but risks billions of dollars in government funds.
Half a continent away, in California, state education officials are ready to follow Chicago’s lead and ask the federal government for an exemption from using scores on tests mandated by No Child Left Behind to measure progress in reading and math. Meanwhile, in Colorado, state education authorities recently voted 5–2 to walk away from Common Core and leave their share of Education Department money on the table—all because their kids are staggering under the testing burden.
In districts across the nation, from Florida to Alaska, the grassroots push for a rollback in high-stakes testing has gained momentum, and a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and advocates are poised to take advantage, even if it means an end to federal grants in tight fiscal times. But it also puts pressure on local and national education policy makers, including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who see frequent testing as a key component in the education-overhaul tool kit.
“What you’re seeing is a response to a grassroots movement of parents, teachers, and students pushing back against testing overkill,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, one of the organizations leading the test-reform movement. He said suburban schools where parents doubt the usefulness of standardized testing is worth the stress have linked arms with poorer ones that don’t have the resources to ensure students score well and will lose money if they don’t.
According to Schaeffer, school districts and state education boards are beginning to recognize that forcing students to take standardized tests—and using the results to determine federal funding, millions of dollars in education reform incentives, and teacher salaries—does more harm than good. The tests have barely moved the needle in the drive to improve public education.
“The [Common Core] tests were supposed to be a whole new generation, designed to get beyond the fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice tests,” he said. “But they’re the same tests, only longer and harder.”
Starting with No Child Left Behind and continuing with the Common Core curriculum, student testing has spiked in the last decade. Along with state assessments, some districts test their students as often as once a year on math and reading proficiency; before the change, testing usually happened just once in elementary, middle, and high school.
Proponents say testing is a valuable tool that helps parents measure school and teacher performance with an independent, unbiased, standard yardstick. But there’s a lot of pressure: Some tests can determine a student’s future education and career.
“This movement has been growing, and if Congress reauthorizes the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind], it may well trigger a larger test boycott movement across the country,” Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, wrote in an email. “Many communities are growing weary of the amount of time devoted to testing—which comes at the expense of time focused on instruction—and they are increasingly willing to take on the federal government.”
Noguera and Schaeffer agree that Chicago Public Schools is Exhibit A, and perhaps the turning point the movement has been waiting for. After all, both President Obama and Secretary Duncan are standardized-testing advocates who have close ties to Chicago and to its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.
When parents and some teachers boycotted the Common Core–affiliated Partnership Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (known as the PARCC) test last year, “public opinion polls say the public backed them,” Schaeffer said. Other grassroots organizations and teachers’ unions threw their weight behind the boycott, leading Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett to recently make the strategic decision to have only about 10 percent of the district’s 664 public schools take the test as a representative sample.
Disparities in school funding played a role in Bennett’s decision; the test is computerized, which isn’t a problem for schools in wealthier areas, but in some of Chicago’s poorest schools, it’s a disqualifier. That’s the situation in plenty of other cities across the nation too. “In many places, computer labs do not exist,” Schaeffer said.
Ultimately, he said, the movement has probably reached critical mass, and as many as 25 states are discussing opting out of the system—including New York, where Schaeffer predicted “widespread opt-outs and boycotts by parents” beginning in March, the start of so-called testing season.
“Politicians are scrambling and backpedaling,” he said. “This is a rapidly escalating moment, especially as testing season approaches.”