Breaking the grade

Parents are right to oppose the pervasive use of high-stakes standardized testing for students of all ages

March 18, 2014 5:30AM ET
Students taking a test in a classroom.
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Robert Daly/OJO Images

Earlier this month, the College Board announced that the SAT, bane of American teenagers everywhere, would be revised — in part to better combat the expanding market share of its competitor, the ACT. This change has drawn attention to testing industry, with critics pointing to the SAT as an imperfect and improperly used instrument for measuring students’ talents and potential. However, it’s important that we realize that it’s not just would-be college students who are suffering the consequences of overtesting. In the era of so-called education reform, even children in their first years of elementary school are being subjected to a seemingly endless battery of tests whose merits are highly questionable.  

The now pervasive use of high-stakes standardized testing has created a backlash, with opposition on the rise from parents. They are frustrated by what they see as a waste of valuable class time and a source of major anxiety for their kids. In response, more and more parents are choosing to remove their children from testing that they see as not only dubious but also potentially dangerous. “State-sanctioned child abuse” was how one classroom aide described endless rounds of high-stakes testing, reported Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker.

Consider Claire Wapole’s heartbreaking description of aiding her daughter’s class with a standardized testing regimen, the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. The children suffered through faulty technology and inscrutable instructions. Yet they blamed themselves, not the misbegotten tests. “I’m just not smart, Mom,” her daughter told her, quietly, after the seemingly endless day. “Not like everyone else. I’m just no good at kindergarten, just no good at all.”

And for what? High-stakes tests are increasingly mandated by top-down policy, not teachers’ professional judgment about what will best help students learn. Instead of being employed as teaching instruments, tests are being used to rate educators — or schools as a whole — in ways that their creators never intended.

Fractured backlash

The backlash, thus far, has been scattershot and isolated yet demographically diverse. Parents from Oregon to Oklahoma to New York have pulled their children out of testing. Despite increasing publicity around such incidents, the opt-out wave has not taken the form of a political movement. Few parents have tried to contest the larger package of policies that intensive standardized testing has accompanied. Yet if anti-testing parents were to opt in to a wider coalition against pro–corporate education “reform,” it could have far-reaching implications.

The manifest unfairness and occasional corruption of the testing industry is a solid base on which to build a wider coalition. High-stakes standardized testing is the linchpin of the top-down “reform” movement that has taken on America’s public education system over the last 15 years. Test results are used as an excuse to shutter neighborhood schools that don’t make the grade and to expand public funding for privately run charter schools. Yet these charters, on the whole, have not been any more effective at addressing problems caused by entrenched poverty in the nation’s hardest-hit communities. As education expert Diane Ravitch writes, “the gap between haves and have-nots appears on every standardized test.”

Teachers have long voiced their opposition to high-stakes testing as a means of evaluating educators and rating schools — calling instead for equitable funding to help those schools that need it most. But opposition by parents has political power that the beleaguered and unpopular teachers’ unions do not. Self-styled reformers such as former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee have been effective at making scapegoats of teachers for the failures in schools. But when teachers, parents and students express a shared discontent with the “reform” agenda, it makes such finger-pointing far less tenable.

The affluent can most easily avoid having their kids become subjects of the experiments of top-down education ‘reform’ movement.

It’s not surprising that administrators, charter school leaders and anti-union advocates have eyed the opt-out movement with extreme wariness. Education Secretary Arne Duncan created a furor last year when he criticized opt-out parents as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [find] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” On another occasion, he characterized them as crazed tea partyers.

It’s understandable that defenders of testing would want a clearer picture of what is going on in a particular school or with a particular student. But education “reformers” have taken this legitimate impulse to perverse end. The current regimen does not provide accurate or just assessments and shows negligible educational outcomes for students. Instead, this overly punitive approach provides cover for the transfer of resources to charter schools and has resulted in mass cheating scandals.

Parents clearly have legitimate reasons to demand better—and to join with others to reject school privatization, budget cuts, and high-stakes testing. Teachers and parents interact and relate with students on a daily basis. They have a better grasp of their own child’s needs than administrators or legislators, whose priorities are not grounded in the realities of the classroom or the dining room.

Defunding initiatives

We have already seen signs of a potential coalition’s power. Last year, when teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle voted against standardized testing required by the district, they gained the backing of not only the student government but also the PTA. Many parents sent opt-out letters in support. In the end, the school superintendent declared that it was no longer mandatory for high schools to administer the MAP tests (although middle and elementary schools must still adhere to the regimen).

Far away in Texas, in a very different political climate, politicians felt the pressure from constituents — who also happen to be parents — to stem the tide of high-stakes testing. In response, the Republican-controlled statehouse zeroed out all standardized testing funds from this school year’s budget. Moreover, Republican Gov. Rick Perry dramatically reduced a variety of testing requirements.

The potential is evident. But if the opt-out movement is to truly reach political maturity, solidarity will be key. Our educational system is emblematic of the income inequality that plagues American society: Those with resources can most easily avoid having their kids become subjects of the experiments of top-down “reform” movement. But those who are committed to ensuring quality education for their children are far more powerful when they take collective action. Rather than merely opting their own kids out, parents should be calling on their elected officials to stop making scapegoats of teachers and to instead create a system with opportunities for all kids, no matter what neighborhood they happen to live in. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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