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Can anti-testing bloc swing the 2016 election?

A candidate who embraces the anti-testing movement in education can draw support across party lines

December 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

Public school teachers and other opponents of high-stakes testing won a significant, if partial, victory when Congress agreed to revise the No Child Left Behind act on Wednesday. The new law greatly reduces federal penalties on schools that don’t raise standardized test scores quickly enough, even though it leaves many of those tests in place. Most important for teachers, it stops their evaluations from being tied to student test scores. The test-and-punish regime that disappoints and discourages many teachers could soon be a thing of the past.

The No Child Left Behind act, adopted in 2001, brought a battery of tests intended to measure the successes of public schools against a uniform national standard. But as the testing regimen steadily ramped up, consuming more and more school time, a countermovement has grown across the country. This anti-standardized-testing sentiment proves that there are few subjects that get parents as riled up as the education of their children.

The new law, while a welcome change, has not ended the fight against overtesting; it has merely moved the contest back to the states, which will now determine their own policies around testing. As the campaign season continues apace, there is reason for candidates to use their bully pulpits to ride the surge of local discontent over the state of public education in their communities. But it remains to be seen which of the 2016 presidential contenders will decide to champion the effort and tap its momentum. 

Too many tests

It’s not hard to see why tests cause many parents to dread sending their kids to school. An August study from Mother Jones found that the average American student takes 10 to 20 standardized tests per year, and a 2013 study from the American Federation of Teachers found tests take up 50 hours a year, and test preparation, 60 hours. Recess, imaginative teaching and socialization are all compromised in favor of cramming for exams. According to a 2014 PDK/Gallup poll, 2 out of 3 public school parents surveyed said they think “standardized tests are not helpful” in teaching students, and 69 percent of public school parents polled said they oppose using student test results in teacher evaluations — up from 58 percent in 2013; PDK/Gallup polling released this summer showed 44 percent said they believe parents should be able to opt out of having their children take standardized tests. 

The opt-out movement began in New York, where more than 200,000 pupils, or 20 percent of students, opted out of at least one standardized test in the state during the 2014–15 school year, The New York Times reported. Opt out is now spreading across a diverse array of states, including other populous states such as California and Texas.

In September, Seattle teachers went out on strike for the first time in 30 years to advocate for better conditions for teachers and students — and less testing. As with the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, these union members were demanding not just wage increases but also benefits for their students, including a more balanced school day with a greater variety of activities and less testing. In some poorer schools in the Seattle school district, students are allowed only 15 minutes for lunch and recess. 

Even before the strike, Seattle teachers were at the forefront of the movement to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing; this time, they won in a week, securing 30 minutes of guaranteed recess, an end to evaluation by test score and a voice in how often such testing is forced on students. 

Earlier in the year and a time zone away, two rural school districts in Colorado almost opted out of the standardized testing system entirely. Mancos and Buffalo reviewed the numbers for the 2014–15 school year and determined that they had the highest opt-out rates in the state. In Mancos, none of the seniors took their science and social studies tests that fall.

There is little that parents are more concerned about than the education of their children.

“I think it just kind of rose up organically from everybody in the community,” said Superintendent Brian Hanson in an interview with the education site Chalkbeat. “In a small town it doesn’t take very long for that kind of thing to happen. In small communities people place a value in a lot of things, not just test scores.”

Lawmakers have taken notice of public dissatisfaction. In Wake County, North Carolina’s largest school district, the number of required standardized tests was reduced by two-thirds this year. In the Miami-Dade school district, America’s fourth largest, the number of standardized tests required of students in various grades across the system was reduced from a staggering 300 to 10. Also in Florida, Lee County’s school board voted to opt out of all state-mandated standardized testing last year. States across the nation, from Minnesota to Mississippi, are passing laws — or at least resolutions — to cap the number of hours spent on standardized testing at the expense of instruction that would benefit students more.

Presidential politics

Education has not yet emerged as a major policy issue in the elections, but there’s still a chance it will enter the political calculus. Wednesday’s unambiguously bipartisan bill passed both houses of Congress by large margins, even though presidential hopefuls on both the left and right such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders abstained from voting — a testament to how contentious the federal government’s role in public education can to be.

In the past, these candidates recognized that embracing the anti-testing movement could pay political dividends. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Cruz and Paul voted against an attempt to reform No Child Left Behind earlier this year in part because it left too many tests in place. Cruz cited the lack of a strong opt-out component and an annual testing requirement as his major concerns, and Paul explained his vote by noting its “lack of adequate parental choice, a federal testing mandate and continued support for Common Core.” 

Hillary Clinton has attacked high-stakes testing too, declaring in a 2007 speech to the National Education Association, “How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children’s passion is being killed?” In a more recent meeting with the union, she noted that education “is not just how well you do on a test.” And Sanders pointed out his opposition to No Child Left Behind in a questionnaire submitted by the American Federation of Teachers, as well as his continuing opposition to the “reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions.”

This movement presents a massive political opportunity for savvy candidates on either side of the aisle. There is little that parents are more concerned about than the education of their children — which is perhaps why opposition to high-stakes testing has animated voters not only in New York City and Seattle but also Texas and North Carolina. The opt-out movement and the teachers’ strikes are only the most visible and militant manifestations of the deep-seated opposition to overtesting. 

Presidential aspirants would be wise to start playing up the issue more strongly and make 2016 an education election yet. 

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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