From Chicago to St. Paul, educators are voicing their concerns about a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation.
Across the U.S., in school districts large and small, an increasing number of teachers and students are openly opposing standardized state tests, claiming that these examinations are a poor assessment of student progress. Teachers’ unions from Chicago and Seattle don’t want a test-free environment, but educators have expressed support for more community-oriented testing alternatives.
Joining the growing number seeking alternatives are teachers from the St. Paul, Minn. Federation of Teachers, who have voiced their opposition to state standardized testing ahead of the resumption of contract negotiations later this month. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports that the demand to move away from state standardized tests is unprecedented in the history of contract negotiations throughout the state of Minnesota.
The demand may mark a break from business as usual for Minnesota educators, but the call for new testing echoes similar demands by teachers in Chicago and Seattle, as well as from a growing number of parents who are opposed to a “one size fits all” approach to assessing student performance, requiring some teachers to devote 10 full classroom days each year just to preparing students for state exams.
The fate of a $2.6 billion per year national testing industry could hang in the balance.
Teachers speak out
So what are these standardized exams and what are teachers saying? In Minnesota, students currently have to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments — a set of tests that measure reading, writing and mathematics, usually given to students grades 3–9. It sounds pretty ordinary, but St. Paul teachers complain that the tests take away from regular classroom learning.
“You’ve now had a ridiculous amount of your learning time taken away from you,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
Instead of relying on state reading and math tests, union leaders are calling upon the district to develop its own assessment test with the input of teachers. Additionally, some claim the tests require that teachers narrow their focus to subjects like math, leaving aside the arts. They say the wording of some questions are culturally and racially biased, meaning that some students of color won’t perform as well.
Not all are in agreement on this point, with some administration officials claiming that it is out of line for teachers to determine whether or not to support existing exams. “The tests are required by state and federal law and it’s really not in the purview of district administration to violate state and federal statute,” said Matt Mohs, the chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools.
Minnesota education officials aren’t sure what the penalties will be should they choose to not administer these exams, but they could include the withholding of federal education funding from the district or the state.
That’s exactly the source of the problem for a growing number of educators who see standardized testing fraught with problems.
St. Paul and Chicago: Parallel struggles
The debate over St. Paul testing comes on the heels of a similar struggle in Chicago last year, where teachers criticized exams during a September 2012 strike involving 29,000 teachers and support staff. It was the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in 25 years.
Many of the normal demands, namely wages and benefits, were the focal points of discussions, but less publicized were a set of demands aimed at helping students in the classroom, including smaller classes and a move away from standardized testing.
Chicago teachers also sought to separate teacher assessments from the performance of students on standardized tests.
“What is happening here in Chicago is also strategically important nationally. Chicago as you probably know was the birthplace of the neoliberal, corporate, top-down education reform agenda — privatizing public education, closing and sabotaging public and neighborhood schools, high stakes testing, paying teachers based upon test scores. Chicago is now the epicenter of the fightback against it. What happens here in Chicago will really have an implication for whether we are able to turn back this national agenda,” said Pauline Lipman, professor of education policy Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in a statement to Democracy Now.
The Chicago Tribune reports that teachers ended their strike with 79.1 percent of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voting in favor of a deal that will give teachers an average pay raise of 17.6 percent over four years if the contract is extended an extra year. It didn’t end there.
More than 300 Chicago students picked up where the teachers left off, staging a walkout during standardized testing to oppose existing policies, which largely determine school funding and support based upon test scores.
“We’re just trying to make a statement that tests should not determine our future or the future of our schools,” said student organizer Alexssa Moore, a senior at Lindblom High School.
Where Chicago teachers fell short of severing ties with standardized tests, teachers in Seattle held a boycott against standardized tests and succeeded. The Seattle Times reports that a January 2013 boycott of the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exam was successful.
The Times reports that Superintendent José Banda announced in May that high schools don’t have to give the tests after this spring. The decision will now be up to each high school’s leadership team. It is still a required examination for students K-8.
“Finally, educators’ voices have been acknowledged,” said Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher opposed to the exams. “This is a great moment in the movement for quality assessment.”
Standardized testing: one size doesn’t fit all
Growing teacher lead opposition to the exams is clear, but what do the students think of tests and how does it affect them?
For some, test taking has become a humiliating exercise when state authorities are oblivious to learning conditions and special needs that push some students to take an exam that doesn’t take into account their learning needs.
A Washington Post report focuses on Florida, where state regulations require that every student take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in order for the school to receive state support. It presents a major problem for students like Michael (pseudonym) who is blind and has a learning disability.
Michael is 9 years old. Born prematurely, he weighed four pounds at birth. He has a brain stem but, according to doctors, most of his brain is missing. He is also blind, but due to his medical conditions was unable to learn braille. Despite asking to be exempted from the test, Michael was forced to take the exam, and received a zero because of state requirements.
Even for the average student without such challenges, the exams can be challenging, if not impossible.
Hector Perea, an 11th-grader from Providence, RI, helped stage a student “zombie protest” in opposition to his state exams. “We’re here for an anti-NECAP campaign [New England Common Assessment Program]. The zombie thing is to show as a symbol how NECAP has taken away our future, it’s killing us pretty much, just closing us off from anything that we want to do,” Parea said during the February protest. Students report that 60 percent of Providence students were at risk of not graduating because of poor grades on NECAP exams.
How difficult are these exams? In some cases, school administrators with advanced degree struggled to receive passing scores. Rick Roach, a school board member for Orange County, Florida, sought to investigate why thousands of students in his district were struggling to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) by taking an exam in 2011 with similar questions. The result?
Roach barely passed the reading portion with a grade of 62. He failed the math section despite having two masters degrees.
Errors abound in grading of these exams as well, with recorded instances of students mistakenly flunking exams that they actually passed.
“Students are not taught to think critically or deeply at this time. They are presented with so much information over a broad range of topics that is loaded into their short‐term memory to be forgotten as soon as the standardized test is completed,” reported a Chicago Public School teacher of middle school environmental science, biology and pre‐engineering.