Backlash Against NCLB-Mandated Testing Grows, But Movement Has A Long Way to Go

Yesterday in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton summarized what seems to be a growing backlash against the standardized testing that has kept mushrooming since 2002, when annual testing of all children (and comparing scores of subgroups of children and schools) was mandated by what Jonathan Kozol has called “the federal testing law” No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  While Congress continues to delay a reauthorization of the law, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education has said that to escape from some of the other punitive consequences of NCLB, states can secure federal waivers (from the U.S. Department of Education, not Congress) if states will promise to use the standardized tests required by NCLB as part of the way the states evaluate teachers.  And then the Obama Administration has also said that to secure waivers, states must promise to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards.” The easiest way to do that is to adopt the Common Core Standards, which come with their own tests developed by big companies who are in it to make a profit.

Layton adds, “In addition to the federally required tests, states have layered on more assessments, with many requiring exams such as an exit test to graduate high school.  Local school districts and individual schools often administer more tests.  The result is that, on average, students in large urban schools districts take 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade, according to data being collected by the Council of Great City Schools.”

But push-back is growing according to Layton, “The standardized test, a hallmark of the accountability movement that has defined U.S. public education since 2002, is under growing attack from critics who say students from pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade are taking too many exams.  Four states have repealed or delayed graduation testing requirements in the past two years.  Four others, including Texas—where the idea of using tests to hold schools accountable for educating children first began—have cut the number of required exams or reduced their consequences.  Boycotts, such as when 60,000 students refused to take exams this year in New York, are on the upswing.”

The backlash among teachers is raging, and the local press has begun to pay attention.  Myra Blackmon of the Athens Banner-Herald (GA) published a scathing commentary on the implications for teachers and children of too much testing and the implications for taxpayers of profits piling up for the big testing companies:  “Georgia will pay CTB/McGraw-Hill, which bills itself as ‘one of the nation’s leading educational assessment partners’ more than $100 million over the next five-years to develop the yet-another-new-testing-scheme called Georgia Milestones.  That’s $20 million each year for a system that many don’t believe will last a year beyond the end of the contract.  We’ll likely be on to another magical testing scheme by 2019.”   She concludes: “High-stakes testing is not about measuring ‘student growth’ or helping teachers do a better job.  It is actually a new blunt instrument, used to bludgeon schools to spend limited funds for no good reason, to beat teachers until they are ready to quit and to abuse millions of school children who have little choice.”

Concern about too much testing even began to creep inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway this week with meetings to discuss the problem—the first co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council for the Great City Schools, and a second event, “The Need for Better, Fairer, Fewer Tests,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress.  There seems to be absolutely no consensus at this point about how to cut back, cut out, or even just control the growth of testing, though grade span testing—testing once between K-5, once in middle school and once in high school—has at least been mentioned by one or two people as an alternative to testing all students every year.  And Valerie Strauss, in her Answer Sheet blog, printed one proposal for a three-year moratorium nationwide on standardized testing.  Education Week published three columns this week on the seepage of the anti-testing backlash inside the Beltway, here, here, and here.

In this same week—along with articles about the rage over too much testing of the wrong kind and the profits flowing to the big companies that publish and grade the standardized tests—the education writer Mike Rose posted on his blog a reflection on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his classic book, Lives on the BoundaryLives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievement of America’s Educationally Underprepared considers the needs of students being left behind—the very same issue supposedly addressed by the federal testing law called No Child Left Behind.  But Rose’s idea about how to help struggling students is very different than what is happening in our current test-driven schools.  In his new blog post, Rose writes, “The stories have a purpose beyond their particular events and characters: to question educational practices that don’t serve underprepared students well, and, more broadly, to explore the complex relation between education and social class in our country.”

Rose explains that after a quarter of a century he continues to receive letters of gratitude from readers who feel affirmed by Lives on the Boundary.  Rose is a teacher whose concern is improving the experience of education for children who feel left behind and affirming each student’s worth—the very antithesis of test-and-punish accountability.  Rose writes: “I think that Lives on the Boundary makes particular and palpable the feeling of struggling in school, or not getting it, of feeling out of place, but conveys that welter of feeling within an overall narrative of possibility.  This possibility is actualized through one’s own perseverance and wit, but also through certain kinds of instruction, through meaningful relationships with adults, and through a particular set of beliefs about learning and teaching.  The book conveys the sense that a difficult life in school is not unique to you, not odd or freakish, that there are reasons for such a life, that though difficult, the difficulty is not necessarily of your making.  You are a legitimate member of this place, and your struggles and successes are important.”

After reading Rose’s new blog post, I pulled Lives on the Boundary off my shelf, and re-read the “afterward” Rose wrote for the 2005 edition.  In his “afterward,” Rose captures a primary reason for today’s growing frustration with the domination of standardized testing in the lives of children and teachers.  He surmises that “one of the things people respond to in Lives on the Boundary is the depiction of education as a complex lived experience.  Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place in a field laden with feeling—satisfaction or embarrassment, uncertainty, pushing oneself, and a thousand tiny brushes with others. And it all takes place someplace with its history and culture, its economic and political context—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom. All of this may well get reflected in a set of (test) scores…. But the scores are many levels of abstraction away from daily life in the classroom, the place where one’s identity as a student is formed.” (Lives on the Boundary, pp. 246-247)


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