A rebellion against testing

Standardized testing is part of a pro-corporate agenda to carve up our public education system--but the deformers are starting to feel the heat from a growing resistance.

Striking Chicago teachers stand public schools being turned into testing factories (Carole Ramsden | SW)Striking Chicago teachers stand public schools being turned into testing factories (Carole Ramsden | SW)

MICHELLE RHEE, one of the guiding lights of the corporate school "reform" crusade, mistitled her newly published memoir.

She called it Radical--but it really should be titled Fanatic.

Rhee and the other corporate deformers, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are hell-bent on upturning public education--and their strategy for doing so involves opening up privatized charter schools, scapegoating teachers and their unions, and pushing high-stakes testing.

But the deformers aren't having it all their way. A resistance has been building to the pro-corporate agenda--especially, in recent weeks, around standardized testing. Wednesday, February 6, is a national day of action in support of Seattle teachers who announced last month that they will refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.

The boycott began at Garfield High School, where teachers voted unanimously to boycott the MAP. Their stand spread quickly to other schools in the district and has gained the support of students and parents who oppose the testing frenzy that penalizes students and teachers and takes precious resources away from schools.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda threatened teachers with a 10-day suspension without pay if they didn't give the tests by February 22. But the teachers stood firm, and this week, district officials verbally rescinded the suspension threat--though at Garfield, administrators are trying to go around the boycott by pulling students out of class and giving the test themselves.

The boycott has won strong support from prominent individuals like National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, actor Matt Damon and former Assistant Secretary of Education-turned-reform critic Diane Ravitch, as well as parents organization like Parents Across America.

This week, the Seattle King County branch of the NAACP announced its support for the boycott. As chapter President James Bible pointed out in a statement, "It seems that success in the MAP test may be more reflective of the educational and/or economic successes of the child's parents." Bible concluded, "We believe that the MAP test leads to inequitable results and opportunities. As a result, we believe that the test should be suspended and the teachers should be supported."

Everyone who cares about the future of our schools should do what they can to support the Seattle teachers on this day of action. Actions like the boycott are important steps in confronting the many faces of the assault on public schools--and they provide an opportunity to start envisioning what a well-funded education system that values all students, teachers and parents might look like.

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THE SEATTLE teachers' action has clearly struck a nerve with students, parents and educators who are fed up with the testing madness.

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law emphasized testing as the best way to measure the success of schools, and Barack Obama went further in the same direction with the misnamed Race to the Top program. But as Seattle teachers have said when they explain why they are boycotting, the MAP test, like other standardized tests, has significant flaws and drawbacks.

For one, these tests exacerbate one of the main problems with public education--the lack of funding for all our schools. Seattle Public Schools estimates it pays about $500,000 a year just on the MAP's subscription and licensing costs. For poorer schools and districts, that's financial resources which could be used on other priorities, like books or computers.

It's also the case that the testing crusade doesn't affect all schools equally.

If testing is such a great help in telling how well a school is doing, logic would suggest that better-funded schools would be testing all of the time. But elite private schools--like the University of Chicago Lab School, where Chicago Mayor and school reform zealot Rahm Emanuel sends his kids--don't evaluate teachers or curriculum based on testing. They don't "teach to the test," as public schools are compelled to do. They emphasize a well-rounded education where libraries, physical education, languages and the arts aren't considered "extras."

Clearly, standardized testing is for public school students and teachers--who must prove what they can do with meager resources--not for wealthy schools with nothing to prove. This underscores the vast inequality in our education system, where there are two kinds of schools: one for the majority of students who need to be trained to follow orders, and another for a minority that will give those orders.

And if testing is designed to fail some percentage of kids, it's designed to fail their teachers, too. The primary purpose of the MAP test in Seattle isn't to measure student's knowledge, but to evaluate teachers--even though the test's designers themselves say it shouldn't be used for this. Teachers in districts across the country today are facing pressure to agree--if they haven't already--to "merit pay" schemes based on how well students do on standardized tests.

As testing increasingly takes over the school day and year, it exerts more and more control over teachers' working conditions and rights on the job. The outcome of standardized testing can turn a good teacher in a struggling school--where factors like poverty and hunger play very big role in test scores--into a bad teacher overnight, with devastating consequences.

The Chicago Teachers Union estimated that if the city had been allowed to institute a testing-based evaluation system, as it demanded to do during contract negotiations last fall, some 6,000 teachers might have lost their jobs in the first year or two alone.

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IN A broader sense, testing is just one component of a wider corporate "reform" agenda that aims to privatize public education and sell it to the highest bidder. The single-minded focus on testing sets up children and their teachers for failure--and then district officials close down schools based on a self-fulfilling prophecy. But for the deformers, this provides the justification for replacing public schools for privatized institutions like charter schools, which function free of teachers' unions.

Testing isn't simply misguided or imperfect policy. It's part of a long-term strategy to strip public education down to the bone. Nothing is safe from privatization--not even the promise of good public schools.

But more and more, the school "reform" vultures are being exposed for what they are--and so is the terrible inequality that exists in the U.S. education system. Despite all the efforts to pit parents against teachers, more and more people are concluding that the attack on teachers is also an attack on our children. This was something that the Chicago teachers' strike highlighted last fall: The fight of the teachers is a fight for all of us.

And that fight isn't over, either. Chicago teachers, parents and students are facing plans from the city to close more public schools, while more charters are opened up. In response, angry community members shut down a recent meeting organized by a public relations firm to sell Chicago parents on privatization.

Meanwhile, in cities around the country, the Seattle testing boycott is galvanizing action. "More than a Score in Chicago will be petitioning at two dozen schools against high stakes testing on Wednesday," one Chicagoan reported on the Seattle teachers' Scrap the MAP Facebook page. "We'll be wearing red for Garfield teachers, of course!"

Martin Luther King had useful advice when he challenged segregation almost 50 years ago:

There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws...Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

We stand with the Seattle teachers as they challenge the tests that are transforming schools into places of drudgery and fear--and we demand funding for the kind of public schools our kids deserve.