Taking on the test

November 24, 2014

Chicago public high school teacher Anthony Cappetta reviews More Than a Score and explains why it's a must-read in the fight against corporate school reform.

OVER THE past decade, the use of standardized test scores as a tool to hold teachers and public school systems accountable has risen at an alarming rate. It started when Congress made No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the law of the land in 2001, and reached a near fever pitch with the implementation of President Obama's Race to the Top (R2T) over the past few years.

Recently, Time magazine published a cover that falsely blames "bad" teachers for everything wrong in education. In the face of harsh repercussions, a new movement against the misuse of standardized tests has exploded. The stories of resistance and much more are told in this fantastic new book published by Haymarket Books.

More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, edited by teacher and education activist Jesse Hagopian, also includes a forward by renowned education historian and researcher Diane Ravitch. Ravitch has become an outspoken critic of the harm being done to the teaching profession and our public schools, after both of her last two books hit the New York Times best-sellers list.

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

Hagopian teaches history at Garfield High School (GHS) in Seattle and became one of the many leaders in this new movement when the entire staff at GHS refused to administer the MAP test in the spring of 2013. His story, and the many others in the book, gives a distinct on-the-ground viewpoint of the harm being done in our public schools and the fightback that is just beginning to blossom.

The book is divided into four sections as a collection of essays written by people from each of the four groups that policies like NCLB and R2T directly impact--teachers, students, parents and administrators. Before getting into the stories, Hagopian does a tremendous job outlining the current struggle and battle lines over public education.

Unfortunately, he tries to normalize the words "testocracy" and "testucation" in place of the recognized term corporate education reform, or even education deform, as most education justice activists call it nowadays. I think we would be better served as a movement sticking to language that most people know as we continue to build a broad and inclusive fight back. Hopefully, you don't let this stop you from continuing on and reading the many inspirational essays found in this book.

What you can do

Join More Than a Score editor Jesse Hagopian (@jessedhagopian) and contributing authors Stephanie Riviera (@stephrhonda), Helen Gym (@parentsunitedpa) and others for a live Twitter discussion on December 1, beginning at 8:30 p.m. (eastern time).

Use the hashtag "#MoreThanAScore" when you Tweet questions and comments. RSVP at the More Than a Score Facebook page.

AS A current public high school math teacher, I was immediately struck by the story written by Brian Jones. Jones details the day his science experiment was cut short due to test prep:

I was teaching fourth grade in East Harlem, and we were in the middle of a weeklong investigation. Teams were assembled with trays of powders and liquids. Students were busy all over the room mixing and pouring, making observations and recording them. At one point in the proceedings my supervisor entered the classroom and told my students to stop what they were doing.

He goes on to write, "My supervisor turned to me and explained that we needed to stop our experiment and immediately being preparing for the upcoming state standardized test."

Although none of my investigatory math lessons, such as the one where students try to mathematically predict the number of rubber bands necessary to give a doll a safe but thrilling bungee jump from our school's second floor auditorium balcony has ever been suddenly halted, every teacher in America can relate to the pressures Jones describes.

Instead of activities that will create inquiry, excitement and the love of learning for the children that we teach, many administrators demand more lessons geared toward basic "drill and kill" skills in order to pass the test. The pressure to perform on the test is narrowing the taught curriculum and limiting the possibility of students to make discoveries that truly make education a worthwhile endeavor.

Even more incredulously, teacher and standardized test boycotter Sarah Chambers describes just what happens when students resist under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's regime. Chambers teaches on the Southwest Side of Chicago at a public school with a dense immigrant population and high percentage of students from low economic status. Parents at her school organized a mass opt-out movement and many of the teachers at her school ultimately decided to refuse to administer a state test.

When the first day of testing began, teachers were baffled by the decisions made by higher ups. As she describes:

Many of the boycotting teachers had a majority of 100 percent of their students opted out, yet [Chicago Public Schools] CPS did not allow them to teach their own students. CPS staffers monitored many of the opt-out rooms and had the students sit silently for hours.

Given the supposed outcry that teachers are lazy and don't work hard, when it came down to it, the administrators were the ones that refused to simply let teachers teach.

AFTER PRESENTING teachers' perspectives on testing, the book allows students from across the country to let their voices be heard. In the first essay in this section, Cauldierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg and Tim She recount two incredible actions that eventually led the Rhode Island General Assembly to pass a three-year moratorium on the use of standardized tests as a graduation requirement.

Following a meeting of the Providence Student Union in which two other students explained how they were removed from their computer class and put into a test prep study group, the three students decided they'd had enough.

In their first action, they organized a group of students in Providence to dress up as zombies to protest the "zombifying" effects standardized tests has on student's brains. As one student protestor explained, "To base our whole education, our whole future on a single test score is to take away our life--to make us undead."

When faced with attacks from education deformers in the media, the students didn't back down. With another stroke of genius, the students organized a "Take the Test" event in which they invited successful adults to take a practice graduation test. Although all of the members of Rhode Island Board of Regents and the state's Teach for America director declined to participate, the students were able to get 50 elected officials, business people and successful professionals to attend the event.

Not surprisingly, only 60 percent of the adults passed and the students very cleverly showed that one standardized test score is completely unable to predict what someone will be able to accomplish in life.

In the next essay, Amber Kudla from North Tonawanda, New York, recounts her decision to speak against testing in her valedictory address. With a great one liner, Amber states, "It's also a challenge to eat a teaspoon of cinnamon in one bite without choking, but what are you really accomplishing?"

At the end of her speech, she informs the student body and families in attendance that the title of her speech found in the program is the phone number of their state representative. She calls the students to act for what they believe in and call the representative, whether they are for or against the tests. It is this type of creative ideas and intelligence that most teachers hope students leave school with.

The rest of the student essays are filled with poems, stories and moments of inspiration that give you a sense of hope that our students indeed want a better education not defined by test scores. It is amazing to see that in this growth of an oppressive testing regime, young people are still able to dream about the possibilities of a different world. These free thinking students are the ones that will go on to solve environmental, hunger and violence issues that currently grapple our world or create the next great technological advancement.

The last two sections include stories from parents that have helped lead the burgeoning national opt-out movement and school administrators that outline the possibilities of a school system with out standardized tests. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and Hagopian does an amazing job pulling together a collection of essays that will hopefully inspire more students, teacher, parents and administrators to demand the type of public schools that all students truly deserve.

It is a book that should be read by all teachers, students and families who want to fight for a better public education system where decisions about what happens in school is made by us and not politicians, unelected school boards, test companies and education secretary that have never spent one day as public school teacher.

Further Reading

From the archives