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Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Protests Over State Testing Widespread

Protests Over State Testing Widespread

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Test-weary protesters in nearly a dozen states hoisted placards outside state capitols and hosted debates in high school auditoriums last week as they kicked off what organizers touted as "a month of resistance to testing."

In what is becoming a springtime ritual during prime testing season, parents, teachers, and students have been voicing their objections to states' growing reliance on tests to gauge student achievement and the impending high stakes that could make it harder for many students to move on to the next grade or earn a diploma.

Most of the demonstrations drew relatively small crowds—70 protesters in Detroit, 100 in Northampton, Mass., 300 in Los Angeles—but the largest, at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., saw more than 1,500 marchers against the regents' exams.

Advocates of state testing as a means of holding schools, teachers, and students accountable for higher academic standards characterize the opposition as a small but vocal minority. But testing foes express optimism that their efforts are gaining ground and attracting more attention from legislators and parents.

"I think that what we are seeing this year is more activity in more places, and it's a sign that the opposition to the overuse and misuse of tests is growing," said Monty Neil, the executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group that opposes most standardized testing and advocates what it says are fairer methods of student assessment. "Organizers may not be expecting huge numbers [of participants] at this point ... but these demonstrations are usually the tip of an iceberg."

Caravan to Albany

Jane Hirschmann led 27 busloads of parents from New York City to the state Capitol in Albany last week to contest the state's strict new graduation standards and what she sees as an overreliance on state tests to gauge student achievement.

The mother of four, and many of the other estimated 1,500 protesters from around the state who attended the event, condemned the increasing emphasis the state is placing on its regents' exams. Beginning next school year, students have to pass those tests in five subjects to earn a high school diploma.

"We're not opposed to testing, but to the fact that a student's four years of high school is reduced to five [test] scores," said Ms. Hirschmann, an organizer of the Parents Coalition To Stop High-Stakes Testing, which is pushing for alternative means of assessing what New York students know and are able to do. "Their class work, their performance every other day of the year," she said, "don't matter."

The gathering was prompted by Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills' decision to reject a bid by 40 nontraditional schools to substitute individual projects for at least some of the exams the state has begun to require for graduation. High school seniors have to pass regents' exams in mathematics and English this year in order to graduate.

But the public demonstration was also fueled by concerns that the significance of the tests will undermine innovative instruction and zap students' intrinsic motivation for learning.

Such worries prompted about 100 parents in the high-performing Scarsdale, N.Y., public schools to pledge to keep their 8th graders home during testing, which was to begin this week.

Those concerns have played out in protests and public forums from Maine to Marin County, Calif., just as elementary and secondary students around the country pick up their No. 2 pencils to take end-of-grade state tests.

The May 8 demonstration in Los Angeles was an attempt by opponents to pressure the school board there into challenging state policies that punish schools whose students perform poorly on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, or opt out of it entirely.

Students in Panama City, Fla., were planning a public debate this week on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. And the Massachusetts Teachers Association has planned a rally on Boston Common this week to protest the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, which for the first time students will have to pass to graduate.

Still, only about 20 students in Massachusetts, primarily 8th graders, sat out the first round of testing last month, according to state education department officials. Last year, hundreds of high school students boycotted the state's assessment test in protest of what they viewed as a wave of testing, but this year, 10th graders must pass the math and English portions of the test in order to graduate.

In Longview, Wash., about 70 high school students refused to take the state test last week.

Meanwhile, protests were also reported in Michigan, Texas, Washington state, and at least half a dozen other states, according to FairTest's Assessment Reform Network.

Consequences of Resistance

Ironically, the resistance may hold some consequences of its own for schools. Two high schools in California's Tamalpais Union High School District, in wealthy Marin County just north of San Francisco, will be ineligible for state rewards this year because of the high proportions of students who refused to take the Stanford-9.

About 600 of the district's 2,700 students got permission from their parents to opt out of taking the test earlier this month, as they are allowed to under state law.

To be eligible for cash rewards, at least 85 percent of the students in a particular school must take the test. Sir Frances Drake High School, where 36 percent of the students did not take the test, cannot cash in on any teacher bonuses or school awards it might be due if it meets state targets for student performance on the test. Last year, the school earned $111,000 from the incentive program.

At Tamalpais High School, one-fourth of the students elected not to take the test. Fewer than 8 percent of the students at the district's other two high schools chose not to take it.

Those students who decided to forgo the test will not be eligible for state scholarship money tied to performance on the test.

Dozens of schools throughout California faced consequences similar to those in Marin last year, particularly in districts with high proportions of English-language learners who were granted waivers of the testing requirement. Although districts can appeal to the state board of education if they believe that a school's students who took the test represented the demographics of the school as a whole, few such requests were granted last year. On average, little more than 1 percent of students statewide failed to take the test last year.

Proponents of states' efforts to place greater accountability on schools are urging educators to continue to fight for better measures of student achievement, but also to work within current policies to improve curriculum and instruction.

Paying Heed

Several states have slowed their efforts to attach high stakes to their assessment systems, and there are signs that other policymakers are taking note of the concerns raised by objectors.

The National Association of State Boards of Education, for example, hosted a "backlash" conference last month to urge state education officials to recognize and respond to testing opponents. More state board members have been holding town meetings and encouraging community discussion of the issues, according to Brenda L. Welburn, NASBE's executive director.

"We are telling our members that if you pretend that the [anti-testing] message is not important, you will do so at your peril," Ms. Welburn said. "We expect that until [the importance of high standards and accountability] becomes ingrained in thought processes in education, there will be flare-ups, especially this time of year."

Those working to change testing practices predict that the cold reality of the weight placed on testing will force policymakers to look at more substantive issues in the near future.

"There's a growing awareness, particularly among communities where failure rates are high, that our kids are not getting a good education," said Mr. Neil of FairTest. "In a year when they are looking at the seniors' performance, the failure rate is simply going to be unacceptable. Then they'll be scrambling to deal with it."

Other observers say that many of the state tests are making headway toward improving education for all children.

"I can understand legitimate concerns about bad tests or low standards," said Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based coalition of governors and business executives that promotes rigorous state standards and assessments. "But the protests seem to be stirred by people who aren't necessarily in favor of statewide assessments no matter how good they are."

For example, he said, the Texas assessment "is not a perfect test, but many teachers have realized that rather than criticize and rebel against it, they would take advantage of its ability to level the playing field and raise the bar for all kids."

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Pages 1,26

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The May 15 rally was sponsored by the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS and the Coalition for Authentic Reform of Education.

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