NEA Members Denounce High-Stakes Testing

By Julie Blair & Jeff Archer — July 11, 2001 5 min read

Members of the nation’s largest teachers’ union raised their voices in opposition to high-stakes standardized tests not once, not twice, but at least five times during their annual four-day meeting here last week, ultimately strengthening the National Education Association’s policy against such endeavors.

Educators passionately denounced such exams during the July 4-7 forum, stating that high-stakes standardized tests limit curricula and snuff out both creative teaching and the joy of learning. Teachers from around the nation shared stories of children becoming so stressed that they became physically ill on test days or emotionally inaccessible for weeks after taking them.

“The NEA does not oppose the use of standardized tests carte blanche,” said delegate Carol Davis, the president of the 20,000-member Louisiana Association of Educators. “What we’re saying is that we want America to recognize what standardized tests should be used for, and more importantly, what they should not be used for.”

NEA policy permits the use of standardized tests in combination with other assessment tools, such as teacher evaluations and educator-derived quizzes. But the organization categorically opposes the use of tests as the sole criterion for promoting students to the next grade, awarding high school diplomas, and rewarding or penalizing schools

Parental Opt Out

Of all the debates on high-stakes testing, the most important was over parental opt-out laws, in which parents permit their children to be exempted from testing.

Members of the 2.6-million member union adopted a policy allowing NEA leadership to advocate such plans if an opt-out measure is proposed in legislation. Delegates, however, voted down a proposal mandating that they build coalitions with other organizations to instigate such legislation.

Teachers recognized that a parental opt-out law would lead to further problems with standardized testing, Ms. Davis said. Many parents would likely use the law sporadically, possibly causing the results to be skewed from year to year, she said.

Delegates also amended a current union policy recommending, in part, that standardized exams not be used for high-stakes purposes. The revamped policy now also opposes “federal requirements to make significant decisions about schools, teachers, or children based primarily on test scores.”

Such a statement comes at a time when federal lawmakers are finalizing a far- reaching law that would mandate annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8. Results from those exams would be used to reward schools that do well and provide educational alternatives for the families of children attending schools that fail.

“There is an incredible wave of opposition” to high-stakes testing among the rank and file, said Becky Fleischauer, a spokeswoman for the NEA. “Placing very high-stakes decisions like funding and promotion on the basis of one test, one day, one year, is unfair.”

Sensitive Issues

Just how sensitive the issues of testing and evaluation have become for teachers also became clear last week when delegates here briefly took up a resolution related to teacher compensation.

The proposed language—which eventually passed by a voice vote—offered several stipulations for salary policies that go beyond the traditional single pay scale based only on years of education and length of service. James Sager, the president of the Oregon Education Association, said he helped draft the measure because he believed that current NEA language failed to address the issue of paying teachers extra money for taking on additional duties, such as mentoring newer teachers.

But when the measure came to the floor for discussion, some delegates objected that it acknowledged any type of pay other than the single-salary system. In doing so, they said, it opened the door to union support for pay for performance—a possibility that NEA delegates considered and rejected at last year’s annual meeting. (“NEA Delegates Take Hard Line Against Pay for Performance,” July 12, 2000.)

Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the new language was akin to “telling a bully where to punch you so the bruises don’t show.”

Despite such concerns, the resolution itself said clearly that the “NEA is opposed to merit pay or performance pay,” and it went on to reiterate that “any additional compensation beyond the single- salary schedule must not be based on education employee evaluation, student performance, or attendance.” The proposal, Mr. Sager argued before the Representative Assembly, “has nothing to do with merit pay.”

The Oregon delegation “was adamantly opposed to merit pay and pay for performance last year,” he said. “We helped lead the charge, and we will help lead the charge if it ever rears its ugly head again.”

As expected, the NEA also tabled a resolution that called for new educational programs aimed at ensuring that schools provide a “safe and inclusive environment” for homosexual students. Instead, NEA leaders agreed to appoint a task force to study the issue and gather more input from members before recommending further action.

Although the proposed language prompted a protest outside the Los Angeles Convention Center on July 3, and was the source of an emotional discussion in a meeting of the union’s Resolutions Committee the same day, debate over the issue quickly subsided.

Far from an attempt to “push the matter under the rug,” NEA President Bob Chase called the task force an attempt to deal in a “reasonable, holistic manner” with safeguarding students regardless of their sexual orientation.

Delegates also elected three new members to the NEA’s nine-person executive committee, one of the organization’s most important decisionmaking panels. Science teacher Becky Pringle, who has held leadership positions within the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and outgoing Mississippi Association of Educators President Michael Marks were elected to three-year terms on the committee.

Mike Billirakis, the outgoing president of the Ohio Education Association, was elected to fill an opening for a one-year term on the executive committee created by the resignation of Eddie Davis 3rd. Mr. Davis recently became the vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.