Testing Foes Hope To Stoke Middle-Class Ire

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Wanting to protect disadvantaged children from what they consider to be unfair state tests, a New Orleans lawyer and a Northern California dean are counting on outrage from the middle class to give them political momentum to win their battles.

Evidence is growing that states may face rebellions against the testing systems deemed integral to the decade-long drive to raise student achievement through higher academic standards.

"The more people find out [about the Louisiana test], the less they support it," said William P. Quigley, the lawyer representing Parents for Educational Justice in its federal lawsuit to halt the use of test scores as a gateway to the 5th and 9th grades. He predicts that the average citizen will rebel against the testing system "once [they] start finding out it's Suzie down the street and Cousin Tommy who are going to be held back."

Eugene E. Garcia, the dean of education at the University of California, Berkeley, foresees a similar reaction if he succeeds in his campaign to recruit limited-English-proficient students to opt out of California's state test.

Worsening Scores?

By dropping the number of LEP students, who tend to score the lowest on standardized tests, English- speakers' scores will suddenly look worse against the statewide average, he argues. In his way of thinking, a student who ranked in the top third when all LEP students were in the pool might drop to below-average the next year, even though his or her performance wouldn't change. That would lead English-speaking parents to question the validity of the testing system, Mr. Garcia hopes.

The movement against state assessments is spreading as test results start to have impact. On March 12, a group of students announced they would boycott the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The next day, 300 teachers, school board members, and students rallied at the Colorado state Capitol to protest a bill that would give the state the authority to take over failing schools—based on test scores—and turn them into charter schools. On March 15, a bipartisan group of Ohio legislators called for a moratorium on the state testing program, and citizens' groups are collecting signatures to place an initiative on the ballot this fall to eliminate the program.

The actions come on the heels of similar efforts to roll back testing programs in Texas and Wisconsin, as well as state decisions to ease the impact of low test scores by reviewing standards in Oregon and Virginia. ("Standards at Crossroads After Decade," Sept. 22, 1999.) Despite the activity, political observers aren't certain the dissatisfaction will lead to the critical mass of opposition foretold by Mr. Quigley and Mr. Garcia.

"I'm not yet convinced there's going to be a backlash," said Lorraine M. McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But I can see the seeds of it."

State officials and others—aware of the rumblings—nevertheless defend standards-based testing.

"The greatest injustice we can do is continue to promote a child who can't read, write, or think," said Leslie R. Jacobs, Gov. Mike Foster's appointee to the Louisiana state board of education. "This is an effort to give a youngster the time and resources he or she needs."

Still, standards advocates are concerned that educators and the public may not see the connection between their push to improve what is taught in classrooms and the tests.

"If that continues, it bodes pretty badly for the success of standards," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

Rubber Meets Road

The theory is that the adoption of high academic standards requires the use of assessments to measure students' success in meeting them. In recent years, state policymakers have begun attaching serious consequences to those test scores.

For example, test results will decide whether 4th and 8th graders in Louisiana will be eligible to advance to the next level. In California, they determine school rankings that can lead to bonuses for administrators and teachers.

But critics have said the tests are inaccurate indicators of student achievement and are especially unfair to minority and low-income students, who have traditionally lagged behind their white and better-off classmates on standardized tests. The tests also have come under fire from experts who say they aren't linked to the states' standards as closely as theory suggests they should be.

In Louisiana, Mr. Quigley, the associate dean for academic affairs at Loyola University Law School, says that it is unfair to expect students to pass a test built around content they haven't been taught. The federal suit there claims that the state is violating students' rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Quigley isn't optimistic about the suit's chances. In a federal case decided in January, advocates for LEP students in Texas failed in their quest to end a requirement that students pass that state's test to earn a high school diploma.

In California, meanwhile, Mr. Garcia said the state should exclude LEP students, who make up about 25 percent of public school enrollment, from its accountability system because research shows they are five to six times more likely than native English-speakers to guess their answers on the state's tests. Mr. Garcia resigned from a commission charged with writing accountability rules when the state board of education rejected the panel's proposal and decided to count LEP students' scores in the totals.

He is now organizing community groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland to encourage parents to exercise their right under state policy to withhold their children from testing.

Holding Firm

In the face of such opposition, politicians so far haven't backed down. Last fall, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, insisted that his annual budget include money for a high school graduation test, even though both chambers of the legislature shot the test down.

State leaders in Louisiana remain convinced that their testing program sets reasonable standards, and that the public will support them. "I believe the public support is firmly on our side," Ms. Jacobs said. "When people see the test, opposition does not catch fire."

One reason that policymakers remain confident, Ms. McDonnell of the University of California said, may be that about one-third of registered voters don't have children in school. Those people don't see the impact of testing programs, and they like receiving the report cards that give a snapshot of what their tax dollars are providing, she said.

"You've got a huge number who don't have school-age kids," Ms. McDonnell said. "They're behind the policymakers pushing standards and assessment. It's just not clear to me whether the folks who are most affected by [the tests] are going to be able to mobilize them."

What's more, some conservatives have backed down from earlier criticisms of standards- based changes because the focus has shifted away from the performance-based questions that they said intruded on their values, Ms. McDonnell said. That will make it more difficult for organizers to rally opposition, she said.

Test Will Stay

Despite the rhetoric from opponents, states' current emphasis on testing is unlikely to abate.

Mr. Garcia, the Berkeley education dean, acknowledges that testing may play an important role in state education policy. "I could be pushed to say [LEP] students should take the test, but not in a high-stakes accountability system," he said.

Even the Colorado protesters say they aren't so much opposed to testing as they are to how the results might be used. Pending legislation there would allow failing schools to be turned into charter schools.

"We're against the test in a high- stakes environment and overemphasizing the tests so they end up being the end- all and be-all of education," said Jon DeStefano, the president of the Jefferson County school board in suburban Denver, which voted unanimously to oppose the bill. "If you're only using it to punish, that's not a good use."

Yet, testing is important, Mr. DeStefano said, to provide the public with information to make decisions about school quality.

New Jersey's school boards are also complaining about the state testing system, but they're recommending changes that they argue would improve it, not abandon it.

A panel of the New Jersey School Boards Association recommended to the legislature that the state scrap its 4th grade reading assessment, which is tied to the state's academic standards, and replace it with a nationally normed test. The change would inform parents and school officials how students score against a national average—not just how well the students are learning the material in the state standards. The committee recommended keeping the state tests for all other subjects and grade levels.

"You have to do assessments, one way or another," said Peter J. Calvo, a co-chairman of the panel and the president of the Glassboro school board in southern New Jersey. "You need the feedback, and you need unbiased feedback to evaluate how you're doing."

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Pages 24, 31

Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Testing Foes Hope To Stoke Middle-Class Ire
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