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Assessment Opinion

Finding Common Ground to Build the Movement Against High Stakes Tests

By Anthony Cody — May 11, 2012 5 min read
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One of the oldest problems with the left or progressive movement is our tendency to drag ourselves down through internal struggle over who has the most correct political line. We are seeing some of this dynamic emerge in the movement against high stakes testing. Perhaps it is a coming of age - a sign of our success - that we have a strong enough movement that people are taking these issues seriously. But I am afraid we are going to squander our precious momentum by turning our anger on one another, when there are very clear assaults taking place on teachers and students across the country.

Our organizations are precious things. A group like Save Our Schools March is nothing more than a collection of volunteers working their hearts out to make a difference. They don’t always make the perfect tactical choices, but their intention is to build our ability to unite and resist the testing machine. And we all benefit when groups such as these create focal points for discussion or action.

I was one of the organizers of last year’s Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC. Most people now seem to view that as a success. Along the way, there were bumps in the road, similar to what we are seeing this year as the Save Our Schools convention approaches. We made some compromises not everyone was happy with. We focused our guiding principles on solid issues we felt we could unite people around - and we built a coalition. The direct involvement of the NEA and AFT in particular was critical in getting the turnout that we did. They did NOT mobilize their membership by the thousands, but their endorsement allowed teachers from around the country to get the support of their local union chapter to send them, and also allowed us to use union communications channels to publicize the events. Though the majority of our funding came from individual donors, support the unions also gave us an important financial boost.

This was a coalition we needed to pull off an event of this magnitude. Without a broad coalition, our march would have been much smaller. We did not get huge media coverage - but we got some, especially as a result of Matt Damon’s appearance. His speech buoyed teacher spirits across the country, and has been viewed tens of thousands of times on Youtube. We had a wide range of speakers - teachers from Wisconsin, activists from across the country, and well-known leaders like Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Angela Valenzuela and Pedro Noguera.

But in the year prior to the rally, we were warned that certain people who were being invited to speak were “craven apologists for the Obama/Duncan regime.” After the NEA endorsed Obama for re-election a month or two before the march, some wanted us to spurn their support and return the funds they had contributed.

In recent days the discussion over the Common Core has taken on a similar tone, with some people demanding that Save Our Schools take an immediate stand against them. I am no longer part of the leadership of SOS, but I have some thoughts to share.

I personally have major concerns about the many negative impacts that the Common Core and its associated tests are likely to have. But my views are not the same as all of those we can count as allies in our efforts to defend schools and defeat the testing machine. We need to look at who we want to work with, and what we can ALL unite around to act.

So where is our movement? What are we able to unite around?

Take a look at three statements that have gathered regional and national support in recent months. These are a good reflection of where our movement is - they represent what people are actually uniting around.

The New York Principal’s Open Letter, which has been signed by 1,451 principals, almost a third of all in the state. This letter focused on concerns over the use of test scores for teacher evaluations, the narrowing of the curriculum that results from too much emphasis on test scores, and the diversion of funds into testing.

In Texas, more than 400 school boards have adopted a resolution against high stakes testing, which calls upon the state to:

...reexamine the public school accountability system in Texas and to develop a system that encompasses multiple assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, and more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success, enhances the role of teachers as designers, guides to instruction and leaders, and nurtures the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students.

Just last month, a coalition launched a National Resolution on High Stakes Testing. So far 249 organizations have signed on, and more than 6500 individuals.
Here are the key resolutions:

RESOLVED, that [your organization name] calls on the governor, state legislature and state education boards and administrators to reexamine public school accountability systems in this state, and to develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools; and
RESOLVED, that [your organization name] calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the "No Child Left Behind Act," reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.

These three statements are a strong reflection of where our movement is at this time.
Note that there is no mention of the Common Core anywhere in these statements.

As I said, I am personally very concerned that the Common Core will expand the number of tests, their frequency, and the negative impact of NCLB-type accountability systems. I am doing my best, through my blog, and with interviews and guest posts by various education leaders, to promote discussion and understanding of this. If some group or individual wants to put together a petition that opposes the expansion of testing associated with the Common Core I would be happy to sign it. I have not seen such a petition - and that should tell us something. We do not have a broad understanding of the Common Core among educators, much less the public at large. Making opposition to the Common Core a core demand is going to limit the ability of any coalition to gain participation by many groups and individuals who do not share this view.

This comes down, in large part, to how we view Save Our Schools as a group.
Is it a broad coalition that brings together as wide an array of people and organizations as possible to fight high stakes testing? Or is it a sharply focused vanguard group that advocates for clearly defined positions on every issue before us? We were able to bring more than 5000 people together in Washington, DC, last summer by being a broad coalition. I think that sort of coalition is what makes such grassroots actions successful.

The Save Our Schools convention in Washington, DC, will take place this August 3rd to 5th, and is our chance to discuss these issues, as Deborah Meier explains here. I hope we come not focused on the few things where we might not agree completely, but with a goal of building the common ground on which we can make our stand. That is what the principals did in New York, and the school boards did in Texas, and many of us have joined to do in supporting the National Resolution. That is how movements are built. Focusing on where we disagree, and making these disagreements into tests of purity - that is how movements are wrecked.

What do think? Is it time for SOS March to take a sharp stand on the Common Core? Or is it more important to build the broadest anti-testing coalition possible?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.