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Students Are “More Than a Score” on Standardized Tests
(Image: Haymarket Books)

Students Are “More Than a Score” on Standardized Tests

(Image: Haymarket Books)

“We are experiencing the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes standardized testing in US history,” according to Jesse Hagopian, high school history teacher, education writer and editor of More Than a Score. This remarkable book introduces the educators, students, parents and others who make up the resistance movement pushing back against the corporate “testocracy.” Click here to order More Than a Score today by making a donation to Truthout!

More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing Edited by Jesse Hagopian, foreword by Diane Ravitch, Haymarket Books

As a very young child, I determined that the surest way out of my dysfunctional, working-class family was a scholarship to college. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I studied hard, took schoolwork seriously and always ranked near the top of my class. For the most part, learning was measured by essays and tests, and I rarely faltered.

That is, until the SATs. Turns out, I found standardized tests impossible and was consistently flummoxed by the choices offered. Thankfully, I was able to find a university that did not consider test scores to be the be-all and end-all, so my dream of escape came to pass, complete with a full-tuition waiver.

It was a different time of course – the 1970s – but my experience triggered an abiding hatred of fill-in-the-blank measures of insight and intellect

Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher in Seattle, also tested badly, and the 27 essays, interviews and poems in More Than a Score, which he edited, attest to the fact that we are far from alone. It’s a terrific collection, not only confirming that standardized tests are a flawed measure of abilities, but offering step-by-step guidance in how to formulate resistance at both the individual school and community levels.

Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch sets the stage in the foreword by outlining the political mindset that currently holds sway among federal and state lawmakers. “Public education is under attack,” she writes. “So is the teaching profession. People who call themselves ‘reformers’ seek to transfer public funds to privately managed schools and even to religious schools . . . The attack on public schools and the teaching profession is fueled by a zealous belief in test scores. . . . The reformers place the blame for low scores on teachers; their solutions: Weaken or eliminate unions, offer higher pay for higher test scores, fire teachers whose students do not get higher scores.”

Ravitch dubs this belief system a “fetish” and notes that efforts to punish teachers and students for bad results are doomed to fail. She is further heartened by growing resistance that is popping up in towns and cities throughout the United States and galvanizing parents, students, administrators and teachers. Many of these “testdefyers” have never before engaged in protest but are now opting-out of giving or taking the exams.

Hagopian notes the trend: “We are experiencing the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes, standardized testing in US history,” he begins. “The Pennsylvania Department of Education reported a 52 percent increase in opt-outs from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment in April 2014. In New York state, more than 33,000 students opted out of state tests that same spring.”

But let me back up for a moment to talk about other issues surrounding the standardized evaluation of student achievement since the one thing everyone agrees on is that we want an educated populace capable of thinking critically, writing clearly and evincing scientific and mathematical know-how.

According to Hagopian, among other problems, attaching formulaic exams to these subjects exacerbates racial and class inequality. “This is because standardized testing serves to reinforce the mythology of a meritocracy in which those on the top have achieved their positions rightfully because of their hard work, their dedication to hitting the books, and their superior intelligence as proven by their scores. But what researchers have long known is that what standardized tests measure above all else is a student’s access to resources. The most damning truth about standardized tests is that they are a better indicator of a student’s zip code than a student’s aptitude.”

This damning conclusion underscores every entry in More Than a Score. At the same time, the book also describes the deadening impact that relentless testing, and prepping for the test, have on students.

Chicago parent Kristen Roberts writes about visiting the neighborhood school that her then-5-year-old son was slated to enter in the fall of 2013. Her incredulity is palpable.

“Something was missing,” she reports. “I scanned the room for any sign of building blocks. None. I looked around for signs of dramatic play areas or props, like puppets. Nope. Sand or water table? No. Hands-on science area, with opportunities for children to touch, examine, experiment? Uh-uh. Art materials or any sign that children were being encouraged to represent their ideas in creative or meaningful ways? Don’t even ask.”

Worse, Roberts learned that her son’s 7-hour school day would be punctuated by just one 20-minute recess. Meanwhile, he and his kindergarten peers would spend much of each day filling out worksheets in anticipation of the 14 – yes, 14 – standardized tests they’d be taking that year.

“Play in our early childhood classrooms is under threat in elementary school classrooms across the country,” Roberts writes. “The dramatic increase in testing of the very young over the last decade, in response to the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal education mandates, has pushed out developmentally appropriate curriculum, including play-based learning.”

Exasperating? Yes, but Roberts and other parents have turned their fury into action. As part of a group called More Than A Score, they organized a “play-in” at the headquarters of the Chicago public schools in the spring of 2014. Kids set up board games in the halls, dressed in costumes, and joined the adults in this first – and as yet unsuccessful – demand for curricular change.

Like Roberts, Dao X. Tran, a New York City parent, was appalled to learn that her daughter, Quyen,would be subjected to two standardized tests in pre-K – and that the results would then be used to gauge teacher effectiveness. More disheartening was the impact of the relentless drills on Quyen. “This was a child who was normally effusive, hard to suppress and full of ingenuity,” she writes. Within months of enrolling, Quyen started each day distraught, in tears, “complaining that she wasn’t well and was too sad to go to school.”

Although Quyen perked up after her mom transferred her to a different, more welcoming, public program, it was certainly not the positive start that Tran had hoped for. But it did radicalize Tran, and she is now active with Change the Stakes, a New York City organization that helps parents opt out of testing. She led a test boycott at her daughter’s new school – with all but a handful of families participating in the opt out – and says that the effort had the tacit approval of faculty and staff.

Indeed, administrators who support opting-out – and teachers who have refused to give the tests – are key and More Than A Score includes numerous instructors and principals who are boldly leading the pack in opposing the testing mania. John Kuhn, of Austin, Texas, writes about learning of STAAR – The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness – a scheme to require high school students to pass 15 standardized exams to graduate.

Kuhn reports that when he found out that 25,000 school employees were being laid off due to a budget shortfall at the same time that the test seller and developer, Pearson, was being given a $500 million contract, he was outraged.

“On a February night, I shifted from being a passive pushover to a fervent believer in the power of what one prominent education reformer would later derisively label ‘aggressive populism,'” he writes. A letter Kuhn sent to his hometown paper outlined his concerns. The missive was subsequently picked up by a Washington Post blogger and went viral, kick-starting the formation of two statewide groups, Making Education a Priority and Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment.

Other anthology contributors describe “meaningful student assessment” and deconstruct what it means to foster an “inquiry-based” classroom. The New York Performance Standards Consortium – a model that requires students to demonstrate, in writing and orally, a mastery of subject matter in a variety of academic disciplines – is highlighted as an exemplar of excellence.

The Consortium is an exciting program and More Than a Score is an exciting book, filled with anger, passion and creative strategizing over ways to defeat standardized testing. It’s also a call to arms and a well-argued plea for educational equity and a thoughtful defense of public education, the teaching profession and student-centered learning. For students like me, and perhaps like Hagopian, this is the only approach that can possibly work.

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