By Amanda Litvinov
Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), spoke recently with EducationVotes about the significance of the Seattle MAP test boycott, why our elected leaders are invested in the status quo when it comes to high-stakes tests and what public education advocates like you can do to change that.
We’re seeing some courageous local and statewide efforts to curb excessive standardized tests. Where is this going?
The Seattle MAP test boycott is the latest and largest test refusal that we’ve seen. The Seattle teachers have made it clear that they aren’t anti-assessment, that they’re seeking better ways to track student progress. The question is whether all of these teachers in the Seattle area will hang together—it’s really tough in the face of a possible 10 days’ suspension without pay. But the hope is that they will continue to boycott, and that there is an outpouring of support for them from around the country, including financial support if it comes to that.
Then there is the Texas School Boards resolution, which nearly 90 percent of the school districts have signed. What really pushed things over the edge in Texas was they ended up with 15 end-of-course exams. We adapted the national resolution, which NEA signed as one of the original endorsing groups and now has almost 15,000 individuals and 500 organizations signed on. Many school boards in Florida have passed our national version or some variation, and the Florida School Boards Association passed it, followed by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
When you put all of these pieces together, what we’re seeing is somewhat surprising. Texas? Florida? Two of the most conservative states calling for the reduction of standardized tests. Obviously we don’t know how much the boycott movement will truly spread, we will know more this spring. I would expect in more states and more schools, more parents will simply opt their kids out of tests. The big advantage of promoting parent boycott tactics is that parents won’t get their pay docked.
We don’t see any of these actions as stand-alone, we them all as components of building a movement to end the overuse and misuse of tests. Everyone can play a part in this–we’ve identified effective tactics in our infographic 8 Ways to Fight High-Stakes Testing, which includes signing the national petition, talking to your friends and neighbors, organizing public forums and going to your state legislature.
Do you sense that people broadly understand the major corporate interests behind these tests?
No, there is not broad understanding of the extent of the privatization and profiteering. The constant expansion of standardized testing is very profitable–it’s not just the tests, it’s a whole lot of ancillary materials. Of course these companies are very interested in more and more tests, marketing them as “benchmark” and “formative,” even though they completely misuse the word “formative.” These are mini-tests to see how students might do on the big test, but none of them are tied to any curriculum, and they can’t be tailored by teachers.
Instead of constantly buying their materials, wouldn’t it be better to pay for professional development and ensure that teachers are able to conduct high quality assessments that benefit students?
It’s your kids versus their profits–that argument can and should be made. People in this country are not generally opposed to profits, of course, but it’s different when they realize that those bucks come at the expense of good learning and stronger schools and children and you might even argue childhood.
You recently said that by and large, lawmakers are behind in grasping the urgent need to change this system. Why is that the case?
Most of the lawmakers in both parties simply don’t want to change because of the pressure coming from the other side.
First, they certainly don’t want to be seen as anti-accountability, because there’s a civil rights connection because of the history of lack of proper education for kids of color in this country. But the fact remains that these are still the wrong tools to use for what began as a reasonable end goal of closing the achievement gap. But there’s big lobbying bucks behind the standardized testing movement now, and a lot of the major media outlets have bought into this, which puts even more pressure on elected leaders to keep blindly supporting standardized tests.
What do we do to get lawmakers up to speed?
I’m increasingly convinced that lawmakers will only listen to grassroots constituents. They’ve heard from NEA leadership and Fair Test and the FEA which is a sizable alliance, we’ve all said there’s too much testing, too much high-stakes, too much misuse of tests. So the fact is that policymakers must hear from parents and students and teachers and all concerned citizens, and I believe there’s going to be more noise coming from the bottom up.
I sure hope so, because we’ve got virtually no money—all the money is on the other side, there is no meaningful foundation, corporate or tech mogul money on our side.
Unions and community groups really do need to take to the streets in these neighborhoods and make sure people are educated about the reality our kids face, especially as the boycott movement takes off, which I believe it will. An easy way to open that conversation is to ask, “Do you really think a 5-year-old should have to take 14 standardized tests?” They’ll go, “What!?!”
Unless you are reasonably close to schools, most people don’t have a clue how far overboard testing has gone. A lot of people confound today’s standardized testing with what they remember—taking tests their teachers created for them that were all tied to the curriculum they were studying.
Unions are at their best when they’re collaborating with parents and community groups, organizing at the grassroots level around a shared agenda.
Getting people talking about parent and educator boycotts is key because it is really civil disobedience, people putting their butts on the line, and it attracts lots of attention from the media. This prompts valuable discussions, like how did we get here, and what should we be doing instead?
How would you answer that—what should we be doing instead?
The best proposals out there have elements in common: We need to reduce the amount of standardized testing, eliminate the stakes attached to standardized tests, and develop systems of assessment that include performance tasks. Assessments should be largely under teacher control but produce evidence that can be verified, and result in data that informs teachers, students and parents and can be shared with the broader public in some way. Obviously we also support shifting from punishment to assistance for struggling schools.
Knowing how kids are doing is important. Knowing that our schools are serving them well is very important, and part of that is assessment of student learning, obviously, but that’s not everything. You also need to know whether the kids are happy and healthy, and whether the learning and teaching environment is good for students and educators.
Monty Neill, Ed.D., is executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) and has initiated national and state coalitions of education, civil rights and parent organizations to work toward fundamental change in the assessment of students and in accountability. He currently chairs the Forum on Educational Accountability, an alliance working to overhaul federal education law (the No Child Left Behind Act, in particular) based on the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, signed by nearly 150 national groups, including NEA. Neill has taught and been an administrator in pre-school, high school and college, and he is a grandfather of three children in the public schools.