In the state where high-stakes testing began, a few hundred teachers, academics and activists came together last weekend to hasten what one leader called an “Education Spring.” The Network for Public Education gathered in Austin to plan the resistance to the status quo of high-stakes testing and an encroaching corporate privatization movement. This first-of-its-kind convention might finally provide an effective opposition to the corporate reform movement that wants to run education like a business.
“With groups like this one and so many others, all of which are active in so many ways, in so many parts of the country, we are standing on the threshold of the Education Spring,” said John Kuhn, a Texas superintendent known for his fiery speeches. “We’re here to shake up the educational world, and our movement is only growing. This is our spring.”
Central to the group’s discontent is the primacy of high-stakes testing, an innovation pushed in Dallas in the early ‘90s by Sandy Kress, then a politically active lawyer friendly with the business community. With Kress’ help, using standardized test scores as the primary measure of school accountability became Texas law under Ann Richards, and when George W. Bush became president, Kress helped him sell No Child Left Behind to skeptical Democrats.
Now Kress lobbies for testing giant Pearson, and Barak Obama’s Race to the Top has made high-stakes standardized testing “the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education,” said Diane Ravitch, a leading critic of overtesting, in her keynote address to the Austin convention.
In Austin, the Network for Public Education called on Congress to investigate the “over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.” Far be it from me to suggest Congress hold another show trial, but this one might end in a hanging. It would be worth it to see Kress put under oath to explain why states spend an estimated $1.7 billion a year on standardized tests that a National Research Council study shows have failed to increase student achievement.
The first buds of Education Spring are cropping up all over. In Orlando, a dying 11-year-old boy was forced to take the state exam. In 2013, Florida also required a 9-year-old born with an incomplete brain to take the test. Why? Because, wrote Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, “It would be a moral outrage to deny that opportunity to any child based on any reason including special needs.”
But Americans increasingly don’t need a study to tell them that high-stakes testing is not just unaffordable and absurd, but unworkable. Obama’s rollout of his Common Core national curriculum has made the debut of the Affordable Care Act look like D-Day. Once one of its biggest backers, the nation’s largest teachers union has pronounced Common Core “botched” and pulled its support.
The real problem facing Common Core isn’t in Washington but in the 45 states and the District of Columbia (OK, that is Washington) that have adopted the new national standards. In red states, critics see a federal takeover of local public schools, a provincial and politically motivated position that is nevertheless not without merit, as federal law forbids Washington from dictating curricula to the states.
In blue states, parents and teachers complain that their children are ill prepared for the higher standards, guaranteeing failure in the name of rigor. Education Sec. Arne Duncan has responded oddly, telling “white, suburban moms” that their kids aren’t “as brilliant as they thought they were.” I’m not making that up.
Meanwhile, a new anti-testing uprising is beginning in Chicago where Duncan used to run public schools. Teachers at two public schools have voted to boycott the state-mandated tests, and parents at more than 50 area schools have served notice that they are refusing to let their children take the tests, or “opting out.” The school district has threatened teachers with disciplinary action if they support the boycott or encourage parents to join it.
Like this winter, it seems like the era of high-stakes testing will never end. But thanks to a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who gathered in Austin, Education Spring might be right around the corner.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.