Time for a testing revolt

July 18, 2013

Traditional schooling is finished until fall, but controversy over end-of-year testing has fueled a movement that is just getting started.

Around the nation this spring, simmering parental anger over student testing boiled over into all-out revolt. As testing increasingly co-opts curriculum and classroom, many parents have grown weary of talk, talk, talk. No glib platitudes can quell this uprising; instead, moms and dads are taking action.

In Texas, fed-up parents (dubbed the “mamas”) channeled their ire into a grass-roots coalition, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, and lobbied hard to reduce student testing. They prevailed with panache: weeks ago, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill cutting from 15 to five the number of state high school assessments required for graduation. Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law June 10, saying it (and other education legislation) “strikes a balance … between accountability and an appropriate level of testing in the classroom.”

In New York, frustration erupted in April over new state tests aligned with Common Core, the math and English standards adopted by 45 states, including North Carolina. Hundreds of parents participated in boycotts or pulled children out of testing. Fifty principals sent a letter to New York State Education Commissioner John King, saying the tests created undue stress for students: “The extremes were unprecedented: vomiting, nosebleeds, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.”

Time allocated for tests was inadequate; students burst into tears as the clock ran out. The New York Post wrote that test material was unfairly “deja viewed” by some: On sixth- and eighth-grade exams, test publisher Pearson “unintentionally” used reading passages that also appeared in Pearson-written textbooks. Some schools had purchased the textbooks; others had not.

What does this testing backlash portend for North Carolina? Plenty: there’s a revolt brewing here, too. But parents have a powerful ally. On June 5, Gov. Pat McCrory addressed the State Board of Education, calling the number of student assessments “excessive.” This year under the federal Race to the Top program, North Carolina added 30 tests in grades four through 12 (for a total of 194 tests), the governor noted in a press release. The governor’s senior education adviser is reviewing the state’s testing program.

A critical review is timely: New online Common Core tests arrive in 2014-15. A governing member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (one of two national consortia developing Common Core assessments), North Carolina is expected to use the tests. That could shift, however: Anger over testing excess — and Common Core standards in general — is building statewide. The state board decides this fall whether to use SBAC tests.

It’s too early to judge SBAC tests on content and rigor, but there are myriad other reasons to give them the boot. The federal government is enmeshed deeply in what has been billed as a states’ effort: SBAC is 99-percent funded by federal dollars; the U.S. Department of Education has implemented a technical review process to oversee test development.

Moreover, the price tag is prohibitive: North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction estimates SBAC tests will cost more than twice as much as DPI’s current assessments. Additional costs undoubtedly will accrue, as some districts will need to make technology upgrades to deliver tests online.

What to do? There’s a simple solution I and others have advocated for years: Replace excessive, onerous assessments with a nationally-normed achievement test. Love it or hate it, some standardized testing is necessary, providing accountability and objective feedback on student learning. But I won’t argue with the mad mamas. They know when kids have had enough.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.