Resistance to National Testing Heats Up

K-12 Testing

Writing in his March 19, 2002 New York Times column, Michael Winerip commented, “As I travel the country, I find nearly universal contempt for this noble-sounding law signed last year by President Bush.”


Indeed, opposition to the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB), the recent reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been growing rapidly. In state after state, public officials, educators, parents and activists have decried the unfunded mandates, the inflexibility of the law and the regulations issued by the Department of Education, and the inevitability that most schools will “fail” sooner or later. Organized resistance is rapidly gathering momentum.


At the end of March, Minnesota state legislators from both major political parties sponsored bills requiring the state to withdraw from participation in ESEA. The legislation is given a serious chance of passing. New Hampshire is considering legislation directing the state not to spend more on ESEA requirements than the federal government funds (see article, p. 26).


Legislative resolutions pending in Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, Tennessee and Washington range from recommendations to withdraw from NCLB to calls for more federal money to fund the law’s requirements.


Districts as well as states have voiced opposition, but no districts have yet been reported as refusing to participate in Title I, the main part of ESEA which funds educational services for low-income students. It appears they would be legally able to do so, though they may be required to involve Title I parents in the decision. For districts that receive only limited funds, this may emerge as a real choice. Large urban districts, however, receive a bigger share of their budgets from Title I, and they have fewer alternative resources available. In addition, Congress is considering a proposal that would strip other ESEA funds from jurisdictions which refuse Title I money.


The National Education Association (NEA), following resolutions passed at its Representative Assembly last summer (see Examiner, Summer 2002), has publicly criticized parts of the law and its implementation. NEA President Reg Weaver led off his March column in NEA Today, the union’s monthly paper sent to all its 2.7 million members, by explaining, “(T)wo things are crystal clear to me about ESEA:


• It embodies much that we as education professionals have historically espoused, but were unable to mandate or fund;
• This legislation, as it is currently crafted, sets up children and public schools to fail.”


Weaver decried crafting a law with no meaningful input from educators. He explained, “We know that using high-stakes tests as a measure of ‘accountability’ is a fundamentally flawed concept. But perhaps what’s most insulting is that relying on high-stakes tests is an assault on our professionalism. Teaching to the test is the very antithesis of teaching.”


He concluded, “Let’s work together to ensure that policy makers recognize and respond to the fact that high-stakes tests are not the answer.”


Local activism against the onerous requirements of NCLB also has begun to develop as the impact of the law begins to be felt. The Chicago Teachers Union organized a public forum in April, attended by over 100 teachers and others, with invited presentations from FairTest staff; noted researchers Angela Valenzuela, Pauline Lippman and Jerry Bracey; and author Susan Ohanian. The next day, CTU and FairTest staff were joined by Chicago activists, members of the FairTest-sponsored Assessment Reform Network (ARN), and others, to discuss linking local, state and national work to stop the damage NCLB will cause and uniting for a helpful ESEA.


A group that included a number of ARN participants met in Birmingham, Alabama, in March, to discuss the impact of NCLB. They formed a national organization, ACT-NOW, to promote resistance to the law. The meeting also honored Steve Orel, who started the World of Opportunity program for students pushed out of Birmingham schools (see story, p. 21).


Some members of Congress understand the dangerous consequences of high-stakes testing. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) explained, “As for this testing idea, I am frightened to death... If we are going to test every child every year from third grade through eighth grade, I know what’s going to happen. We are going to turn our schools into test centers instead of education centers.”


The American Association of School Administrators was the most prominent national education organization to oppose the inclusion of the high–stakes testing and “adequate yearly progress” requirements in ESEA. Recently, many superintendents have spoken out against the Act. Charlie Head from Albany, Wyoming, argued, “They are setting the public schools up for failure.”


Superintendent William Mathis from Rutland, Vermont, said the state should refuse ESEA funds. He was joined by Vermont Education Association President Joel Cook who explained, “Kids are not widgets... this law treats children as interchangeable parts.” And Middletown, Connecticut, superintendent Pat McLeod summed up the issue tersely: “This legislation stinks. It is bad for children.”


State opposition also stems from the rigidity of NCLB, which some charge will undermine assessment programs already in place. Kentucky officials have been particularly strong in criticizing the imposition of federal requirements. One State Board of Education member, William Weinberg, resigned, saying, “I am unable to be a part of dealing with cannibalizing what we put together (just) to meet the federal requirements.”


Some critics have concluded that the combination of high-stakes accountability, inadequate funding (see story, p. 26), inflexible regulations, and the Bush administration’s emphasis on “choice” shows that the real agenda of many NCLB promoters is privatization of public education. The inevitable ‘failure’ of a majority of schools, the reliance on transfers among schools, and the use of public funds for private tutoring companies will open the door to acceptance of vouchers, they charge, while also pointing to President Bush’s proposal to fund a pilot voucher program in the District of Columbia.


Vermont Sen. James Jeffords (I), a member of the U.S. Senate Education Committee, said the law “is a back door to anything that will let the private sector take over education, something the Republicans have wanted for years.” Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Dodd of the Education Committee have shared this concern. The Education Department denies that vouchers are on its agenda.


Though it is unlikely Congress will revisit the law this year, the growing opposition could make the law a significant issue in the 2004 presidential and congressional races.


• Weaver’s article and cover story