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Topic: High Stakes Are For Tomatoes
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
High Stakes Are For Tomatoes
Posted: Sep 29, 2000 9:07 PM
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From The Atlantic Monthly, August, 2000, Volume 286, Number 2, pp. 19-21. See

High Stakes are for Tomatoes

Statewide testing of students, with penalties for failure, has run
into opposition from parents across the political spectrum

By Peter Schrag

BY now it's hardly news that as education has risen to the top of the
national agenda, a great wave -- some would say a frenzy -- of school
reform has focused on two related objectives: more-stringent academic
standards and increasingly rigorous accountability for both students
and schools.

In state after state, legislatures, governors, and state boards,
supported by business leaders, have imposed tougher requirements in
math, English, science, and other fields, together with new tests by
which the performance of both students and schools is to be judged.
In some places students have already been denied diplomas or held
back in grade if they failed these tests. In some states funding for
individual schools and for teachers' and principals' salaries -- and
in some, such as Virginia, the accreditation of schools -- will
depend on how well students do on the tests. More than half the
states now require tests for student promotion or graduation.

But a backlash has begun.

* In Massachusetts this spring some 300 students, with the support of
parents, teachers, and community activists, boycotted the
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests ("Be a
hero, take a zero") and demanded that if students had good enough
records or showed other evidence of achievement, they be allowed to
graduate even if they hadn't passed the test. Last November, after a
strong majority of students failed the test, the state board of
education lowered the score for passing to the level that the state
designates as "needs improvement."

* In Wisconsin last year the legislature, pressed by middle-class
parents, refused to fund the exit examination that the state had
approved just two years earlier. After an extended battle with
Governor Tommy Thompson, who has been a national leader in the push
for higher standards and greater accountability, a compromise was
reached under which student achievement will be assessed on a variety
of criteria. Failing the exam will not result in the automatic denial
of a diploma.

* In Virginia this spring parents, teachers, and school
administrators opposed to the state's Standards of Learning
assessments, established in 1998, inspired a flurry of bills in the
legislature that called for revising the tests or their status as
unavoidable hurdles for promotion and graduation. One bill would also
have required that each new member of the state board of education
"take the eighth grade Standards of Learning assessments in English,
mathematics, science, and social sciences"and that "the results of
such assessments ... be publicly reported." None of the bills passed,
but there's little doubt that if the system isn't revised and the
state's high failure rates don't decrease by 2004, when the first
Virginia seniors may be denied diplomas, the political pressure will
intensify. Meanwhile, some parents are talking about
Massachusetts-style boycotts.

* In Ohio, where beginning next year fourth-graders who fail the Ohio
Proficiency Tests will be held back, a growing coalition of parents
and teachers -- members of the Freedom in Education Alliance, Parents
Against Unfair Proficiency Testing, and other groups -- are
circulating petitions to place a referendum on the ballot to amend or
repeal the state's testing laws.

* In New York a policy requiring that all students pass Regents
examinations in a variety of subjects in order to graduate is
increasingly the subject of controversy. Three former members of the
State Board of Regents who helped to develop the policy issued a
position paper earlier this year saying that they had never expected
that all students would be held to a single standard, and calling for
a re-examination of the policy. "The thinking [when I voted for the
test requirement] was that everyone would take the exams," one of
them told The New York Times, "but you could get a diploma through
other channels."

THE backlash, touching virtually every state that has instituted
high-stakes testing, arises from a spectrum of complaints: that the
focus on testing and obsessive test preparation, sometimes beginning
in kindergarten, is killing innovative teaching and curricula and
driving out good teachers; that (conversely) the standards on which
the tests are based are too vague, or that students have not been
taught the material on which the tests are based; that the tests are
unfair to poor and minority students, or to others who lack
test-taking skills; that the tests overstress young children, or that
they are too long (in Massachusetts they can take thirteen to
seventeen hours) or too tough or simply not good enough. In
Massachusetts, according to students protesting MCAS, some students
designated as needing improvement outscored half their peers on
national standardized tests. "Testing season is upon us," says Mickey
VanDerwerker, a leader of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform
SOL, "and a lot of kids are so nervous they're throwing up." In
Oakland, California, a protest organizer named Susan Harman is
selling T-shirts proclaiming High stakes are for tomatoes.

Some of the backlash comes from conservatives who a decade ago
battled state-imposed programs that they regarded as anti-family
exercises in political correctness. Although she has always thought
of herself as a "bleeding-heart liberal," Mary O'Brien, a parent in
Ohio who calls herself "an accidental activist" and is the leader of
the statewide petition drive against the Ohio Proficiency Tests,
complains that the state has no business trying to control local
school curricula. In suburban Maryland this spring some parents kept
their children out of school on test days, because they regard the
Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program as a waste of
time. They complain that it is used only to evaluate schools, not
students -- thereby objecting to almost precisely what parents in
some other states are demanding. "It's more beneficial to have my
child in his seat in the fifth grade practicing long division," one
Maryland parent told a Washington Post reporter.

But many more of the protesters -- parents, teachers, and school
administrators -- are education liberals: progressive followers of
John Dewey, who believe that children should be allowed to discover
things for themselves and not be constrained by "drill-and-kill" rote
learning. They worry that the tests are stifling students and
teachers. Most come from suburbs with good, even excellent, schools.
Instead of the tests they want open-ended exercises -- portfolios of
essays, art and science projects, and other "authentic assessments"
-- that in their view more genuinely measure what a student really
knows and can do. They have gotten strong reinforcement from, among
others, FairTest, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opposes
standardized testing; Senator Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota, who is
sponsoring an anti-testing bill in Congress; Alfie Kohn, a prolific
writer and polemicist who argues that the standards movement is a
travesty that has "turned teachers into drill sergeants" in the
traditionalist belief that "making people suffer always produces the
best results"; and Gerald Bracey, an education researcher and a
critic of the widespread belief that U.S. students are far behind
their peers overseas, which has given impetus to the standards

The anti-testing backlash is beginning to cohere as an integrated
national effort. Earlier this year some 600 test critics attended a
national conference on high-stakes testing, at Columbia University's
Teachers College, to discuss effects, alternatives, and strategies:
how to get the attention of legislators, what kinds of cases would be
suited to civil-rights litigation, what assessments ensure
accountability, how to achieve higher standards without high-stakes
tests. Some on the left believe that the whole standards movement is
a plot by conservatives to show up the public schools and thus set
the stage for vouchers. All believe that poor and minority kids, who
don't test well, are the principal victims of the tests and the
standards movement. They contend (correctly) that almost no testing
experts and none of the major testing companies endorse the notion of
using just one test to determine promotion or graduation or, for that
matter, the salaries of teachers and principals. But so far
legislators and governors haven't paid much attention.

Among the most articulate critics of the tests are the boycotting
students, who complain about narrowing opportunities and shrinking
curricula. The most exciting ninth-grade course in his school, says
Will Greene, a high school sophomore in Great Barrington,
Massachusetts, is a science-and-technology class with a lot of
hands-on experimentation. In the 1998-1999 school year,when students
could take the class without worrying about MCAS, eighty students
enrolled; this past year enrollment fell to thirty. Greene says that
students feel the course will not help them pass the test, and
failing the test next year could mean they don't get a diploma. "At
least create a test," wrote Alison
Maurer, an eighth-grader in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "that doesn't
limit what students learn, something that shows what we have learned,
not what we haven't."

THE movement is a long way from achieving critical mass. The two most
prominent lawsuits brought to date -- one in Texas, challenging the
test as racially biased; the other in Louisiana, arguing that
students hadn't had a chance to learn the material -- have failed.
The boycotts are still small, and polls, by Public Agenda and other
organizations, continue to show that 72 percent of Americans -- and
79 percent of parents -- support tougher academic standards and
oppose social promotion "even if [the outcome is] that significantly
more students would be held back." Those numbers seem to reinforce
the argument of Diane Ravitch, an education historian, an education
official in the Bush Administration, and a strong supporter of
standards, who has described the protesters as "crickets" -- few in
number, but making a disproportionate amount of noise. "There's
tremendous support" for tests, Ravitch says, "among elected officials
and in the business community." She may also be correct when she says
that a great many of those who profess to oppose the high-stakes
tests oppose all testing and all but the fuzziest standards. They are
the same people, Ravitch argues, who in the end cheat kids by
demanding too little and forever blaming children's inability to read
or to do elementary math on the shortcomings of parents,
neighborhoods, and the culture. Scrap the tests and we're back to the
same neglect and indifference, particularly toward poor, marginal
students, that we had before. Letting students who can't read, write,
or do basic math graduate is doing no one a favor.

Yet even Ravitch is concerned about what she calls the "test
obsession" and the backlash it could create if large numbers of
students fail and the whole system unravels. The accountability
structure in Virginia has been set up in such a way that even if the
vast majority of students pass the tests, a large percentage of
schools could fail the accompanying Standards of Accreditation. Under
the SOA, any school in which more than 30 percent of students fail in
2007 will be subject to loss of accreditation. That, according to a
study by the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public
Policy, in Springfield, Virginia, is a formula that fosters public
distrust of both the schools and the system. The study points out
that because high-scoring students are concentrated in just a handful
of districts, only 6.5 percent of Virginia schools met the SOA in
1999, when 35 percent of all Virginia students passed all the
required SOL tests.

The Jefferson Institute study illustrates a wider set of problems
underlying the new standards and tests. In an effort to look like the
toughest guy on the block, some states have imposed standards that
will be difficult if not impossible for many students and schools to
meet. Members of the Virginia Board of Education are negotiating over
allowing students to graduate without necessarily passing a
standardized test. As noted, Massachusetts has already lowered the
passing score on MCAS. A policy in Los Angeles to hold back all
failing students has been modified. And merit-scholarship systems
have been created in Michigan and California to keep top students
from blowing off the test. The states that have had the least trouble
with backlash are those, like Texas, that set standards low enough
(and the Texas standards are far too low, in the view of some
critics) that a large percentage of students can pass the tests.

It is, of course, in the public ambivalence about where the bar
should be set that the larger uncertainty about the standards
movement lies. Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve, an
organization created in 1996 by governors and business executives to
defend the standards movement (at that time mostly against
conservative attacks), recognizes that despite the polls, "not enough
has been done to bring the public along." In most cases the tests and
standards were imposed from the top down, with little input either
from teachers -- often regarded as the problem rather than the
solution -- or from parents (who in Arizona and California are not
even allowed to see old test questions). What's needed now, Schwartz
says, is to bolster public understanding and "capacity building,"
including professional development for teachers, to make the whole
system work. "The good news," he told a reporter from Education Week
in April, is that "states are not simply stopping with raising the
bar, and shouting at
kids and teachers to jump higher, but are moving to address the
support question."

The question, as Schwartz knows, is whether resources -- and
particularly the quality of teaching in inner cities -- will catch up
with the demands on students. Since April, Schwartz has also
acknowledged that as the day of reckoning approaches for millions of
American students, the backlash will spread and intensify. "It's easy
to assent in the abstract," he told me recently. "When it's my kid,
it's something different." In the mid-1990s Delaware threw out a
testing program because, in the words of Achieve, the legislature
"had been unprepared for high rates of student failure."

In his state of education speech in February the U.S. Secretary of
Education, Richard Riley, a strong advocate of accountability and
standards, seemed to recognize the danger. "Setting high
expectations," he said, "does not mean setting them so high that they
are unreachable except for only a few.... If all of our efforts to
raise standards get reduced to one test, we've gotten it wrong. If we
force our teachers to teach only to the test, we will lose their
creativity.... If we are so consumed with making sure students pass a
multiple-choice test that we throw out the arts and civics then we
will be going backwards instead of forward."

And yet the line between the political drive to be tough and
indifference to standards in the name of creativity and diversity
sometimes seems hard to draw. Diane Ravitch says that a person much
missed in this debate is the late Albert Shanker, a longtime
president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was relentless
in his push for high standards for both students and teachers. But
Shanker also pointed out that if only one standard for graduation
exists, it will necessarily be low, because the political system
can't support a high rate of failure. Shanker suggested two criteria:
a basic competency level required of everyone, combined with honors
diplomas, by whatever name, for students who do better and achieve
more. The issue of the tradeoff between minimum competency and what
is sometimes called "world-class standards" is rarely raised in any
explicit manner, but it has bedeviled this debate since the
beginning. As the standards requirements begin to take effect, and as
more parents face the possibility that their children will not
graduate, pressure to lower the bar or eliminate it entirely will
almost certainly increase. Conversely, as more people come to
understand that the "Texas miracle" and other celebrated successes
are based on embarrassingly low benchmarks, those, too, will come
under attack. The most logical outcome would be the Shanker solution.
But in education politics, where ideology often reigns, logic is not
always easy to come by.
Peter Schrag writes frequently about education policy. His most
recent book is Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's
Future (1998). Illustration by Lisa Manning.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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