"High Stakes Are for Tomatoes"

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

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.

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