"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.

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 movement.

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 (1998).

Illustration by Lisa Manning.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; "High Stakes Are for Tomatoes" - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 19-21.