|U.S. News and World Report, April 3, 2000
SCIENCE & IDEAS.EDUCATION
It's backlash time
Students, parents, schools just say no to tests
BY MARY LORD
For Debbie Byrd, a restaurant owner in Pittsfield, Mass., the call to arms came two years ago, when her son began suffering panic attacks and gnawed holes in his shirts over the state's demanding fourth-grade proficiency tests. She now goes table to table (and house to house) with a petition calling for changes in the system before scores start to dictate advancement-and diplomas. "It's not that I'm against high standards," says Byrd. "But they're trying to make a decision about a child's life based on one test." Education reform is under attack, and not just in Massachusetts. Across the nation, parents, civil rights activists, educators, and students are Organizing rallies, buttonholing officials, and flooding newspapers with letters to the editor in a brewing backlash against state-mandated academic standards-and the make-or-break assessments designed to bolster them. Colorado has seen a principal resign over using test scores to grade-and fund-schools. Dozens of Chicago's brightest high school students protested the "test-taking frenzy" that was turning their courses into drill sessions by deliberately flunking the Illinois exam.
Accounting for it.No one disputes that public education is failing students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard of measures, only about a third of the country's fourth, eighth, and 12th graders are proficient readers. Far fewer excel in math. Policy makers have embraced proficiency tests as a way to boost quality and hold schools "accountable." Indeed, every state except Iowa, which has a long history of local school control, either has established or is drafting math, English, and other content standards for students. A majority - 27 states - ties scores to everything from grade promotion and graduation to school funding.
While most people are in favor of raising the bar, some are starting to question the yardstick. "Would we put a kid in summer school because they didn't know this?" asks Mickey VanDerwerker, a mother of five from Bedford, Va., citing how third-grade knowledge of ancient Greece boils down to identifying a column as Ionic, Doric, or Corinthian. "We'd like to see some meaningful education reform, and this isn't it." In Virginia, over 90 percent of schools failed the most recent standards test.
Critics like Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, contend that today's "top-down, test-heavy" reform undermines enthusiasm for learning and teaching. Parents in wealthier, high-performing districts complain that they're losing art, science field trips, and other elements of a rich curriculum as teachers concentrate on material that will appear on the exams-otherwise known as "teaching to the test." In some cases, anti-test activists have won; a few states now use "alternative" assessments that look at other facets of student achievement.
Great Barrington, Mass., high school - sophomores Will Greene and Adam SeIzer saw the erosion in their teachers' repeated reminders about material that would appear on the state's assessment. So they formed a coalition to boycott the upcoming exams. "The things I love about school are getting into great conversations and developing ideas," explains Selzer, who also plays music and acts. "When you start taking that away from classes, the way these tests do, a lot gets lost."
But Providence, R.I., superintendent Diana Lam remembers when she was school chief in San Antonio and just three students in the whole city passed the algebra portion of the Texas assessment. Holding schools and students accountable enabled her to overhaul the system-and bring 34 percent of the students up to snuff in just a few years. "The children were the same," says Lam. "What had changed was administrative and teaching practices."
But even the concept's defenders concede the test rebels are on to something. "Some of the backlash is justified," says University of Virginia Prof. E. D. Hirsch, a leading proponent of high standards and author of The Schools We Need : And Why We Don't Have Them. He laments the"crazy way a perfectly good idea gets translated," with complex issues boiled down to a multiple-choice question and schools told to meet new standards without receiving teacher training or materials. Still, says Hirsch, "if the alternative is to go back to the inequitable chaos that we had before, I'd prefer this inept version of the standards.".