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Monty Neill: Building a Successful Test Reform Movement

Guest post by Monty Neill.

Part one of three. Read part two here and part three here.

We are in the midst of rising resistance to high-stakes testing in the public schools. We have seen parents, students and teachers engaged in boycotts and opting out, demonstrations, forums and town halls, petitions and resolutions. Mainstream media has taken notice of the growing movement. Numerous articles about the Atlanta cheating scandal have recognized how high-stakes testing caused the cheating and how test-focused education cheats children out of a good education. Some elections and policymaker actions also reflect growing movement clout.

This flowering of resistance raises an essential question: How can this burgeoning struggle gain the political power to end the status quo of test and punish? In this three-part series, I offer concrete steps toward building stronger, more effective reform campaigns. I hope they will foster robust discussion and help our movement grow stronger.

More than a decade of research and experience show the testing explosion has wreaked havoc on many schools, particularly those serving low-income and minority-group students. Simultaneously, it has deflected attention from potentially beneficial education reforms and from the impact of poverty and continued racism on educational outcomes. Proponents of test-and-punish "reform" strategies seem impervious to evidence, and they have the ear of important policymakers. It's not enough that the facts support the need for change. We will win battle only by educating, organizing and mobilizing large numbers of people.

Over the past few months, I've been involved in dialogues and public meetings aimed at furthering the testing reform movement. Our conversations focused on how to win key goals: less testing, lower stakes, and better assessment practices. In this post, I focus on basic goals and strategy for launching a campaign. In subsequent posts, I will discuss the importance of pushing for high-quality assessments, and then propose tactics to educate the public, develop strong coalitions, and persuade policymakers.

The first step is to define specific campaign goals and craft a strategy to win them. In setting goals, it's important to include educators, parents and students, as well as people from different racial-ethnic, linguistic or socio-economic groups. Advocates for English language learners and students with disabilities are key allies in this battle.

Concrete goals include changing local, state and federal testing policies. Putting aside the federal level for now, an immediate goal could be to halt or reduce locally-mandated tests. Many schools and districts administer far more tests than state or federal governments require. Increasingly these hit young children, many of whom experience extreme anxiety and stress (in Chicago, kindergarteners faced 14 tests - though parent opposition has started to cut that back). Local tests usually are not backed by state requirements that students take the tests (though some states allow students to opt out). Thus, they may be easier to resist and to change. Seattle teachers, for example, targeted the district-imposed MAP tests for their boycott.

Rolling back state mandates will probably be more difficult than eliminating local requirements. In some states, existing statewide groups can spur local actions focusing on state policies. In other cases, local activists can network and build statewide alliances, including statewide groups willing to pitch in. The key point is for state and local efforts to support each other. For example, local groups working to remove district-mandated tests can simultaneously educate about the dangers of state and federal testing requirements, preparing the ground for repealing those too.

A campaign requires organizing. Thus, enough participating groups and individuals must agree to engage in that work to make sure the campaign can get off the ground. Parents in Chicago are taking a local resolution to their schools, using it for discussions with other parents as well as to gather signatures and contact information. Bringing resolutions before school boards require public discussion as well as a vote. The National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing can be a good tool to educate and bring people together, for example, by bringing it to meetings and gathering places and asking people to sign on. In Texas, Florida and elsewhere, this use of resolutions has been a valuable tactic.

Savvy media work is a vital part of any strategy. Major media has mostly sided with test-and-punish "reforms," but the growing resistance movement and evidence of the failure of test-driven "reform" are getting more media attention. Successful campaigns use local and community newspapers, social media and the mainstream media to get their message out.

Finally, make the case for change with these key points:

  • First, learning is damaged by time spent on testing and test prep, but also by narrowing of curriculum and teaching to the test.

  • Second, school climate suffers as kids are reduced to scores and teachers to score producers, at times to the point of fueling the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • Third, tests and test prep time are expensive and will be much more costly with new Common Core tests and the computer infrastructure needed to administer them. For example, a report from New York superintendents reveals that, even with Race to the Top funds, most districts are looking at picking up 90% of the tab for more tests and technology for common core and teacher evaluation. This is hitting just as the state has imposed local tax caps and declining revenues are forcing budget cuts and teacher layoffs. NCLB waivers come with no funds to cover increased costs.
To recap: - Bring key players to the table for planning. - Set long- and short-term goals and build a coherent strategy. - Decide which specific kinds of actions can best advance a reform agenda in your community or state.

Watch for the next part of this series on the need for better assessment alternatives. The final part will describe how to expand alliances and build power.

What do you think of these strategies? What should we do to strengthen the movement to put testing in its proper place?

Part one of three. Read part two here.
Monty Neill is Executive Director of FairTest.

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