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Monty Neill: Building Effective Campaigns for Testing Reform

Guest post by Monty Neill.

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

It will take public education, incessant pressure, and massive public resistance to win reforms to our current damaging test policies. We need to define clear, widely supported goals. And we need to offer a compelling vision of effective alternatives to high-stakes testing.

In this post, I'll dig into some actions and tactics reformers can use. This is not a comprehensive list but some ideas to provoke more thinking about how to build winning campaigns.

Right now, resistance is growing but is far from mass. The most critical work to be done is to further educate, then organize and mobilize, parents, students, teachers and others in or close to schools.

School boards, parent and other groups can sponsor and publicize community forums to discuss testing and its consequences. Use these to network and organize, as well as inform. A school board hearing can be a great opportunity and raises the possibility that the board will endorse the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing while informing more of the public. With computers on hand, people can sign the Resolution during the event. Distribute handouts, such as FairTest materials (adapt them to your needs). Be sure to collect names, emails and phone numbers; identify those willing to be active.

Across the country, many local school boards, superintendents and principals have been speaking out against excessive testing. Parents, teachers, students and community groups should work with them to reduce the number of tests and any stakes attached to them. Those who still support the status quo need to be educated and, if necessary, pressured. In cities with appointed school boards, political pressure often will need to work through other avenues.

Supportive boards and superintendents can encourage parents to organize. They can at least tacitly support boycotts and make clear there will be no sanctions on parents or students who opt out (some parents have been threatened). They can let teachers know there will be no reprisals for speaking out.

Parents face a dilemma about opting out when states or districts misuse test results to determine grade promotion or graduation. But there are often many other tests that do not carry individual consequences; these are ripe for boycotting. Some states allow opting out, others bar it, still others are ambiguous. Parents should know their state's rules so they can make informed decisions.

Federal NCLB waiver requirements mandate that participating states evaluate all teachers using student test scores. This dramatically increases the amount of testing. Teachers can signal parents they do not object to students opting out of these (and others) - as Chicago teachers have stated in public forums.

Boycotts and public forums are two valuable tactics. There are many other steps people can and should take to build powerful movements. Activists can prioritize their steps based on the overall goals and strategy. Here are some additional actions being taken across the country:

  • Rallies and demonstrations can be very effective ways of calling attention to the issues, mobilizing supporters, and pressuring policymakers. Use music and rap, costumes and humor to liven these events. Parents in Chicago have organized a "Play In" to protest testing of young children. Students in Providence held a zombie walk. Be sure to have enough basic flyers to let passersby know why you are demonstrating.

  • Students in Providence recently persuaded dozens of adults to take the state graduation test. Most of them failed it, generating strong publicity for a campaign against a looming state graduation exam.

  • Write letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces for your local and regional newspapers. Be sure to invite reporters to your events. Use mainstream and social media. And if you are not familiar with news releases and such, bone up on it.

  • Reach out to local business owners, faith-based organizations, civic groups of all sorts. Meet with them to discuss the issues, and encourage them to sign the National Resolution and to attend forums.

  • Involve local or regional researchers and college faculty. They are beginning to speak out, as they have in Chicago, New York, Georgia and Massachusetts. College professors say that incoming students are increasingly unable to do college work in part because incessant testing in high school fails to prepare them.

  • You may want to connect to other issues, such as school closings conducted under NCLB or waiver authority. Students are linking to discipline issues, and inadequate funding is often a fundamental issue. National multi-issue networks such as the Network for Public Education and Save Our Schools can be helpful in this regard .

  • Educate and pressure decision-makers, from school boards to mayors to legislators and governors, as well as members of Congress. Meet with them in groups that include educators, parents, students, and researchers, and perhaps religious, business or civil rights leaders. That makes it harder for policymakers to divide and conquer.

  • Don't ignore the federal role. Educate on the damage caused by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and waiver requirements. Invite members of Congress to listen to constituents at forums. Keep up a steady flow of messages and materials to your members of Congress. Federal law must be overhauled.

It has taken decades for this country to regress from limited testing to high-stakes testing to incessant testing that distorts curriculum and instruction, narrows student learning, and undermines the creativity and engagement needed for effective citizenship, rewarding work and ongoing learning. It will no doubt take years of sustained effort to turn the situation around. For the sake of our children and our future, that is the task before us.

What do you think of these strategy and tactics? What is being done in your community to challenge the high stakes testing status quo?

- Monty Neill is Executive Director of FairTest.

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