A decade into the school accountability movement, pockets of resistance to standardized testing are sprouting up around the country, with parents and students opting out of the high-stakes tests used to evaluate schools and teachers.
From Seattle, where 600 high school students refused to take a standardized test in January, to Texas, where 86 percent of school districts say the tests are “strangling our public schools,” anti-testing groups argue that bubble exams have proliferated beyond reason, delivering more angst than benefits.
“Over the last couple of years, they’ve turned this one test into the all and everything,” said Cindy Hamilton, a 50-year-old mother of three in Florida who founded Opt Out Orlando in response to the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which starts again Monday. Her group is one of dozens of new organizations opposed to such testing.
The opt-out movement is nascent but growing, propelled by parents, students and some educators using social media to swap tips on ways to spurn the tests. They argue that the exams cause stress for young children, narrow classroom curricula, and, in the worst scenarios, have led to cheating because of the stakes involved — teacher compensation and job security.
Standardized testing is one of the most controversial aspects of the accountability movement that began in earnest in 2002 when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act.
That law required public schools for the first time to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools were required to show steadily improving scores until all students tested proficient in math and reading by 2014, or face escalating sanctions. Civil rights groups, progressives and conservatives united behind the idea that testing would hold schools accountable for educating all students.
“If a test is done right . . . there is no more efficient, less expensive, no simpler way to get a snapshot of whether students are effectively learning,” said Sandy Kress, a Texas lawyer and former Bush aide who has been working on school accountability issues for 25 years and helped write No Child Left Behind.
“It should be a tool to understand where students are, where achievement gaps exist, provide diagnostic information to teachers and parents,” said Kress, who lobbies on behalf of Pearson, the education publisher that writes K-12 tests. “It’s one, objective piece of data that can push and assure quality.”
But too many school districts have gone overboard, he said.
“You’ve got drilling and benchmark testing every six weeks,” Kress said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of overtesting in a lot of places. It’s just awful, and it draws really negative reactions from parents, teachers and communities. Tests weren’t intended to be treated that way.”
Some say the Obama administration has pushed the stakes even higher through its Race to the Top program, which encourages states to use the standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. In some states, as much as half of a teacher’s job evaluation is now determined by student scores on standardized tests.
The resulting pressure is distorting education, anti-testing activists say.
They point to third-graders being coached on handling test anxiety, and 10-year-olds sent home for spring break with test prep materials. And they rail against the time devoted to bubble sheets, which can include weeks of practicing and several days of test-taking.
Noa Rosinplotz, a D.C. public school sixth-grader with a Facebook page dedicated to standardized testing, drew national attention with a firsthand critique of test-taking. She argued that school officials force her and other D.C. students to take a poorly designed test that includes questions that are either unanswerable or contain mistakes.
President Obama, whose policies might have helped fuel the testing explosion, also has suggested that standardized testing has spun out of control.
“What is true, though, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids,” Obama told a town hall at a D.C. middle school in 2011. “Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.”
The opt-out movement is relatively small, but it is hitting a nerve with many parents, said Maria Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan think tank associated with George Washington University.
“The sentiment behind it is more common than people realize,” Ferguson said.
Joshua P. Starr, Montgomery County’s school superintendent, has called for a three-year moratorium on federally required standardized testing, arguing that such tests have been the “wrong mechanism” for evaluating school success. Starr has said he is “vehemently” opposed to teacher evaluation mechanisms that “rely too heavily on individual student performance on the current state standardized tests.”