Features » February 1, 2002
California teachers are leading a backlash against high-stakes exams.
Remember spring fever? The slow time at school, when sleepy students looked out the window after lunch, waiting for the bell?
Spring has become a more serious season these days. As warm weather arrives in California classrooms, schools have gone test-crazy as students prepare for the state-mandated STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) exam. Teachers begin “teaching the test,” as they call it, although many do so with great trepidation.
When the results finally come in, every school in California gets rated and ranked. Then the state begins handing out cash awards to teachers and school personnel based on the test scores. In October, California gave financial bonuses to teachers at 304 schools. Some received $5,000 apiece, a smaller number $10,000, and an even more select group $25,000 each. But instead of being overjoyed by the largess, many educators felt as if they were being bribed.
Reva Kidd decided to use her award for a purpose not intended by the state. The English-immersion teacher at Berkeley’s Cragmont School donated some of her $10,000 to a fund that is redistributing awards among all Berkeley teachers and some for a field trip for one of her colleague’s classes. But she directed the rest of her money to Cal CARE, an advocacy group that organizes parents and faculty against high-stakes testing. “It’s dirty money,” Kidd charges. “We’ve had to fight hard for adequate salaries, but this money is a bribe to make us complacent in the face of changes that are hurting students and teachers alike.”
The testing juggernaut has swept aside concerns over developing curricula that value a diversity of cultures and encourage critical thinking among students. Yet behind the conservative rhetoric of “high expectations” and “accountability” is the fact that schools in poor communities simply do not provide an education equal to those in affluent neighborhoods. Now President Bush has made standardized testing the centerpiece of his new education bill, which mandates nationwide exams for grades three through eight. Instead of channeling the enormous resources those schools would need to make up for social inequality, Washington has linked federal education funding with improved test scores, further punishing those schools that underachieve.
Kidd isn’t alone, and her doubts are commonly heard from parents and educators nationwide. Students at schools in New York and Massachusetts refused to take mandated standardized tests, risking their academic futures. Backlash from Wisconsin parents forced the state legislature to kill a proposed high-school graduation exam. In Cleveland, the NAACP filed a lawsuit charging that the Ohio Proficiency Test is racially biased, one of many such legal challenges. But the actions in the Bay Area mark the first time teachers themselves have taken such an active role in challenging the exams.
These educators argue that the tests are biased against the poor and minorities and transform education into a kind of testing Olympics. “High-stakes tests force us to teach in a way in which high scores become the most important goal,” explains Terry Fletcher, a third-grade teacher from Thousand Oaks Elementary School. “Teachers are forced to cram information into students, but not to encourage critical thinking or broader knowledge. There’s no emphasis on art or music or even social studies. Testing really turns us into worse teachers.”
In California, the individual Certificated Staff Performance awards (like Kidd’s) are supplemented by the Academic Performance Index awards, which were sent to 4,800 schools across the state that made the largest increases in STAR scores. The API awards—which totaled $350 million statewide—are divided among all school personnel, from the principal to the janitors. In announcing the awards programs, Gov. Gray Davis implied that the most deserving schools would be those in the poorest communities. The theory went that teachers there, presumably motivated by cash prizes, would inspire pupils to make big jumps in test scores.
Instead the money has gone to places such as San Francisco’s Lowell High School—the city’s premier elite campus—where students are selected based on their previous high academic achievement. Yet the teachers at Lowell, who each received $591 under the API program, were some of the first to voice opposition to the awards. Lowell teachers decided to encourage voluntary donations to a scholarship fund for students at schools that didn’t receive the award. Ken Tray, the school’s union representative, says teachers supported the idea because the awards “seem like a backdoor merit-pay system.” Even Lowell’s principal contributed his award to the fund. “Don’t get me wrong—we’ve got great faculty here at Lowell, and as teachers we certainly deserve more money,” Tray adds. “But our friends and colleagues at Balboa High, for instance, also work their tails off. The awards are a slap in the face for them, not recognizing the hard work they do.”
In Berkeley, teachers went even further. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers won an agreement from the district that teachers would be allowed to indicate on a payroll form their preference for using their money as Reva Kidd did—redistribution to all teachers, a field trip fund, or donating it to Cal CARE. Berkeley teachers have turned in about $20,000 so far. The union then drew up a petition opposing the use of standardized tests entirely. Nearly half of Berkeley’s 600 K-12 teachers signed on. Among other objections, the petition declared that the test “is racially, culturally and socio-economically biased, unfair, and inappropriate for our students.”
“I think some appreciate the money in a profession in which we aren’t paid as professionals,” says union leader Barry Fyke. “But a majority of teachers don’t think testing and prizes are a very effective way to ensure accountability. Teaching is a combination of a science and an art, and should be evaluated in the classroom, rather than using money as a bribe to get kids to perform well on tests.”
What’s driving the relentless push for standardized testing? There are numerous factors, ranging from political ambition to genuine frustration of parents and teachers with the failures of the public school system to educate its students. Also backing the growth in testing is the so-called standards and accountability movement. This is not a grassroots effort, but the work of organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and corporate CEOs such as IBM’s Lou Gerstner. “Big corporations like IBM, Proctor and Gamble and Eastman Kodak are very up-front about their agenda,” says Mary O’Brien, an Ohio parent who led protests against standardized testing in her state. “They want schools to educate students to their specifications. They want education centered on testing, and curriculum aligned to the tests.”
But testing gets a big boost from another important and often overlooked source: the testing companies themselves. School districts and state governments are spending huge sums on testing and standards. Test publishers divide a testing market that was estimated at $218.7 million in 1999 by the Association of American Publishers. Dominating the field are three big publishers: McGraw-Hill, Harcourt and Houghton-Mifflin. Rising profits for these companies are practically guaranteed under Bush’s education bill, which makes use of their products mandatory.
Test contracts are lucrative. California, for example, granted Harcourt a 5-year, $60 million contract to administer and score the STAR tests in 1997. In doing so, then Gov. Pete Wilson cut short a process in which state educators had spent years developing a set of core curriculum standards. The so-called CLAS test, designed to assess knowledge of that curriculum, was attacked for efforts to incorporate cultural diversity and dumped. To force the legislature to immediately adopt an off-the-shelf test, Wilson withheld $200 million in school funding until lawmakers agreed.
Twenty states already work with publishers to come up with standards for what students are expected to know. “It’s a wise state that seeks the advice of a publisher when formulating standards, to ensure they’re rigorous and not too vague,” explains Maureen DiMarco, the former California secretary of education under Wilson, who’s now vice president for education and government at Houghton-Mifflin.
The company that helps develop the standards has a better chance at getting the bid for the test—and an advantage in selling more textbooks. Beginning in 1985, for instance, Harcourt developed the now famous Texas Academic Assessment Skills (TAAS) test. Texas currently contracts for test development with National Computer Systems (NCS) for $20 million a year. NCS in turn subcontracts to Harcourt, which gets another $2.8 million a year for developing TAAS study guides. Harcourt’s textbooks were marketed to local districts around the state with a flier stating: “Why choose Harcourt Brace for your math program? … [It is the] only program to have texts written by the same company that helps to write the TAAS tests.” Harcourt later discontinued the promotion. But according to the Texas Education Agency, the company sold $25 million worth of elementary school math textbooks to the state in 1999.
Test-scoring is also a growing source of revenue. NCS scores Ohio’s tests for about $10 million a year. But Ohio parents got a surprise in 1998, when they discovered that ninth- and 12th-grade students had their essays graded by a subcontractor, Measurement Inc. For $1.4 million a year, the company employed temporary workers at close to minimum wage in a North Carolina strip mall. These workers, who had no teaching experience or education credentials, spent about two minutes looking over each paper.
Back in California, Harcourt was penalized $1.1 million in August 1999 for late reporting of test results and 100,000 mistaken reports, which had to be recalled after being sent to parents. Last fall, Harcourt again botched scoring of the STAR exam in eight districts. By using norms from the wrong period, student scores were artificially elevated.
Technical errors aren’t the only problems with the tests. In Cleveland, the NAACP charged the Ohio Proficiency Test with being racially biased after no student in five schools in poor urban areas passed all sections. Two Harcourt tests were recently charged with being discriminatory to African-American students, when they were used as a basis for admission to a New Orleans high school. For the 1997-1998 school year, 763 students took the tests, of whom 44 percent were black and 42 percent were white. Of the 347 who passed, 27 percent were black and 59 percent were white. The school district was sued—an increasingly common experience for districts and states using standardized tests. DiMarco says, “It’s hard to have a test that doesn’t get sued.”
But it’s the state or school district that has to mount a defense and bear the legal costs, not the publisher. Yet DiMarco admits that the tests do measure social and economic conditions. “Children from poor communities go to schools which don’t have resources and use less effective methods of instruction,” she says. “The implications of what’s being measured are very deep. Poor kids can learn just as well as higher-income kids. They’re just not getting the resources they need.”
But California teachers say greater resources should be going to the schools themselves, not the testing companies. “We need more than just a gimmick,” says Fyke, the Berkeley teachers union president. “What people want is accountability from both teachers and students, and that’s good. But what we have is a method designed by people far from the classroom.”
Cautious in the way he frames the reasons for opposition, Fyke also proposes an alternative. “We have to identify what the expectations really are,” he says. “These should be developed by teachers, parents and researchers. We need to assess more difficult things—the ability of students to solve math problems and write creatively, their knowledge of social studies, their highest thinking skills, their ability to take initiative and accept responsibility, and their emotional intelligence. We expect teachers to be able to impart all these things, and so we should. But I would welcome a process of assessment which actually measured this.”
Many students are even more direct. “We know what needs to be done to make our school better, and the test doesn’t help at all,” says Fadeelah Muhyee, a 12th grader at Oakland High School. “We don’t have enough books. There are no counselors. There’s a lot of unevenness among teachers, and there’s no ethnic studies. Now they just want teachers to teach to the test. We don’t need a test to show us that we’re at the bottom—we already know that.”
These sentiments could lead to a boycott of the test this spring—as has happened in other parts of the country. If that happens, Berkeley and Oakland will be a likely point of origin. Naomi Katz, whose child goes to Oakland’s Crocker Highlands Elementary School, works part-time for Cal CARE and hopes to organize a mass opt-out in Oakland in the spring. “The test just highlights the inequity of resources,” she charges. “It absorbs huge amounts of money we need to fix deteriorating schools, to hire and train fully credentialed teachers, and for developing a meaningful curriculum.”
Maureen Katz (no relation), mother of a third-grader at Berkeley’s Rosa Parks Elementary, says the only reservation she has about that prospect is the fact that Rosa Parks teachers donated their prize money this year to the school itself. The school, rebuilt as a result of parent pressure, is the only elementary school in Berkeley west of San Pablo Avenue, in one of the city’s poorest communities. “As parents, it’s hard to say we don’t want that money,” she says. “But if that were out of the equation, I’d like to see parents organize a boycott.”
Turning in the award money is just one indication that many teachers are likely to support such a move. They are already notifying parents in a number of East Bay classrooms that they can fill in forms which allow their children to opt out of the test. Gail Mendez, a teacher at Bayview Elementary School in Richmond, says that despite some of the lowest teacher salaries in the state, she couldn’t in good conscience accept her $591. “I tell my fourth graders that you have to stand up for what you believe in,” she says. “How could I face them if I took this money?”
David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.