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The Anti-Test Backlash
What kinds of changes would make assessment programs more acceptable?

By Rebecca Zwick

What do California and Florida have in common? Well yes, both grow oranges and produce unusual election antics. But they are also home to extraordinarily active grassroots movements that oppose standardized testing. And around the country, there is evidence of a small but vigorous opposition to the increase in government-imposed testing in our schools, along with a rash of backpedaling on state testing requirements.

What's the source of this testing backlash, and what should be done about it?

California and Florida
"One of our first goals is to end the California High School Exit Exam," a seven-year-old organization called Californians for Justice (CFJ) proclaims on its website. In a report called "First Things First," the group, which has five offices around the state, claims that "the Exit Exam punishes students for the state's own failure to provide an equitable, high quality education."

On July 9, the day the State Board of Education was to vote on whether to postpone until 2006 the requirement that students pass the exam in order to graduate, CFJ sponsored a "Summerjam to Stop the Exit Scam." Although the state board did vote for the delay, this step represented only a partial victory for CFJ, which had pushed for a delay not merely until 2006, but "long enough to truly improve opportunities to learn."

During its relatively short life, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) has already weathered several crises. In 2000, the State Board of Education voted to shorten the exam and eliminate some difficult math questions after a field test yielded dismal results. In 2001, the board set the minimum passing scores lower than recommended by an advisory panel of teachers, parents and community members. Also in 2001, a high-profile lawsuit was filed on behalf of special education students. As a result, administration of the exam was barred until policies on inclusion and accommodation were modified.

Along with the recent decision to delay the requirement that students pass the CAHSEE to graduate, the board also approved a reduction in the number of essays to be included in the language arts portion of the test.

In early August, Florida State Senator Frederica Wilson escorted a group of chanting protesters to the governor's mansion in Tallahassee. Among them were 30 third graders who participated in a "read-in" down the hall from Jeb Bush's office. The intention was to impress upon Bush (who, unfortunately, was in Miami that day) that these students could indeed read, despite their poor performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), administered to Florida students in grades three through ten each year.

About 33,000 third graders who failed the test in the spring will need to repeat the third grade this coming year. Nearly 13,000 high school seniors failed the FCAT as well, but in the wake of protests, the state passed a measure allowing some of them to graduate through alternative paths.

Later in August, the NAACP filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education, alleging that Florida's policy discriminates against black students, who, on average, score lower than white students on the FCAT. The complaint also alleges that, because schools with large minority populations tend to have inferior facilities, the state is violating its constitutional duty to provide a high-quality education to all students.

The FCAT protests first made the headlines in May, when a group called the FCAT Protest Coalition threatened a boycott of the state's tourism and citrus industries. The Protest Coalition, headed by Victor T. Curry, a pastor and radio show host, has gained support among some of the state's civil rights groups and black churches.

(In a bizarre Floridian twist to this story, it came to light in 2002 that the founder and CEO of Ignite, Inc., a company that developed software to help students prepare for the FCAT, is none other than Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George. Protesters against testing, and state Democrats have expressed dismay at Neil Bush's promotion of a product that depends on Jeb Bush's testing program, which, in turn, assures Florida's compliance with George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. Previously, Neil Bush was best known as director of Silverado Savings and Loan, the spectacular failure of which led to a grand jury investigation under the first President Bush.)

Backlash and Rollback
How big is the anti-test backlash? Apparently, not that big. In a study called Reality Check 2002, a joint project of Public Agenda and Education Week, national random samples of 600 public school teachers, 610 parents of public school students, and 600 students in public middle schools and high schools (along with groups of college professors and employers) were interviewed by phone about their views on the standards movement. According to a report of the results in Education Week, "no evidence points to a broad backlash against higher academic standards among any of the groups surveyed."

Although 84 percent of teachers, 60 percent of parents, and 45 percent of students agreed that "far too much emphasis" is placed on test scores, many of the respondents' views on testing were surprisingly favorable. Seventy-one percent of students said that the number of tests they take is about right, and 79 percent said they think standardized tests contain "fair questions that [they] should be able to answer." And large majorities of teachers (75 percent), parents (85 percent) and high school students (61 percent) agreed that students work harder if they must pass a test for promotion or graduation.

But if the backlash isn't widespread, it is certainly loud. And protests by students, teachers and parents are one reason that many states are rolling back some testing requirements. Take high school graduation tests as an example: In addition to California and Florida, at least ten other states have delayed implementation of graduation testing requirements or decided to exempt some categories of students.

How Can Testing Initiatives Be Made More Acceptable?
Surveys suggest that only a small minority of parents, students and teachers are opposed to tests on principle. Most protesters object to specific aspects of testing initiatives. What kinds of changes would make assessment programs more acceptable?

  1. Opportunities must be provided for school personnel, students, parents and the community at large to become more informed about state and federal testing mandates. In a statewide survey conducted after the CAHSEE had been administered for two successive years, high school principals were asked to estimate the percentage of students and parents who were familiar with the exam. On average, the principals estimated that only 51 percent of students and 17 percent of parents "know what knowledge and skills are covered by the exam." And indeed, only 58 percent of the 47 principals surveyed, and 63 percent of the sample of 159 teachers, said that they themselves were familiar with the exam content.

    Nor is the public well-informed about federal assessment requirements. In the most recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, conducted last spring, more than 1,000 adults were asked how much they knew about the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which, among other provisions, requires that each state conduct annual math and reading assessments of students in grades three through eight, beginning in the 2005-2006 school year. Seventy-six percent of respondents (and 78 percent of parents of public school children) said they knew "very little" or "nothing at all."

    Because of this information gap, these testing programs are often viewed as incomprehensible requirements imposed from on high. Greater information does not assure greater support, but it certainly could help.

  2. The tests that are selected or developed must be well designed for the task at hand and must be skillfully administered and scored. Tests are often discussed as though they are interchangeable, but like any other product, a test may be of good or poor quality. And even if an exam has been competently developed, it may not be well-suited to a particular purpose. For example, an educationally and psychometrically sound test of algebra might be poorly aligned with the content of a particular school's algebra curriculum. The test would be an inappropriate means of assessing mastery of algebra course content in that school.

    Situations in which the content and difficulty of a government-mandated test are found to be inappropriate do little to inspire public confidence in testing. In June, for example, New York State's education commissioner set aside the results of the Math A Regents exam, which is taken by juniors and seniors and is a graduation requirement. Only about 37 percent of students passed (down from 61 percent the previous June), creating an uproar over the difficulty of the test.

    A complicated three-dimensional geometry problem appeared in national news coverage of the exam fiasco, and even the chancellor of the board of regents called the situation embarrassing. Some well-publicized large-scale scoring errors in state testing programs have also served to undermine public support for testing initiatives. A mistake of this kind sent nearly 9,000 New York City students to summer school unnecessarily in 1999.

    It is the joint responsibility of state officials and testing companies to assure that contracts provide enough time, resources and technical expertise to allow the development of high-quality tests, administration procedures, and scoring methods.

  3. Government-mandated tests must be seen as part of a genuine, adequately funded school improvement effort, rather than a reason for punitive action against students, teachers and administrators. Increasingly, tests are used as the sole criterion in determining which students get promoted or graduate-a violation of professional testing standards-or which teachers or school systems receive a bonus.

    In Reality Check 2002, 89 percent of teachers, 75 percent of parents, and 62 percent of students agreed that it's "wrong to use the results of just one test to decide whether a student gets promoted or graduates." And in the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, 77 percent of public school parents said it was impossible to "accurately judge a student's proficiency in English and math" on the basis of just one test.

    Many students and school personnel regard this reliance on a single test score for major decisions as a form of double jeopardy: Students who attend schools with inadequate resources and facilities, and are therefore already suffering an educational disadvantage, are less likely to be well-prepared for the tests. If they fail as a result, they may be prevented from graduating or advancing to the next grade, and their schools may be in danger of funding cuts and other sanctions. The test, then, is seen as compounding the initial inequity in the distribution of resources.

In summary, government-imposed testing programs would meet with greater acceptance if there were better communication and better tests. Also, the public would be more enthusiastic if tests were seen as tools within a well-funded good-faith effort to improve education.

But these changes seem unlikely. Ironically, the White House itself is now proposing to cut the budget for Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, the centerpiece of his education program. According to the New York Times, the White House request for continued financing next year is $6 billion less than the legislation authorizes.

Rebecca Zwick is a professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of "Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education."

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