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NEA Launches Campaign to End 'Toxic Testing'

boy taking standardized test

Delegates to the National Education Association’s annual meeting in July voted to launch a national campaign to put the focus of assessments and accountability back on student learning and end the "test, blame, and punish" system that has dominated public education in the last decade.  The campaign will among other things seek to end the abuse and overuse of high-stakes standardized tests and reduce the amount of student and instructional time consumed by them.

The anti-toxic testing measure also calls for governmental oversight of the powerful testing industry with the creation of a “testing ombudsman” by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. The position will serve as a watchdog over the influential testing industry and monitor testing companies’ impact on education legislation. NEA will continue to push the president and Congress to completely overhaul ESEA and end mandates that require yearly testing, and to lift mandates requiring states to administer outdated tests that aren’t aligned to school curricula.

“It’s past time for politicians to turn their eyes and ears away from those who profit from over-testing our students and listen instead to those who know what works in the classroom,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

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The new measure comes at a time when parents around the country are also fed up with the testing obsession. Opting-out protests have taken place in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Alabama and other states. Grassroots parent movements say they will protest until overtesting is curbed.

David Valdes Greenwood is a Massachusetts parent of a third-grader. He says his daughter Lily has been stressed about tests since kindergarten.

“The kids pay a very high price. It chips away at their sense of selves as learners from a young age; telling them that there is one way to learn and boxing them into narrow ways of seeing their skills and their contributions.”

Dennis Van Roekel

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
Rick Runion/RA Today.

The impact of excessive testing is particularly harmful to many poor, minority and special needs students.  As much as 30 percent of the school year is spent testing and focusing on reaching a specific cut score on one day of the year.  The over-emphasis on standardized test scores crowds out access to other courses and curriculum opportunities for students. Furthermore, proponents of this test-based accountability regime have argued that the test data would drive policy makers to supply resources and supports to struggling students. Yet year after year, school budgets have been slashed, programs like extended learning time programs have disappeared, and the Administration's own "school improvement" funding is running out.  So, the millions of dollars spent on testing contracts have squeezed out opportunities and support for the students who need it the most.

To add insult to injury, students in already under-resourced schools are subjected to fewer opportunities to access richer curriculum and course offerings to prepare for college or careers—a discriminatory impact of the test-based accountability regime.

This country has refused to adequately fund schools attended by low-income kids. Poverty, constant mobility, lack of adequate health care, the stresses of crime, living in near constant fear of violence—all of these have a major impact on learning and is far more than schools can tackle alone. Education plays an enormous role in lifting people out of poverty, but to hold educators solely accountable for the impact poverty has on current students—and to do so using test scores—defeats the goal.

Yet more and more states around the country are tying a high percentage—as much as 50 percent—of teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test results. For many teachers, those evaluations are linked to the performance of students and subjects they don’t even teach.

Educators support high standards for all students and being held accountable for high quality instructional practice, something that can’t be measured by students’ standardized test scores. More and more educators are leading the way toward ensuring the highest quality work forces by working collaboratively with school districts to establish residency programs, mentoring programs, and peer assistance and review programs to evaluate instructional practice.

This is what educators can control—their practice. They don't control whether districts and states are making a real attempt to eliminate the record levels of child poverty.  Educators cannot alone make up for a student' slack of access to healthcare, or unstable housing circumstance, or lack of early childhood education.  NEA members know we need to address quality inside the school building and poverty outside the school building if we are to see real improvements in student learning.

That’s why NEA is also calling on lawmakers to repeal federal requirements that state standardized tests be used to evaluate educators and implement “real accountability in our public education system,” said Van Roekel. “Educators know that real accountability in public schools requires all stakeholders to place student needs, not profits, at the center of all efforts. As education professionals, we fully accept the great responsibility to always raise our standards of practice and place students' needs first.”

Van Roekel insists that in order for real, sustainable change to occur in public education, major work must be done to address the growing inequality in opportunities and resources for students across our nation. “Poverty and social inequities have far too long stood in the way of progress for all students,” said Van Roekel.