Commentary | Education

Lessons—A Rebellion Is Growing Against Required Tests

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MAY 30, 2001 ]

A rebellion is growing against required rests

By  Richard Rothstein

HARWICH, Mass. — In this Cape Cod town where children of service workers  and the leisure class attend school together, a substitute now teaches eighth-grade social studies. The regular teacher, James Bougas, has been suspended for three weeks after refusing to give a state exam.

Mr. Bougas is part of a growing antitest backlash that challenges state officials to match reality to their rhetoric. Most officials agree that tests tell only part of what we should know about achievement. They concede that if the stakes attached to tests are too high, schools may distort curriculums to prepare for exams and little else. Policy makers recognize that it is more expensive to assess high standards than the basics — it costs more to score an essay than to scan bubble-in answers.

But in many states, testing ignores such complexity. Without adjustments, the push for higher standards may be stalled or even reversed.

Massachusetts now makes tests its sole graduation requirement, even though state law asks for multiple measures. Mr. Bougas objected that “tests include topics outside the curriculum” and that “low scores can reflect family hardship, not lack of effort or teaching.”

Pamela Groswald, head of the Harwich school board, said suspending Mr. Bougas was hard because “we all voted to be in his corner” with a resolution opposing the  tests.

“He is an extremely courageous man,” Ms. Groswald added.

When Mr. Bougas was laid off for a similar protest last year, other teachers expressed support by donating to cover his lost pay. The superintendent has lobbied against the tests but failed to persuade Mr. Bougas that disobedience was going too far. Still, the relatively mild penalty for insubordination reflects broad community sympathy for him.

A similar backlash against testing excess is spreading nationwide, with protests by parents, school officials and students. In California’s wealthy Marin County, Richard Raznikov, a school board member, urged parents to remove their children from state tests. Mr. Raznikov said that judging only by exams limits “critical thinking, class interaction, curiosity, and the development of ideas.”

“None of these things can be measured,” he said, “and none bring cash awards.”

The Marin district will be ineligible for state bonuses because while students in the district are high scorers, nearly 20 percent got parental waivers from taking the state  tests.

In Scarsdale, N.Y., parents boycotted tests this year, and protests in the state will grow. In Fairport, a middle-class Rochester suburb, parents are organizing a test boycott while the superintendent, William Cala, plans to issue a local diploma so students can graduate without taking newly required Regents exams.

Dr. Cala has enlisted local business and university leaders to ensure that his diploma reflects better standards than those tested by the Regents. James Winston, head of an area employers group, says he wants a new diploma because Regents exams are causing skills to deteriorate. Mr. Winston says that with so much time now on testing drills, students do fewer projects that inspire the better thinking, reading and math abilities that businesses need.

In affluent Whitefish Bay, Wis., parent protests spread to the point that legislators canceled tests as the graduation requirement. A new law says that teacher evaluations and grades can also be used, and some districts are stretching this to make tests nearly insignificant. The parent group is now lobbying to eliminate money for graduation exams and will probably succeed.

Most officials, though, resist compromise. In New York, Commissioner Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, prohibited a group of high schools from continuing to use alternative evaluations. All must take Regents exams, Mr. Mills insisted, though his own expert advisers urged more experimentation.

The Business Roundtable, a national group of corporate officers, recently denounced the protests, attributing them to parents of low-scoring students barred from graduating. But it overlooked places like Marin, Scarsdale and Whitefish Bay where students easily pass exams but parents reject tests that promote excessive memorization.

Yet the Roundtable conceded that protesters’ objections had merit and that states should not rely solely on tests. Perhaps, it said, students who fail tests but have mastered the material should be permitted to appeal.

Mr. Bougas does not oppose all testing. Had Massachusetts created a test with less fact-regurgitation, that did not ask about topics outside the state curriculum, and supplemented by other performance measures, he would have given it.

If states continue to proclaim high standards while tests betray this goal, the backlash could overwhelm what is worth preserving in school reform.

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