I've been invited by Jill to inform readers here, and the special education community, about a little event coming up this weekend called Occupy the Department of Education in DC. This is primarily an educational event premised on an issue our group has been discussing for months: the problems with high-stakes standardized testing in public schools. Less an occupy in the sense of a presence or a nuisance, we are alternatively suggesting an occupation of the conversation on education reform. We feel that those that know the classroom and know students are not having their voices heard in this debate. Rather, legislators, software billionaires, and economists are the ones with the most influence on public education policy. Not teachers. Not parents, and definitely not students.
United Opt Out National, the group planning and "sponsoring" the event (and by sponsoring I mean our own dime), considers this to be a watershed moment for high stakes standardized testing. It has not improved educational outcomes over the last 12 years and state tests certainly have not eradicated the inequities in public education based on race, social class, or special needs. The data pushers failed in all of their illustrious promises a decade ago.
Race to the Top and now the new Common Core are both measures that actually double down on the testing regimes. All this talk of waivers and grant funding come with tremendously complicated strings attached that increase the pressures to succeed on tests. And in a tenuous budget climate, piles of cash are taken out of the classroom and dumped on more testing, whether it's bending to new national assessments and curricula, buying glossy new materials for those national mandates, or test booklets and security.
Educators and parents of children with special needs should especially be outraged at this moment. Now, I must confess: I've been a general elementary classroom teacher and now I'm a teacher educator at a public university. My expertise in special education is limited. But allow me to share one simple anecdote that might make your blood raise a couple of degrees. As we've seen with recent test cheating scandals, the stakes are higher than ever and the pressure to demonstrate annual gains on test scores is intense. It dominates the conversation in schools. I'm not condoning cheating, but I can understand it.
So, I've been privy to a lot of what general education teachers talk about in public elementary schools. The students that appear to receive the most attention right now, at least in tested grades, are those beloved "fence sitters." That is, the students who straddle the line between basic and proficient or failing and passing. Educators and administrators are sort of compelled, with being so strapped for time and resources, to both give up on students who are far below passing and to dismiss students who could use a challenge. Oh, I'm sorry you're finished early, you finished the odds, now do the evens.
Here's where it gets interested. Some are so desperate to meet adequate yearly progress, or some other such nonsense, that meetings are called to get those "fence sitters" labeled so they can receive accommodations, anything just to give them an edge. Force the issue, get an IEP or 504 or whatever for those kids so they can at least get extra time. And mind you, these aren't students who display any kind of learning issue other than your everyday variation or difference, nothing that would or should constitute a label.
So, what's the problem then with getting individual kids what they need to give them an edge on those tests? Isn't increasing those scores a point or two to passing beneficial to the student, the teacher, and the school? Well, it is definitely a problem for students with significant needs that require more intensive accommodations. Who's going to handle the increased caseload? Will there be extra funds? How will this affect the educational experiences for students with more significant needs, like students with autism? You see, with increased testing requirements, with additional formative assessments and benchmarks along with the customary state tests, staff is pulled constantly to sit with students, to read for them and scribe at the expense of the more important duty to actually teach. Forcing accommodations on students who don't really need them, in the interest of getting an extra point or two on the state test, starves a special education system and budget that is already limited in funding and resources. (emphasis added by Jill)
Adherence to a test-driven and data obsessed version of education reform has shown no signs of improving public education and does a tremendous disservice to students, teachers, and communities. The primary justification for No Child Left Behind a decade ago was to disaggregate the data so that schools and teachers can be held accountable for groups like special needs students who have been ignored. That might have actually been true in a lot of cases, with race and income level as well, but we are certainly worse off now post NCLB and will not show progress even under Race to the Top.
United Opt Out National, the group behind the Occupy the DOE event this week, is trying to use the issue of offering parents the choice to opt their children out of destructive testing mandates as an act of disobedience and desperation. Despite the evidence, the dismal results, and continued inequality in public schools, education leaders are doubling down on test-driven reforms and insuring teachers possess no political power to counter them. Rather than occupying a space, the Occupy the DOE event is educational in nature. It's meant to raise consciousness. On another level, if parents can't trust that sound decisions are being made with the data provided by their children, then officials don't need to have it. That's as simple as I can explain it.
Shaun Johnson is a teacher educator and former elementary teacher. He returns to his roots every summer, teaching 5th graders in a DC public charter school. Shaun earned his PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana University and researches and publishes about gender in education, social studies, and education reform. He also blogs At the Chalk Face.