A Pause in Testing Madness

By Pamela Grundy

This time last year, residents of Charlotte, North Carolina faced a massive expansion of high-stakes standardized testing, aimed at making the students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools the most tested in the nation.

That spring, students, teachers and parents endured the outbreak of what we soon called “testing madness.” On top of the regular state tests, teachers across Mecklenburg County were required to administer 52 new high-stakes standardized tests, part of superintendent Peter Gorman’s goal of testing every child in every subject every year. The tests were tied to a pay-for-performance scheme that was slated for rapid approval by the state legislature.

We were racing down a fast track to nowhere.

This year, however, the rush has slowed. The pay-for-performance legislation has stalled. Last week, interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced that CMS was scrapping the 52 extra tests. For the moment, students and teachers can focus more on learning, and breathe a little easier.

Why the change?

People stood up for the kind of education they believe in.

Once we realized the havoc that testing madness would wreak on local education, parents, teachers and students worked together to fight the change. We petitioned, protested, wrote letters, made Facebook posts and spoke at school board meetings.

We emphasized the drawbacks of teaching to the test. We pointed out how much time and money testing diverted from instruction (this was a particular problem in elementary schools, where K-2 students had to be tested one-on-one, a process that required staff members to spend between one and two hours per student administering tests). We noted that neither expanded testing nor pay for performance had any track record of improving student achievement.

Once legislators heard how angry the pay-for-performance legislation made many of their constituents, they lost interest. Support for the testing shrank to a bare 5-4 majority on the school board, a majority that ended when a new school board was elected this fall. In June, Peter Gorman left to work for Rupert Murdoch.

Of course, the battle against testing madness is far from over. When Hattabaugh announced that CMS was dropping the tests, he noted that the state of North Carolina, following the dictates of a federal Race to the Top grant, would be picking up the ball. In fact, he said, the state would be using the CMS tests as a model for its own efforts to test every child in every subject every year. Still, we have won some time.

It’s a tough fight. But as we learned in Charlotte, it’s a fight that can be won, because the advocates of expanded testing have neither research nor common sense on their side. There are plenty of ways to evaluate teachers that do not rely on standardized test scores. Faced with the realities of testing madness, many parents quickly realize that it does more harm than good. Here in Charlotte, support for rolling back the tests crossed racial, ethnic, economic and political lines.

This is no time to relax. Testing madness is coming to a school district near you. Legislators in states such as Florida, Tennessee and New York have already passed legislation mandating that standardized test scores play a substantial role in teacher evaluation. Some have already laid out huge sums of money to develop new tests.

With all the powerful interests lined up behind the expansion of standardized tests, stopping testing madness will take all of us. Find out what is happening in your state. Get informed about the drawbacks of high-stakes standardized tests. Organize. Fight for your children’s right to an education that goes far beyond a bubble sheet. This is a battle we can win, if we all work together.

For details on testing, teacher evaluation and student achievement, see the PAA fact sheets “Tying Teacher Salaries to Test Scores Doesn’t Work” and “Why More Standardized Tests Won’t Improve Education”. For details on the Charlotte testing battle, led by PAA affiliate Mecklenburg ACTS, see the Mecklenburg ACTS website.

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