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Radical Dilemmas in the
Anti-High-Stakes-Testing Movement

Dennis Fox

Radical Teacher #61, 28-35.

September 2001

This article grew out of a discussion on the email list of Teachers for a Democratic Culture. The topic: whether radicals can and should work with liberals. I wrote about my experiences working in the Massachusetts movement against high-stakes standardized testing (the MCAS test). A Radical Teacher editor asked me to expand my comment into an article.

Radical Teacher is worth subscribing to. I had something else in there a few years ago, about my university's sorry transformation from an alternative "radical university" to a mainstream assembly line. It's only gotten worse. On the other hand, they haven't yet instituted a high-stakes test....

Note: This version does not exactly match the published version!

As I write this, in mid-June, 2001, the core of George W. Bush's education plan has just about finished navigating its way through Congress in a showy display of misconceived bipartisanship. Despite some wrangling over details, the education president is getting most of what he wants, even with the Senate now under Democratic control. That's too bad, because Bush is trying to do to the nation's school children the same as he did to those in Texas.

When Bush proposed the plan, it immediately sparked considerable Congressional debate over a few hot-button issues, ranging from federal oversight of state schools to more money for character education to several variations of school vouchers. But only when it was too late to generate an effective response did a portion of that debate focus on what may be the plan's most dangerous component: the imposition of high-stakes standardized testing on all public school students.

Setting aside quibbles over funding, timing, and related minutiae, most Democratic and Republican legislators conformed to Bush's view on this issue. They endorsed the idea that the best solution to whatever ails American schools is technological and Darwinian rather than financial and political: annual testing of every child beginning in third grade. The Bush plan requires state officials to use the tests' seemingly precise statistical results to penalize schools that fail to overcome long-standing poverty, racism, and neglect (details the plan says far too little about); about half the states will also penalize children who fail to meet new politically imposed standards.

The weak partisan challenge parallels the experience in individual states, more than half of which already require the faddish high-stakes tests. While it's true that Republican politicians, conservative ideologues, and corporate executives provide the central impetus for testing, across the country too many Democrats and too many liberals have joined the tough-love chorus. No politician wants to be seen as soft on standards, regardless of how those standards are established. Tests have the added advantage of being cheaper than providing adequate resources to every school, and certainly they are cheaper than creating a just and equal society.

Besides, the Democrats are still trying to make nice to the Republicans. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy is the prime pro-education liberal willing to give Bush this victory, as long as it comes with a little extra money for hard-pressed schools. But even Kennedy voted with the 71-23 majority against an amendment by Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone that would have delayed testing until Title I spending--money specifically focused on improving the skills of low-income children--was tripled. With the liberals divided, strong opposition by the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses and their remaining white allies could do little more than tone down some of the testing plan's more obnoxious components. Its treacherous heart remains.

The failure of most politicians to challenge the theory and practice of high-stakes tests contrasts sharply with a growing national anti-testing movement. Initial grassroots victories in several states may be overridden by new federal legislation, but in the meantime opposition increases. Activists object to the tests' documented defects and nasty consequences. The list of these is long: poorly designed test questions; scores highly correlated with race and income and poorly correlated with other standardized tests; the curriculum-distorting practice of teaching to the test; cheating by teachers and administrators whose jobs or bonuses depend on their students' success; testing students on subjects they have never been taught; mistakes by testing companies that have already sent thousands of students erroneously low grades; unequal treatment in most states, which exempt private and parochial school students from the public-school-only test. Even some conservatives object on the basis of their opposition to government interference with local schools.

Opponents have achieved national publicity, especially high school students who boycotted exams in 2000 and parents who didn't allow their younger children to take them in 2001. Still, the mainstream press, which has mostly joined the testing bandwagon, typically minimizes the opposition, dismisses it as suburban selfishness, and ignores the many detailed statements by education researchers and professional organizations critical of high-stakes standardized tests. Even some alternative newspapers such as the Boston Phoenix have fallen for the pro-testing hype.

As in many single-issue movements, liberal activists outnumber radicals; no doubt many anti-testing advocates reject both labels. Complicating analysis of the dilemmas facing radical participants is the fair amount of overlap between activists holding varying radical perspectives and similarly heterogeneous liberals, many of whom support grassroots tactics stronger than lobbying. It's not always easy to categorize individuals, or to base conclusions about political philosophy on publicly expressed tactical preferences. Still, despite the danger of oversimplifying and the difficulty of defining terms, the liberal-radical distinction sheds light on some of the anti-testing movement's internal debates and on some of the choices radical participants confront.

This is the case partly because, as I see it, mostly-liberal activists intent on achieving key short-term objectives often shunt aside analyses that extend beyond mainstream liberal concerns and proposals for broader radical goals and tactical escalation. Importantly, there is also a fair degree of self-shunting: radicals seeking to work with liberal activists toward those goals they have in common sometimes downplay their underlying politics. I know I have.

For the past year and a half, I've been active in the movement against the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a standardized test now in its fourth year. The anti-MCAS forces include parents (I have a second-grader; testing begins in third grade), public school teachers, university professors, and students (who, beginning this year, must pass the 10th-grade MCAS test to graduate). In terms of numbers, the movement is organized primarily in the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE); FairTest, the nation's primary anti-standardized testing organization, provides paid staff support. Among other things, CARE's goals include pressuring the legislature and Board of Education to end the use of the test for high-stakes purposes such as graduation and college admission, replacing it with less destructive forms of student and school assessment.

To accomplish this the organization works at several levels. More than 30 CARE chapters around the state follow a variety of citizen-education, lobbying, and other grassroots strategies, and CARE has put together an impressive amount of research and organizing material. It also supports students who boycott the test, though the boycott is not emphasized in most CARE literature or on its website. (Boycotting remains a controversial direct-action tactic. Beyond its symbolic media-focused component, students who refuse to take the test actually lower their school's average scores, which are printed in the newspaper in rank order. These scores affect not only whether the state will take over the school but even how much money nearby property owners get when they sell their houses. Successful boycotts have already distorted school-to-school comparisons, effectively rendering the reported averages unusable.)

Although many CARE members consider their underlying politics more radical than liberal, the organization as a whole seems mostly embedded in mainstream liberal approaches ultimately aimed at changing MCAS's legislative framework. Most CARE activists I've encountered, especially outside the central organizing group, seem firmly committed to traditional liberal goals and strategies. Their dominant view is that education reform was a well-intentioned plan supported by many progressives that went awry; they level the blame at conservative activists who use education reform to gut public education, at profit-seeking entrepreneurs with investments in MCAS-exempt private schools, and at other Republican appointees. So in addition to using a variety of tactics designed to educate and motivate the general public, most CARE members continue to focus their attention on local school authorities and liberal and Democratic politicians. They do so even though local officials routinely pass the buck to the state, and the almost completely Democratic legislature has yet to intervene in MCAS policy.

As far as I can tell, only one radical group separate from CARE offers active MCAS opposition: New Democracy, a Boston-based organization whose main spokesman, Dave Stratman, has decades-long professional expertise in education policy. New Democracy defines itself as "neither left nor right," a movement for "real democracy," though much of the group's analysis and general political agenda could be described as a variant of radical leftism, despite some group discomfort with the label. For many years, Stratman and others have attempted to inject their analysis of the origins of high-stakes testing into the national conversation. New Democracy suggests that the tests in particular, and standards-based education reform more generally, stem from the desire of corporate leaders to lower student expectations about how far they can advance in life. The corporate goal is to ensure a workforce willing to accept low-wage service jobs after they either graduate from a basic-skills-only high school education or drop out because of their inability to pass the punitive tests. Importantly, New Democracy makes a strong case that the MCAS test is just one of many corporate-devised school reform measures and other public policies designed to maintain corporate control over a population that began to expect too much in the 1960s. Furthermore, this attack on the expectations of--and outcomes for--ordinary people occurs not just across the United States but around the globe, often at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

As further evidence that the impetus is corporate rather than merely conservative or self-serving, New Democracy points to widespread support for the tests (and for the "high standards" the tests are supposedly designed to assess) by corporate-owned or financed think tanks, politicians, and media ordinarily considered liberal, such as the Boston Globe. The organization believes that the best way to build a broad-based, democratic movement against testing is to explain to people why the tests are being imposed on their children, and by whom.

I don't belong to New Democracy, but as a sometimes-social/political psychologist I share the group's belief that elite decision makers often consider masses of people who fail to meet their own legitimate expectations a potential threat. Widespread failure to attain jobs consistent with educational achievement has often led to revolutionary conditions. Thus, reducing expectations when the economy needs more hamburger flippers and janitors than high-tech whizzes should make perfect sense to those at the top, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

Even if corporate executives are less conspiratorial and organized than New Democracy charges, and even if many advocates of "education reform" really do believe the tests ultimately will improve education, the result seems to be exactly as New Democracy predicts. Dropout rates have already risen in places like Bush's Texas and Brother Bush's Florida, especially for Latinos, and schools around the country have begun narrowing their curricula to make sure their students spend more time on test preparation and less time on critical thinking and other frills.

New Democracy postings on the CARE email list, when not simply ignored, routinely draw objections. Some simply reject New Democracy's interpretation, as well as any other systemic anti-corporate analysis, and substantive disagreement over the origin and scope of the problem remains fundamental. But a key charge against New Democracy is tactical rather than substantive. Many CARE activists reject the view that attributing the MCAS framework to corporate origins will persuade decision-makers or help the movement mobilize new supporters. Even beyond that, however, many consider the mere presentation of non-liberal anti-corporate analysis to be a divisive distraction--especially when that presentation is direct, repeated, and bluntly worded (occasional conservative anti-testing postings have also met with hostility). Over the past year interactions between New Democracy and CARE have grown increasingly bitter. (I should add here that both New Democracy's Dave Stratman and FairTest/CARE's Monty Neill made extensive comments on earlier versions of this article, for which I thank them; both made it clear that they endorse neither my overall analysis nor everything I say about the two organizations.)

Differences over goals remain primary. For many CARE activists, the short-term goal absorbing the most organizational energy is ending the link between MCAS and graduation and replacing the test with more palatable measures of accountability, such as portfolios of student work. The longer-term goal is equalizing class size and other resources between wealthy suburban schools and poorer urban and rural schools.

For many radicals in CARE, though, the goal is not just a different accountability system and not just equal school spending; the ultimate objective is equalizing community and family income and resources in a more just and democratic society. Even separate-but-equal schools (as advocated by many liberals) will not overcome the huge gap between rich and poor districts in parental income and education, the primary correlates of student achievement. So for us, the battle is for changes that cannot be made within the confines of educational policy. The hard questions, of course, are how to bring about that level of change and, in the meantime, whether and how to work with those holding a more limited agenda.

Partly because CARE marginalizes non-liberal views, some radicals have organized separately. New Democracy hosted its own anti-MCAS conference in the fall of 2000 and began to sponsor its own anti-testing email list. After the conference, New Democracy organizers worked with a handful of teacher union local presidents to create MassRefusal, a campaign that calls on teachers to vote within their unions to refuse to administer the test in the spring of 2002. The campaign would make such a refusal an attempted job action rather than a call for individual teachers to refuse to administer the test (which a few have already done on their own).

An initial issue confronting New Democracy was how much to emphasize its political analysis in its own Call for Mass Refusal. Would their anti-corporate rap deter people who might otherwise support their risky tactic? The group chose to stick to its politics, hoping to expand its "movement for democratic revolution" through outreach to parents and teachers--though in the end they removed one particularly contentious sentence to gain the endorsement of additional union leaders. Whether the Call will result in mass teacher opposition next year remains to be seen, but New Democracy leaders were encouraged by widespread support for "ending MCAS entirely" (not just as a graduation requirement) at the spring 2001 Massachusetts Teacher Association convention (see, which I maintain).

Another partially separate organizing effort was spearheaded by CARE activists in Cambridge to advance more militant boycott tactics than CARE as a whole was willing to endorse. Early on they created a MassParents email list and website (more boycott information is available at the site of SCAM, the Student Coalition for an Alternative to MCAS). Interest in boycott support escalated around the state this past spring, partly because the media inaccurately called the growing boycott a bust (numbers in high schools, where high stakes went into effect, were down, but lower grade numbers increased significantly). In response, MassParents and others in CARE organized the Committee of 100 Parents, which issued a Parents' Call to Resist MCAS. The Committee is now gathering signatures of parents who "refuse to allow their children to take these tests" and is calling on school committees and legislators "to set aside the MCAS and to support quality education, not standardization."

Departing from their strongly worded Call, however, the Committee noted in a press release that the boycott would last--adopting CARE's language here--"until the graduation requirement is ended and the test is replaced with multiple forms of student and school assessment." This language disappointed some signers who had interpreted the initial Call to Resist as a rejection of both MCAS at any level (not just the link to graduation) and the implicit acceptance of externally imposed standards that any alternatives to MCAS would assess. It now appears that MassParents intends to offer a CARE-linked boycott alternative rather than a departure from CARE's overall agenda.

In my town of Brookline--an urban-suburban town adjacent to Boston, with mixed but high-average incomes and a reputation for excellent schools and liberal politics--anti-MCAS-test fervor is high. The BrooklineCARE chapter successfully persuaded the School Committee to publicize its growing skepticism about the MCAS graduation requirement; Brookline's Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting passed a similar resolution. Yet in 2000, to avoid alienating some members, BrooklineCARE refused to endorse a boycott even though most leaders privately supported it (the Brookline chapter opposed punishment for boycotters, but did not advocate the boycott tactic).

In the end, paralleling the creation of MassParents by boycott-supporting CARE activists, a group of BrooklineCARE members formed the Brookline Boycott Support Group, with no official link to BrooklineCARE. Among other things, we organized workshops for high school students who refused to take the test (I co-led one on Protest and Civil Disobedience). In 2001, BrooklineCARE considered changing its position, but ultimately decided doing so could endanger the group's increasingly congenial relationship with local school officials who have called on the legislature to end the test's high-stakes component. Once again it was a separate Support Group that organized sessions for students.

The state's response to mounting protests has been to dismiss anti-test forces as selfish suburban parents who don't care if poor urban people of color continue to receive inadequate education. There's a grain of truth in this, but only a small one. It's no surprise that protective anti-testing suburbanites have gotten national press attention, most recently in Scarsdale, New York, and Marin County, California. In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe ignores or downplays most anti-MCAS protests, but especially those held in urban districts. So efforts to split anti-test forces along urban/suburban lines may prove successful.

The state has already implemented a variety of test exceptions and accommodations for special needs and bilingual children (many suburban activists have children who receive special education services). None of the exceptions eliminates the requirement that all students must pass the test to graduate, but the state is considering a second-rate "certificate of completion" for those who fail the MCAS test but pass all their courses (though the non-diploma certificate would not allow students to attend Massachusetts public colleges). I suspect that if the MCAS test were required only in schools with high dropout rates--as proposed by some test advocates--suburban opposition would indeed diminish.

Yet I also suspect that anti-test suburbanites are more willing to use tax money to improve urban education than are MCAS proponents who claim--sometimes explicitly--that what urban schools need is not more money but more tests, along with a less powerful teachers' union. Still, while CARE insists--mostly accurately--that there is no urban/suburban split, it's the more radical members who emphasize in greater depth and with more urgency that even if MCAS is modified and the graduation requirement delayed or suspended, poverty, racism, and neglect will continue to wreak havoc. CARE frequently acknowledges this, but also argues that such non-school issues are beyond its central focus.

My impression is that parents in well-functioning schools don't need tests or other externally imposed requirements to let them know how their schools are doing. Internally devised assessments may have their uses, but primarily it's the easily observable outcomes that count: children demonstrate learning in many ways, they mostly enjoy school, they go on to college, they get jobs they like. In poorly functioning schools, most parents also see outcomes: more kids dislike or avoid school, they drop out, they get lower-skilled jobs or no jobs at all. In both cases artificial measures of accountability are not helpful. And even an accurate assessment could only measure disparities among schools mostly caused by the community's socioeconomic level. Such assessments are at best useless and at worst damaging when school authorities align curricula to the test, and when they punish students for circumstances beyond their control.

Given a choice, most inner-city parents would choose not more tests but smaller classes, more experienced teachers, safer schools, well-stocked libraries and labs, enough textbooks for all students, and other luxuries considered basic in better-off districts. They would also choose better jobs, a secure retirement, safe streets, good health care, equal treatment in the court system, and everything else needed to reduce disparities not just in education but in all areas of life. But they don't have that choice.

As a result, urban reaction to the MCAS test has been mixed. In Boston, Springfield, and other cities, some parents, teachers, and community leaders support the test. They acknowledge its flaws (and sometimes seek to delay the high-stakes component), but they also say that a heavy-handed threat is better than being ignored--an education aimed at low-level literacy is better than one too often resulting in no literacy. This reaction is not hard to understand, given the state's persistent failure to provide enough funds to raise overwhelmingly African American and Latino urban schools to mostly-white suburban standards. Mounting pressure from above has also dampened opposition, with urban school officials demanding much more strongly than their suburban counterparts that schools boost performance. Unlike in the suburbs, there's little pretense about not teaching to the test.

The state is now preparing to take over low-scoring schools, and even to test math teachers in schools with too many low-scoring students (thus penalizing teachers who choose to work in urban districts where students more often come poorly prepared). Remarkably, Boston's school superintendent has instructed teachers to lower student class grades to better match low MCAS scores; this policy eliminates the impact on grades of effort, attendance, class participation, homework, teacher-designed tests, and other classroom basics. Lowering grades conveniently dilutes the common-sense criticism that students who do well in class and pass all their courses deserve a diploma even if they fail the test. Lowered grades will also eliminate the public relations problem of having large numbers of students accepted into college despite low MCAS test scores, which would occur frequently, of course, given the large disparity between those scores and grades and other measures of achievement.

Despite the despair and the pressure, urban opposition to MCAS grows as massive failure rates continue--especially among Latino and African American students--and as schools eliminate art and languages and in-depth course components just to boost scores. Unlike the pro-test Boston School Committee, appointed by the Mayor, the elected Boston City Council now opposes the MCAS-linked graduation requirement. So does the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Hispanic Office for Planning and Evaluation, the Greater Boston Civil Rights Coalition, and more than three dozen other organizations around the state that have joined the legislatively focused Alliance for High Standards Not High Stakes.

It was exhilarating this past April to see the Parent Council at Boston's Mission Hill pilot school (in the majority low-income African American Roxbury neighborhood) direct its cooperative principal not to force MCAS participation. The majority of Mission Hill parents did not allow their students to take the exam--a far more in-your-face action than occurred in any Massachusetts suburb and one that preceded the similar action in Scarsdale. Mission Hill puts urban parents in the movement's vanguard and raises hope for increased multiracial and multiclass coordination--a hope that was fulfilled at the Boston Common anti-MCAS rally in May (organized by SCAM and co-sponsored by CARE), where the crowd was much more heavily African American and more focused on urban concerns than the previous year.

Less than two miles from Mission Hill, in my daughter's urban/suburban Brookline school, anti-test parents organized a parent-teacher forum to discuss MCAS's effects on education in our own school. In addition to my share of meeting coordination, flyer production, and email communication, my input was to raise questions about school policy toward boycotters and to counter the principal's denial that the school is teaching to the test (which would violate Brookline School Committee policy, but which is all too common in Brookline, as elsewhere). The forum's organizing group--members of BrooklineCARE and others--took pains not to be seen as entirely anti-MCAS: thus the name "Parents Concerned About MCAS," not "Parents Against MCAS." The effort by a mostly liberal group to appear moderate and "reasonable"--to attract parents who hadn't yet focused on MCAS (and to retain the School Council's co-sponsorship of the event)--paralleled some radical efforts to appeal to liberals. While forum attendees were free to discuss boycotting and urge parent opposition, and though I handed out material about the Parents' Call to Resist and the MassRefusal campaign (endorsed by Brookline's teachers union president), our organizing group did not list MCAS opposition on the forum's program.

It was at a later follow-up meeting that we agreed to push school-level MCAS policy onto the School Council agenda next fall. One goal is to focus institutional attention on excessive test preparation; a second is to ensure that all parents know they can keep their children (at least those in Brookline's lower grades) from taking the test without reprisal, a fact that school officials prefer not to publicize; a third is to link our efforts to those in other schools in Brookline and around the state.

My conclusion after all this is that radicals can work with liberals and often should. But the remaining disjunction raises many questions for us. How can we advocate our own analyses and long-term goals without marginalizing ourselves from the larger organized movement, focused on more immediate aims? Is it only a matter of becoming better advocates, less abrasive perhaps, or are the insights of non-liberal perspectives inevitably disruptive? With limited time and energy, do we embroil ourselves in legislative efforts or do we focus on direct action tactics like boycotts and teacher refusal campaigns? Is the goal getting rid of the MCAS test, or is the goal democracy and equality? Can we work for the two simultaneously?

My own solution, imperfect and inconsistent, has been to try to do a little of everything: I work within BrooklineCARE when I think I can make a difference, but I spend more time on direct action than lobbying. I signed on to the Parents' Call to Resist and work with New Democracy's MassRefusal campaign while also organizing a less politicized single-issue group in my daughter's school and writing pro-boycott newspaper columns that go further than CARE's position. It's important not to shy away from radical perspectives and indeed to disseminate them, but, perhaps selfishly, I'm also willing to embrace whatever tactic will prevent school authorities from pressuring my 8-year old daughter to take the test next year. The danger is that a short-term victory--ending the test-diploma link, or transforming MCAS into something significantly less objectionable--will likely reduce attention to broader school, community, and racial inequities. It's up to radicals to figure out how to forge a connection between ending these inequities and ending the test.

I also recognize that I'm trying to work this out in activist-heavy Massachusetts, where a de facto radical-liberal symbiosis dulls the dilemma's edges. On the one hand, frequent joint rabble-rousing exposes activists to colleagues whose work on common tasks can make radical approaches more palatable (the new chairperson of the Mass CARE Council, for example has endorsed New Democracy's Call for Mass Refusal). On the other hand, abundant liberal activity allows us to pursue radical politics without drawing the accusation that we're withholding crucial energy from other efforts (the Statehouse swarms with lobbying liberals whether radicals show up or not); we also make liberal activists appear more reasonable than they might if there were no one further to the left. Under these circumstances at least, the potential exists to advance simultaneously both radical aims and more narrowly focused single-issue movements too often bound by liberal constraints.

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Dennis Fox is on leave from his position as Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and now lives in Massachusetts. He is co-editor of Critical Psychology: An Introduction (Sage, 1997) and co-founder of RadPsyNet: The Radical Psychology Network. With Ron Sakolsky, he wrote "From 'Radical University' to Agent of the State" in Radical Teacher #53 (recently updated for Teachers for a Democratic Culture).

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