Maxwell: There is more to education than standardized, high-stakes tests

Published April 29 2016
Updated April 29 2016

I recently came upon a small Opt Out movement protest in front of a Miami-Dade elementary school. This was my first encounter with members of the growing movement.

They are parents, teachers, a handful of principals and others who believe that mandatory high-stakes testing is being misused in ways that harm children. Many of them also believe that the proliferation of high-stakes testing is probably part of a plan, fueled by corporate influences and enabled by conservative policies, to alter, if not destroy, public education as we know it.

For these and others reasons, opt-out advocates believe they have the right to reject the tests and keep young children, especially those in traditional minority communities, from taking them.

Felicia Gordon, 27, the mother of a Miami third-grader, said she joined Opt Out after learning what happens to children such as her daughter if they fail the third-grade test.

"They will hold her back, a little third-grader, if she didn't pass one test, even though she's a very good student with high grades and not one discipline problem," Gordon said. "That's crazy. It's unfair."

Gordon has a strong supporter in Ceresta Smith, a teacher at Ferguson Senior High School and an outspoken Opt Out leader. While most of her colleagues in the district fear retaliation from their administrations and remain silent, Smith travels the nation speaking on behalf of Opt Out. Supporters and potential supporters listen to her because she hails from Florida, ground zero for high-stakes testing, which was established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"You have a totally test-driven culture," she said. "More and more innocent children are being stamped as failures in their early development."

The high-stakes test industry involves local, state and national politics and economics. Public education institutions are mandated by the federal government to test most students or risk losing funding. So, with millions of dollars riding on testing, states have little patience for school districts that do not comply.

Principals are expected make sure students sit for the tests, and teachers are expected prepare their students. Facing threats of being fired, most teachers toe the line and avoid opt-out involvement altogether.

In Florida, not only does it matter that students take the tests, it matters just as much that they make high scores. Schools are given letter grades based on student scores. These letter grades, A through F, can mean the difference between a good or bad reputation; millions of dollars in funding or a few dollars; special programs or no programs; and great teachers or a corps of rookies. A poor letter grade can also mean that teachers can lose pay or even lose their jobs.

Then there is the virtual death penalty: If a failing school does not improve — meaning student scores do not rise sufficiently — the state will take over its operations.

In Florida, evidence shows that to prepare as many students as possible for high-stakes tests, teachers must immerse their students in test prep reviews. The "art of teaching" is thrown to the wind.

One negative consequence of extreme test prepping is that many students do not acquire the deep understanding and knowledge necessary for a smooth college transition. Florida teachers and principals now spend most of their time on three subjects: reading, writing and math. Serious professionals know that we cannot continue to ignore the benefits of subjects such as music, the arts, history and language without dire consequences over time.

A simple message of the Opt Out movement is that children, especially the young, should be treated like the whole persons they are. Our test-driven culture, however, has created the chimera that one high-stakes test can tell us all we need to know about children. These tests also lull us into thinking we know all we need to know about teachers, schools and parents. They do not.

The Opt Out movement, as Ceresta Smith said, might be the only way to slow, perhaps even stop, a testing culture that stamps innocent children as being failures in their early development.

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