Forum takes on standardized testing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Two icons of the progressive education movement spoke in Philadelphia on Wednesday night to decry standardized testing and urge that a “justice-oriented framework” drive school reform instead.

“Test score gaps are used to label schools as failures without providing resources or strategies to eliminate the gap,” said Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools, an education journal and publisher.

Michelle Fine of the City University of New York (CUNY), who once taught at the University of Pennsylvania and helped drive Philadelphia’s small schools movement 20 years ago, said that high-stakes testing was “corrupting and curdling” education in New York City and elsewhere.

She called standardized testing “the scientific ink of tattooing failure on the bodies of children, teachers, and now school closings." Real change, she said, only comes when schools are “designed by educators with parent and student passion at their heart.”

Karp, a former teacher in Paterson, N.J., said that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, puts pressure on the most vulnerable children, leads to adult cheating, and inflates the profits of testing companies without providing children a real education.

Also, statistical analysis of the results is often flawed in high-stakes situations, Karp said. He cited a recent incident involving the testing giant Pearson and a test used to assign students to coveted "gifted and talented" programs in New York City.

Barely hours after he spoke, the School Reform Commission approved a three-year, $1 million contract with Pearson to develop a high-stakes teacher and principal evaluation tool.

“High-stakes tests are the credit default swaps of the education world,” Karp said. “They encourage bad behavior on the part of people in charge” while propelling the forces of inquality.

The proliferation of high-stakes tests brought on by the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 helped lead to the virtual abandonment of other strategies for educational improvement, including racial and economic integration and more services for high-poverty schools, Karp said.

“Never have schools had more tests, and never have those tests done more to block real teaching and learning,” he said.

He warned that tests related to the new Common Core standards, which have been adopted by almost all the states, will be used to “sort and label students while rationing educational opportunity and access.”

Karp said he wasn’t opposed to charter schools in principle. But the charter school movement, he said, “provides fabulous opportunities for some, but unequal access and opportunity for the many."

Plus, market-based education reform has “eroded the common ground that public education needs to survive,” he said. “Parents should be treated not just as customers seeking services, but citizens seeking rights.”

He urged a broader testing “opt-out” movement, which has begun to take hold in some cities and states, to make more room for student and parent voices and heightened transparency regarding the tests and the test companies.

Fine noted that the city pioneered the small schools movement in the early 1990s, when she was involved with the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative and several large neighborhood high schools formed small learning communities — then called “charters.”

The movement engaged students and teachers in inquiry-based learning and raised academic expectations and standards in many neighborhood high schools. Students consigned to keyboarding courses suddenly had access to advanced math and science courses, as well as the opportunity to think deeply about social justice and other big issues.

But the movement floundered on the shoals of ambivalence on the part of both the teachers’ union and the administration about "good practice" — what Fine called a "structural betrayal" that is still evident, she said.

Real school reform must come from parents, students, and teachers and can’t be commodified — what the education reformers call “scaling up,” she said. Creating a formula and ordering schools to adopt it will not work, she said, unless there is deep community involvement and buy-in.

More than 100 people attended the forum, held at Arch Street Methodist Church in Center City and moderated by Helen Gym, who along with Karp is an editor of Rethinking Schools. Gym is also a regular contributor to the Notebook.

Rethinking Schools has published a book called Pencils Down, a collection of essays that takes on the standardized testing industry.