The Texas Anti-Testing Revolution
Posted: 10/04/2012 1:10 pm
If this were a John Steinbeck novel, they'd be picking fruit in
California, playing an unwinnable game according to unfair rules. This
meeting would be held in secret amid a real threat of violence. Drunk on
hope and certain their cause was just, our heroes would rise up only to
end up broken and beaten. But this isn't a John Steinbeck novel. It's
On this hot late September Sunday, they met in an outdated high
school gymnasium with the doors propped the doors open to coax the
afternoon breeze inside. The crowd -- mostly teachers and frustrated
parents with a smattering of union organizers and dissident school
superintendants -- filled the chairs on the basketball court and spilled
into the stands. They'd given up a weekend afternoon to listen to the
leader of their revolution, Diane Ravitch, a New York University
professor. She is also the leading critic of high-stakes standardized
testing that has taken over our nation's public schools like an
inoperable malignant tumor.
And while the people hanging on this grandmother's words weren't
facing the prospect of brickbats from anti-union thugs, they were
plotting a revolution. This was not a sober public policy discussion
that considered both sides. These were the ringleaders of the
anti-testing resistance, and Ravitch was exhorting them to battle.
"Texas started all this high-stakes testing madness, and Texas is
going to end it," Ravitch said. "You know what they say about
politicians. They don't ever get out ahead of the crowd. They wait to
see where the crowd is going and they run to get out in front of it.
You're the crowd! You're going to change this conversation, and Texas is
going to change what's happening across this country."
An official in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations,
Ravitch used to favor using standardized tests for accountability, a
practice she now calls a misuse of standardized testing. And she has
little patience for testing advocates who demand an alternative from
"The first thing you say about high-stakes testing is that it's
punitive. If you spend 12 years selecting one out of four bubbles you
are crushing creativity, destroying critical thinking and inflicting
harm on children. What's the alternative to crushing creativity and
inflicting harm on children? Well, stop hurting children!" she said.
High-stakes testing has radicalized Texas soccer moms, including a
state chapter of the opt-out movement in which parents of elementary
school students defy state law and refuse to submit their children to
"We believe that it's immoral to degrade a child's education for the
sake of corporate profits. That's our stand, and we're not going to back
down off that," said Edy Chamness, director of Texas Parents Opt Out State Tests
Asked whether her kids would get held back for not taking the tests,
Chamness offered a peak at her zeal: "Oh hell no. Oh hell no. Hell no.
Hell no. And there is, now listen, oh hell no. I'd make the biggest
stink and fight there ever was. My kids don't need to be held back."
Ravitch suggested a more radical option: "What would happen if your
entire district refuses to give the test? They can't punish you if a
hundred districts don't give the test."
Actually they could, says John Kuhn
superintendant of a North Texas school district. Regarded as the leader
of the Texas anti-testing underground, Kuhn works for a school board
that was among the first to adopt an anti-testing resolution, something 80%
of all Texas school boards have now done. Despite this overwhelming
majority, Perry's new education chief has indicated he is unlikely to
remove the high-stakes from the state test, leading some to criticize
the anti-testing resolutions as an empty gesture.
"There's been criticism of school boards and superintendents among
people I've talked to and listened to that, you know, what's a
resolution? You're just saying this isn't good but you aren't doing
anything," said Kuhn. "But, when you're in check and you can't do more
than speak out, then speaking out is pretty good. And I know that, yeah
absolutely, we could do more, we could put our foot down and say we're
not going to give the test but I also know exactly what would happen to
me and scarier than that is I don't know what would happen to my
Ravitch gave an approving nod to a grassroots group nicknamed Moms Against Drunk Testing
that has been lobbying the legislature. It's tough to tell parents of
high schoolers that this problem probably won't get fixed before today's
kids are tomorrow's adults. "We've been told by people that we need to
have a multi session plan. Well that's not acceptable, I have a tenth
grade student and she's being impacted," said Dineen Majcher of the
parents group formally known as Texans Advocating for Meaningful
These parents, administrators and teachers are caught between the
rock of Pearson lobbyists and business interests demanding more funding
for testing and the hard place known as the Texas legislature that has
long bought the accountability gospel. Ravitch told the crowd not to
"You are Texans. Don't let them bully you. Speak up. Speak out. Don't
be afraid. Join with your friends and your neighbors. Fight for your
school. Fight for your community. You're Texans. Think for yourselves,"
The afternoon had the feel of the optimistic part of one of
Steinbeck's lesser novels, the part right before the farm workers were
put down by the guys with money and guns. To the mother of one 3rd grader, Ravitch offered few illusions.
"I'm not going to mislead you. This is going to be a long struggle.
There's not going to be any overnight change," said Ravitch. "What we
have is this kind of a management consultant view of the world where
everything can be manipulated in terms of a number, and people's lives
can be bought and sold. That's a kind of mental slavery. So this
struggle that you're in is not going to change quickly, but what you
have to do is join the fight against the corporate takeover of public
education. Joint the fight against high-stakes testing because
everything they're planning to do depends on the numbers."