The fight against high-stakes testing



What? No standardized tests in high schools? Only in Seattle’s Garfield High School where Quincy Jones and Jimmi Hendrix got their starts.

In January some brave teachers began a boycott of standardized testing, the simplistic and time-consuming attempt to evaluate students. Long the darling of right-wing ideologues who use the test results to club teachers, break unions and shame both teachers and students, the tests have long been a huge neuralgic issue in the teaching community. Many have seen it as an attempt to privatize education  and open up the billion dollar market to test providers and text book writers. The major criticism of course was that wholesale use of testing was far too simplistic as well as leaching precious time from the humanities, always the first to be scuttled. Washington state a leader in these high stake tests spends $100 million a year on these tests.The teachers argued for tutoring programs instead.

On Monday the Seattle school district backed down and invited teachers to find alternative ways to gauge student performance

Daniel  Horan a Franciscan friar of Holy Name Province of New York recently wrote an article in America magazine (May 13) detailing the depression teachers  almost universally feel about using such short-sighted metrics for evaluating students. He wrote about a teacher friend “a paragon of what a committed, intelligent, creative and motivated young teacher should be”. This marvelous woman has seen her vision “built on the best resources and pedagogical foundations available” sacrificed to evaluations imposed by external education department  and paid consultants. As a result she felt that her” professional and spiritual vocation has been sold from beneath her feet. “ This is not an unusual experience of those professionals closest to their students.Bear in mind teachers do not dispute the need for  periodic testing but these massive, tension-packed tests should simply be one part of a more comprehensive program.


The best person to read on this is a former true believer in high stakes testing Diane Ravitch. Her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010) is a devastating critique of this assault.

She writes, “Testing should be used for help—to diagnose learning problems—not as a basis for rewards and punishments.”

Creative teachers under great pressure from superintendents are forced to “teach to the test” but this does little to enhance critical thinking, imagination, creativity, curiosity, compassion or moral courage.This huge industry, corporate driven has little interest in the induplicable ikons of God, our children. They have become numbers sacrificed on the altar of fuzzy thinking and the greed of the free market privatizers. Schools are the last bastion of sacred protection for vulnerable children.

It is more than ironic that such obsessive  and narrow testing are virtually absent from the practices of high-performing nations. They seem to know better. They are less receptive to the incessant and deleterious demands of “the free market” system which has little or no respect for the weak, the marginal or the average.

The push back has begun in Seattle.Time will tell whether the system which openly proclaims the dignity and uniqueness of all of God’s children will wake from their slumber and begin to advocate for children. So far the leadership has been lacking, the imagination sclerotic and the understanding of the Catholic imagination has been anemic and inadequate.



  1. 1

    But what can we do about the public system we have now, in which experienced teachers are paid a 6 figure salary and who are so well protected by the unions that there is simply nothing a principal can do when mediocrity sets in and the teacher simply stops learning, upgrading, studying, becomes cynical, bores the kids to tears, and teaches the same old stuff they learned in university, and teaches material that is contrary to the wishes of parents? Ask any principal today and he or she will tell you: it’s not worth becoming an administrator; the biggest problem is not the kids, but teachers.

    It’s true that with ST, teachers are tempted to teach to the test, but what do we do when kids are not getting the education they could be getting, because the teacher is a lazy lout and couldn’t care less about the kids, but cares first and foremost about him or herself? There are lots of teachers that are like that. Not all, of course, but I know many great teachers and their biggest complaint is not the kids, not the administration, but their colleagues in teaching. The majority are not good teachers, just as the majority of unionized nurses are not good nurses, but mediocre nurses. If everyone were the dedicated gold star teacher that we like to write about and celebrate, we would not need ST or private schools, etc.

    You think there are simple solutions. There are not. There are only trade offs. Which alternative has the best trade offs? You have just attacked one side, but let’s hear about the other side so we can understand why people over react, or what is perceived to be an over reaction.

    Your thinking is very simple and one sided. Life is more complex and subtle than your simple “oppressed vs. oppressor” “victim vs. greedy money hungry capitalist” model of reality. I don’t like the standardized test thing either, because I think kids learn at a different pace, and people have different intellectual dispositions. But you reduce all problems to the greed of corporate free marketeers. That’s just a simple paradigm, and it is one that is not true to reality. Reality is just more complex than the simple Marxist dialectic that you use to interpret reality. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

  2. 2

    what a crock, crock.

  3. 3

    But why, Dennis? Why is it that what I said what a “crock”? Your reply is not an argument. Point out to me what I said that is wrong. Why isn’t there any dialogue on this forum? Why is there no debate? Don’t we believe in the exchange of ideas? If what I argue is not true to the facts, then show some charity and point it out to me. Or, better yet, show me “justice” and point it out; don’t let me spend the rest of my days in the dark. What are you claiming is a “crock”? The last paragraph? The stuff about teachers? Because the latter can be tested. We can gather evidence for that claim. But where there is no dialogue, there is no search for truth, and where there is no search for truth, there is no life, only death. I’m beginning to think that this forum is a death blog. No one comments. No one leaves comments. When I read past discussions, there is no discussion, just one guy comes on and points out some errors, and no one responds. The same is happening here. Either no one reads this forum, or whoever does, is just closed to exploring ideas and truths and the possibility that we might have gotten a few important details wrong. That’s death, not life. There is no love of truth in hell. Enlighten me if I’m off base.

  4. 4

    Here’s testimony of the great publicly funded school system we have in Canada:

    What is striking is that the Toronto Star makes no mention of it.

    Now, one could say this is an isolated incident. But I am told that if one reads the back pages of Professionally Speaking Magazine, that all teachers get for free in the mail, we read all sorts of stories like the above.

    There is a lot of mediocrity in teaching because it is so hard to get rid of an incompetent teacher, almost impossible short of a criminal act.

    I’m not saying unions are a bad thing. But let’s listen to one of the greatest thinkers in the U.S, a black man, economist and political commentators Thomas Sowell: “The biggest myth about labor unions is that unions are for the workers. Unions are for unions, just as corporations are for corporations and politicians are for politicians. Nothing shows the utter cynicism of the unions and the politicians who do their bidding like the so-called “Employee Free Choice Act” that the Obama administration tried to push through Congress. Workers’ free choice as to whether or not to join a union is precisely what that legislation would destroy. Workers already have a free choice in secret-ballot elections conducted under existing laws. As more and more workers in the private sector have voted to reject having a union represent them, the unions’ answer has been to take away secret-ballot elections. Under the “Employee Free Choice Act” unions would not have to win in secret ballot elections in order to represent the workers. Instead, union representatives could simply collect signatures from the workers until they had a majority. Why do we have secret ballots in the first place, whether in elections for unions or elections for government officials? To prevent intimidation and allow people to vote how they want to, without fear of retaliation. This is a crucial right that unions want to take away from workers. The actions of union mobs in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere give us a free home demonstration of how little they respect the rights of those who disagree with them and how much they rely on harassment and threats to get what they want……”

    He says much more, but I think you get the point. As one union leader recently said, “when students start paying union dues, we’ll represent them.” How does one ignore this concrete evidence that teachers unions do not have the best interest of students in mind, nor do they have the common good of the civil community in mind, they don’t even have the rights of the constituents at heart. Just look at the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. It is an arm of the NDP party. What about those teachers who vote conservative? They don’t get representation. Their dues are used to support the NDP and for campaigns against the Ontario Conservatives. But that’s not their mandate. Their mandate is to represent teachers, to find out what they need and represent them. Instead, they use their position to fulfill their dreams of political activism.

    Unions are no different than corporations. Both are for themselves. The difference is that corporations give us things we value, ie cars, soda pop, cell phones, computers, televisions, lawnmowers, microwave ovens, tools, airplanes, buses, toothpaste, etc., while teachers unions give us mediocre teachers who can’t be fired. Which one do you want?

  5. 5
    wmgrace Says:

    I like Ted’s concept of what quality teaching/learning is all about. That’s the model we should be pursuing and preserving, and not throwing overboard for a rigid, uncertain, pie-in-the-sky dream of being able to evaluate every student in our schools based on standardized tests.

  6. 6

    I like Ted’s concept of what quality teaching/learning is all about. That’s the model we should be pursuing and preserving, and not throwing overboard for a rigid, uncertain, pie-in-the-sky dream of being able to evaluate every student in our schools based on standardized tests.

    Who doesn’t like the concept above? We all do. And of course it is worth pursuing. Incidentally, how does one preserve what one has not yet attained? We have to attain that first, and we have not. But let’s assume we can attain it. How are we going to attain it? What incentives do teachers now have to rise to the occasion? The answer is simple: none whatsoever. And it’s understandable. Human nature is what it is. If I am getting well paid, with great benefits and holidays, etc., and enjoy such a level of job security that I can literally allow myself to degenerate into the most incompetent boob and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it, all incentives are gone, at least all external incentives. Only a few have the internal incentives. But it is “pie-in-the-sky” dreaming to suggest that the majority of these well paid teachers who enjoy such job security and the needed resources–from the pockets of tax payers–are all going to automatically motivate themselves from within to be the best they can be. It just does not work that way. Just reverse it and consider what happens: imagine a merchant who is selling a product without any competition from the outside–he’s got a monopoly, and customers are coming to him regardless. He can cut cost and decrease the quality of the product and charge the same. What can anyone do about it? If they don’t like it, too bad. What gives him the incentive to maintain the quality of his product? The goodness of his heart? Nah! Empowering the buyers will be his incentive, and we empower the customers by permitting competition, so that if the customers do not like the product, they are free to purchase it from some other manufacturer. That will maintain the quality of the product, for fear of losing customers, and thus for fear of losing revenues. If there are no incentives, quality and efficiency will decrease. It’s the same with teachers. They have a product to sell, and the great thing about it is, they can be as inefficient and out of date as they want to be, and no principal can say to them: “I think we’d like to hire someone else next year”. No, that’s considered unjust, because he has a “right” to continue as a teacher. Of course, no one offers any evidence that this is so; rather, it is just an idea raised to the level of an absolute right.

    Now, in Ontario, principals can’t even hire the new teachers they would like to hire. There’s seniority in the supply teachers now. So, those supply teachers who have been supplying for 10 years because nobody in their right mind would hire them on as regular classroom teachers, will now be given seniority over a teacher that anyone would love to hire, give their right arm to hire, because the teacher radiates love and wisdom and enthusiasm for truth, etc. Nope. Back of the line, behind all the rejects, who must be hired first.

    This is not justice. This is a violation of the rights of parents and children.

  7. 7

    like i said

  8. 8

    Gosh, I got excited there for a minute, I thought “finally, a well reasoned reply, a rebuttal, a challenge.” Dennis, do you ever have a coherent thought that extends beyond 6 words?

  9. 9

    I should point out that with the public system that Ontario has, with all sorts of senior administrators at the school board level who have huge egos and a love of power and who do so little that is of any significance, teachers need a strong union. When we take choice out of the hands of parents, we take power out of their hands. So where does it go at that point? To the school boards? Inevitably. But that’s crazy. The unions exist to balance the distribution of power. So the school boards are part of the problem. We need a whole new system.

RSS Feed for this entry

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: