‘None of the Above’

Defiant teachers show they have had enough of NCLB regulations

By Amalia Oulahan

Monty Neill

Instead of watching students fill in test bubbles last school year, a few teachers around the country risked their jobs and career prospects by refusing to hand out standardized assessments. Their actions administered new life into a stirring antitesting movement. The real test, though, will be how the antitesting movement can harness the momentum generated by these actions.

Connecting local actions to build a strong national movement has proven difficult. To begin, every state has its own test and alternatives to testing. Another factor is the vulnerability of teachers in a fight against the district, a fight where public support might be limited at best.

It’s unlikely that NCLB-mandated standardized testing will inspire mass civil disobedience. Nonetheless, national organizers say individual acts of protest can expose the most pressing problems with standardized testing and inspire broader activism, perhaps coalitions across state borders.

“The actions and civil disobedience highlight the damage being caused to the kids,” said Monty Neill, deputy director of the antitesting organization FairTest.

United around this central problem, FairTest struggles to connect allies in all states.

“The success of each action depends on what can happen with the people around the particular teachers,” said Neill. “We don’t have the personnel in these localities.”

According to Neill, FairTest tries to support teacher boycotts without compromising its policy-related goals. But, despite this challenge, Neill says civil disobedience has unique potential to express the issue’s urgency. “When protests get media attention, it raises the signals in the public mind that some people feel so strongly about this they’re willing to risk their jobs,” said Neill.

David Wasserman, a teacher from Madison, Wis., is one educator who did just that. In October 2007, Wasserman boycotted the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) being given at Sennett Middle School. While he received support in an editorial from the Madison Capital Times, Wasserman eventually gave the WKCE to avoid being fired.

“Giving tests is not why I’m a teacher,” said Wasserman. “We’re taught to engage in best practice, and nowhere does that doctrine include this type of assessment. Long-term, over-generalized standardized knowledge or fact recall just doesn’t come up.”

Wasserman continues antitesting work in Wisconsin; he’s optimistic about the future.

“I know there will be many, many more people acting locally and nationally this fall,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see the government reaction, because we have a whole political leadership that’s overturning.”

In Seattle, veteran educator Carl Chew refused to administer a test he felt had a negative impact on his students. Chew boycotted the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) in April 2008 and was suspended from his middle school for the duration of the test. Unlike some younger teachers, Chew could take advantage of his life situation in his stand against the district.

“I’m 60, retired from my first job,” Chew said. “The idea that they could fire me was not a happy one. But, on the other hand, it wasn’t one I felt could mortally wound me.”

Chew was supported during his suspension through e-mails, letters, and phone calls from around the country and offers to strategize from the union. Yet Chew is left wondering about his boycott’s effectiveness and where all the attention will lead. 

“I think boycotts certainly could stop testing in its tracks, if teachers all decided to do what I did,” he said. “But, teachers are obviously dedicated people who do not want to be out of the classrooms taking an action that jeopardizes their careers, families, classes.”

Doug Ward, a North Carolina teacher, put his career in jeopardy when he carried out a boycott. Ward was fired by his rural school district for refusing to administer the state’s test for students with severe disabilities. He co-taught in a special education classroom at Cullowhee Valley School, a rural school in the mountainous section in southeastern North Carolina. Ward worked with severely disabled students for three years, and said his frustrations with mandated high-stakes tests included having to give a different test each year.

“I constantly dealt with issues of my kids being treated as second-class citizens because they have disabilities,” said Ward. “Everyone else from the state on down said, ‘That’s OK, we’ll just let those kids fail,’ and the bottom line is that my students were basically guaranteed to fail this specific test because it was way above their level.”

Ward, who described his boycott as “a lone wolf thing,” has secured a new teaching position on a Native American reservation near his former district. It’s a job where he’s been told to give exams without protest. Ward calls state administrative attitudes “black-and-white”: testing is the law, and the law must be followed. Ward is working around this attitude by connecting with local antitesting parent groups.

Despite consequences, Ward says he maintains his faith and continues advocating for the rights of students with severe disabilities. He and his co-teacher at Cullowhee Valley taught social justice history, and their students tied historic struggles to disability inclusion in their own school.

“The students were able, when exposed to texts and discussions about African Americans and 1930s Mississippi, and this year’s events in Jena, to connect that to how people with disabilities are segregated most of the time,” said Ward. “They learned that it was important to start a movement to get treated equally.”

When students in New York City decided to start their own movement by boycotting a May 2008 practice test for their state social studies exam to be given in June, school administrators cracked down. About 150 middle school students in the Bronx’s Intermediate School 318 handed in blank practice-test booklets and signed petitions. Their social studies teacher, Doug Avella, is now fighting for his job. Even after interrogation by school administration, students say their instructor did not instigate their action.

Sam Coleman, a founding member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators’ (NYCoRE) “Justice Not Just Tests” group, met the IS 318 students after the boycott.

“The students said this was something like the 23rd test they’d been given this year. They had projects to work on, and they felt this was absurd,” said Coleman. “They recognized what they learned was more important than the test.”

Urban students are strong advocates against testing, Coleman said, speculating that the school’s demographic — a student body of poor minority students — elicited the especially harsh reaction to the boycott.

NYCoRE is prepared to support more boycotts in New York City schools, Coleman said, adding that the group plans to put together a panel with Avella and his students sometime during the 2008-09 school year.

One problem with organizing IS 318 students is their teacher’s vulnerability.

“An educator refusing to give the test can be spun in the news, but high school students who explain why will be listened to,” Coleman said, adding that small numbers of educators boycotting can “get easily swept away” or go unnoticed.

In other areas, a few larger boycotts have demonstrated the effects of larger movements. Internationally, in May 2008, the British Columbia Teachers Federation voted to take job action against standardized testing in 2009. This unionized action has yet to play out, and its results could impact the U.S. antitesting movement in the next year.

In February 2008, teachers from DuPage County’s Carol Stream Elementary District 93 threatened to refuse testing their English language learning students. Their opposition came after Illinois discontinued an alternative test for students learning English, and received some media attention. However, this spring the teachers decided against boycotting, settling for a few provisions for English language learners, and gave the test to all students. Their agreement to give the test with some accommodations for English-learners can’t be seen as an endorsement of high-stakes testing as a cure-all to problems in public education.

Another U.S. educator used similar civil disobedience tactics this year to make a statement about curriculum in her classroom. Teacher Karen Salazar refused to use standardized curriculum at Jordan High School in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Despite school administrative orders, she taught what she calls “culturally-relevant material.” Her students, who she says are “exclusively black and brown,” read material including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and discussed local social conditions.

While Salazar’s action was not directly connected to testing, she relates to anti-testing advocates. “Either way, it’s an imposed curriculum that doesn’t speak to the needs of our students,” she said. “The standard curriculum, these tests, they’re really the same thing — devoid of humanity.”

Salazar is part of the teacher-activist group, The Association of Raza Educators (ARE), an organization of Latino/a teachers and allies working for community involvement and social justice teaching. Salazar’s protest also incorporated new media to spread the message and elicit support, including launching a wiki page and producing numerous YouTube broadcasts.

“Alternative media is so valuable. We write a press release, send it out through links and our listserv, and we’ll get thousands of clicks in one night,” said Jose Lara, an ARE organizer who worked with Salazar and her students. “We have worked with people in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, to share ideas and see what actions they’ve been doing. That’s how we’ve found other social justice educators will support us.”

Salazar said successful organizing comes from the grassroots.

“It’s important for people to network, but until we’re able to organize our own communities, we’re not able to organize in others,” she said, adding that in an ideal world students, parents, and community members would be the policy makers.

Salazar says her students are their own best advocates, and she’s committed to preventing “co-opting of their language,” and misuse of terms like “social justice” and “culturally-relevant” in education.

Beyond action taken in the classroom, protesters say that parents’ right to opt their children out of tests may be the most immediate way to fight standardized testing in schools. Although it is not possible to opt out in every state, antitesting activism is possible in every district.

Juanita Doyon is one Washington-state parent who has already joined the cause. When her children failed parts of the WASL exam, she began thinking about difficulties the test posed for students without the advantages her kids had. This concern launched her 20-years-ongoing antitesting activist career. She and another mother formed the activist group Mothers Against WASL, and Doyon even ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 2004 on an antitesting platform.

“My organization pushed for the right for parents to view the test and question the scores,” said Doyon. “We are looking at alternative ways of getting the diploma; we may start looking at schools that accept transcripts and award a diploma for a fee.”

When the WASL became a high school graduation requirement this year, Mothers Against WASL supported students held back after failing the test, and their increasingly outraged parents and teachers.

“I think all of the issues of teacher, parent, and student rights are connected,” said Doyon. “It’s centered around the control of curriculum. When we go to these standardized lessons, we lose our variety and the strength of our country. Eventually, we become standardized as people.”

Antitest organizing pre-sents a balancing act to everyone involved with education. U.S. teacher unions stay poised between “opposing” standardized testing and acting against it, despite their potential to be essential antitesting allies. Teachers boycott on behalf of their students, but often risk their jobs in the process. And parents, who boycotters say could end testing through opting students out of tests, have to consider the consequences, some substantial, if they decide to hold their children from taking high stakes tests.

Teachers’ acts of civil disobedience have drawn new attention to the mean-spirited, ineffective standards-tests-punish approach to improving academic achievement. Their acts stand as a challenge to teacher unions, parent organizations, teacher-parent coalitions, teacher social justice groups, students, and individuals of conscience to continue the momentum.

Amalia Oulahan is a third-year student at Northwestern University and a Rethinking Schools summer intern.