Resisting High-Stakes Tests

By Susan Ohanian

Calling high-stakes testing helpful to children is like calling airline food “bistro service.” Humor columnist Dave Barry provides the link from bistro service to high-stakes testing when he observes that the motto of the airline marketing people is, “When life hands you lemons, lie.”

I strongly believe that if we don’t resist the growing and incessant calls for high-stakes testing, we are part of the problem. I published an Honor Roll of Resistance in Phi Delta Kappan in January ( I’m happy to report it’s already time to offer an update.

  • Donald Perl, a middle school language arts teacher, told a packed news conference this January that he was refusing to administer the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). Of the 33,000 members of the Colorado Teachers Association, Perl, a 20-year veteran teacher, is the first to refuse to give the CSA

On Jan. 25, Perl gave his principal three weeks notice to find someone else to administer the tests. He was suspended without pay for the six days his students took the test. He insists this loss of pay is not too high a price to pay for professional honor. “Somebody had to stand up and say this is wrong,” he said.

  • Bruce Degi, an English teacher at Cherry Creek High School in Denver, resigned rather than give the CSAP.

In his fourth year of public school teaching after retiring from a 22-year career in the Air Force as an English professor at the Academy, Degi couldn’t stomach the business model of education the CSAP represents. “Perhaps I just taught Gandhi and Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. for too long,” he said. “I guess I actually started believing that when something is wrong, seriously wrong, you don’t compromise, you don’t quibble, you just say no. That, in a nutshell, is what I found myself having to do in the face of the CSAP.”

  • Silvio Manno, a teacher at Rowell Elementary in Fresno Calif., who received a one-day suspension for refusing to give the 1998 SAT-9 test required by the state education department, has not given the SAT-9 test in the succeeding years because parents have requested waivers that exempt their children from the tests.

Himself an Italian immigrant, Manno didn’t think it made sense to give a high-stakes test in English to second graders who still speak Spanish. As he told the Fresno Bee, “To challenge a student is one thing, but to put him in a situation where his failure is guaranteed, that’s a completely different situation.”

In 1999, the year after Manno’s refusal, 79,000 students were tested in Fresno. The district received 342 waiver requests, about one-third coming from Rowell Elementary. Since none of Manno’s students have shown up for the test, he has not given it.

  • Shirley Russell, retired after more than forty years in Northern California classrooms, has been thinking about the SAT-9 since she started teaching part-time last spring. Scheduled to administer the SAT-9 to her third graders this spring, she gave her administrator notice that she would not do so.

“I drove around for a year with a FairTest bumper sticker on my car. So how could I park my car out in front of the school and then walk in and administer the test?” Russell says.

Russell did not give the test, and she was not fired. (Shirley Russell is my sister, and I am proud of her!)

Teachers losing their jobs for refusing to give the test is a myth. A thorough Internet search did not turn up one such teacher. Alas, it also did not reveal many incidents of teacher refusal.


But look for big changes in Spring 2002. In a development in Massachusetts that could shake the power structure to the core, the presidents of the Brockton, Brookline, Lexington, Newton, and Quincy education associations, and the former president of the Natick association, have joined with the group New Democracy in calling for a Mass Refusal. It’s just as the name implies — a mass refusal of teachers to administer the MCAS (the Massachusetts state-mandated test) and the refusal of parents to allow their children to be tested.

The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test originally affected public school children in the fourth, eighth, and 10th grades. This year it has expanded to include the third, fifth, and sixth grades. Beginning this year, 10th graders have to pass MCAS to graduate. More than 40 percent failed this test in 2000.

The call for a Mass Refusal argues, in part, that the MCAS “is gutting school curricula, reducing education to a rigid pursuit of performance rather than thoughtful exploration of issues, and imposing a climate of fear. It will drive many students out of school without a diploma, as has already happened in Florida and Texas.” For more information: Dave Stratman, Editor, New Democracy (, 5 Burr St., Boston, MA 02130. Web site:

Susan Ohanian, a longtime New York teacher, writes about education. Her latest books are One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Heinemann 1999) and Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum (2001).