Testing Assumptions

By Claudierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg, Tim Shea

Illustrator: Thea Gahr

The movement to liberate education from the “testocracy” is gaining momentum. In 2011, hundreds of New York State principals signed a letter protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. That same year, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoot, Occupy Education, led thousands of educators around the country to chant “We teach the 99 percent!” The victorious Chicago Teachers Union strike slowed standardized testing in the Windy City and fanned the embers of resistance to corporate education reform around the nation. Montgomery County, Maryland, school superintendent Joshua Starr announced a three-year moratorium on standardized testing, proving that districtwide secession from the testocracy is possible.

Then teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress, garnering international support. In the ensuing months, increasing numbers of parents opted their children out of tests, students walked out of high-stakes exams, and teachers led protests around the nation in an uprising dubbed “Education Spring.”

Education Spring has blossomed into the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. To tell the story, Rethinking Schools editorial associate Jesse Hagopian has edited More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket, December 2014) – a collection of essays, poems, interviews, and speeches by students, parents, teachers, administrators, and grassroots education activists. The book features a foreword by Diane Ravitch, an introduction by Alfie Kohn, and an afterword by Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au.

Rethinking Schools is pleased to share this preview with our readers.

Passersby in downtown Providence jumped, startled, as a ghoulish-looking crowd of young people turned the corner of Kennedy Plaza. Green skin sparkled, sunken eyes stared, and torn, “blood”-spattered clothes dragged as they shuffled down Westminster Street. The dreadful-looking young men and women gathered at the entrance to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), where, instead of battering down the door in search of brains, these zombies showed they had plenty already. One demonstrator stepped forward, megaphone in hand. “We are here to protest the use of high-stakes standardized testing, and the zombifying effects it is having on our state’s young people,” he proclaimed. “To base our whole education, our whole future, on a single test score is to take away our life—to make us undead. That’s why we’re here today, in front of the RIDE, as the zombies this policy will turn so many of us into. We’re here to say: No Education, No Life!”

Our organization, the Providence Student Union (PSU), has been organizing against high-stakes standardized testing in Rhode Island since 2012, when the state department of education began implementing a new testing-based graduation requirement. Students must score high enough on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) to receive a high school diploma, regardless of grade point average or other evidence of scholarly success. PSU members, although recognizing creativity was not an important skill for the test, nonetheless felt it might serve us in opposing the new graduation policy.

The youth-led PSU organizes around our mission: “to build the collective power of students across Providence to ensure youth have a real say in the decisions affecting their education.” Students have consistently agreed with supporters of high-stakes testing that it is time to raise expectations and standards in our schools. But we were outraged at the narrow-mindedness of those who believed that simply slapping a high-stakes standardized test onto the end of our 12 years in crumbling, underfunded schools was going to magically solve the poor educational outcomes for low-income districts like Providence. For us, it is an issue of equity—this policy disproportionately puts low-income students, students of color, students learning English, and students with disabilities at high risk of being denied a diploma.

In essence, high-stakes testing punishes individuals—youth!—for systemic failures. In doing so, it makes an implicit argument that educational challenges are not the result of larger economic or political problems but, rather, the fault of these kids who are too dumb to pass their NECAPs, and of their teachers, who are too lazy to teach them properly. In fact, students and their teachers are currently the only people in our state being held “accountable” for our education system’s failures. Not RIDE, which is in charge of setting education policy; not our school district, which has failed to create the engaging learning communities we need; and certainly not our state’s elected officials, who have consistently underfunded our schools and social services while cutting taxes for Rhode Island’s wealthiest citizens multiple times in the last decade. Arguably, the latter group is most responsible for the fact that 42,000 Rhode Island children, or about one in five of the state’s kids, live in poverty. Yet the logic of high-stakes testing implies that the ones to blame and to be punished for the failures of the system are the very people who are doing their best to teach and learn in difficult circumstances.

Even worse, this policy has vastly increased our schools’ obsessive focus on raising test scores, with disastrous results. RIDE has framed this as a good thing. “We’re finally giving students the extra supports they need to pass the tests,” the department has repeatedly claimed. But what this actually means is that friends of ours are getting pulled out of their classes to do “NECAP boot camp.”

Students Become The Walking Dead

Two PSU members had been talking all year about how much they loved their computer class and how useful it was. One day they came to our meeting with frowns—they had been taken out of that class and put into a test-prep class with all the other students who had scored “below proficient.” Other PSU members began arriving with more horror stories: time spent during history and gym classes on math remediation, interesting class projects replaced by test-prep computer modules, and on and on. Students most in need of engaging instruction and creative learning were being squeezed into narrower, less individualized, less active classes focused on test prep and basic math skills. In short, the scope and depth of our entire education were being sacrificed for the sake of correctly answering five to eight additional questions on the standardized math exams to get students across the pass line.

Rhode Island students are familiar with this story. But the average person—and especially the average elected official—in our state had no understanding of these concerns when we began our campaign in the winter of 2013. High-stakes testing is a complicated issue and, if people had heard of Rhode Island’s new policy at all, it was likely through the distorted clichŽ that “testing will raise standards, and we all agree we need higher standards.” Our organization knew we needed to correct this misperception by getting the matter on the public’s radar and changing the frame through which people saw the issue.

But how? We had already organized a “normal” rally at the R.I. State House (the usual kind of protest with a crowd and speeches) and spoken at a number of state board of education meetings, but we needed to get more creative if we really wanted to vault the issue into the public eye. Then we had our brainstorm.

We were having a conversation about what high-stakes testing does to students when PSU member Claudierre McKay mentioned that it basically turns students into test-taking, unthinking zombies. A collective light went on. We all agreed the zombie image was a perfect symbol for our message about how this policy undermines real student success; it was a metaphor we knew the public would be able to grasp quickly and easily. In addition, we knew zombies were hot—The Walking Dead had 16.1 million viewers for its season four premiere and became the most-watched drama series in basic cable history—and we figured that dressing up like zombies would be fun and attract students. So why not organize a zombie march against RIDE to demonstrate to the world exactly what we felt we were being turned into?

Countless amounts of talcum powder, red food coloring, corn syrup, eye shadow, and ripped shirts later, the protest was a big success. Students had a great time and we attracted a lot of local news coverage. After all, what reporter would want to miss the scoop “Zombies Converge on Downtown Providence?” In the following weeks, pundits turned their attention to the broader issue, and new organizational allies stepped forward.

However, our zombie action also brought increased pushback. RIDE officials began a talk show blitz and testing supporters published op-eds hawking the absolutism that anyone who was against high-stakes testing was against high standards. A number of commentators tried to discredit our activism, saying we should stop wasting our time with gimmicks and instead focus on studying. After all, if we weren’t so lazy and just did our work, we should be able to pass the NECAP.

Once again, we needed to reframe the conversation. PSU member Kelvis Hernandez was particularly upset by one adult commentator who showed his ignorance by claiming that students should be able to pass the test easily. “If they think it’s so easy, why don’t they take the test and see for themselves?” Kelvis demanded. A new idea was born: We decided to debunk the “high standards” messaging by pointing out what this test actually measures, what it misses, and how “easy” the test is.

Successful Adults Capped by NECAP

After the success of the zombie action, we knew we could get attention using untraditional tactics. The plan for the “Take the Test” event was simple: get as many successful adults as possible to take the NECAP. Of course, we encountered some complications. First, it is illegal to have an actual copy of the NECAP, so we created a mock exam using the questions RIDE releases every year. We did our best to approximate the same ratio terms of content, format, and “depth of knowledge” questions as the real test.

Second, we found that our biggest detractors were least willing to risk failure by taking the test. Every member of the Rhode Island Board of Regents who had voted for the testing policy declined to participate in the event, as did the director of the state’s Teach For America and the spokesperson for Rhode Island Democrats for Education Reform. When asked, R.I. Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist responded that, since she has a doctorate and has taken many tests, she did not feel the need to prove herself to anyone. (It is worth pointing out that PhD candidates are primarily evaluated with performance-based assessments; they are required to be able to think and do, rather than fill in bubbles.) Fortunately, there were lots of other people who did have the courage to put themselves in students’ shoes. After several weeks of outreach to all the elected officials and successful professionals we could think of, we had a respectable group of test-takers.

We assembled a very brainy, well-dressed crowd in the basement of Providence’s historic Knight Memorial Library. Our accomplished group of about 50 volunteers included state representatives, state senators, city council members, senior aides to the mayor of Providence, accomplished attorneys, directors of major nonprofits, Ivy League professors, a former Democratic nominee for governor, an NBC news anchor, and a scientist or two.

A buzz of anxious conversation filled the room until a group of youth stood up to collect the adults’ attention. The students quieted the crowd, read instructions, and distributed test booklets and answer sheets. At last, PSU member Monique Taylor announced: “You have one hour to complete the first section. You may begin now.” Pencils up, heads down, they started filling in bubbles.

As you might imagine, this event quickly became a media sensation. The next day, newspapers were filled with pictures of the confused and frustrated adult test-takers struggling over their mock exams. When we called a press conference to announce the results of the graded tests a week later, every outlet in the state showed up to hear the outcome. They wanted to know: how many passed?

The results? Of the 50 successful, talented professionals who participated, 30—a full 60 percent—did not score high enough on the mock exam to graduate under Rhode Island’s high-stakes testing graduation requirement! The fable of the necessity of standardized tests to produce a “career ready” populace had been vanquished. As it turns out, test questions don’t measure the constellation of skills, knowledge, and attitudes it takes to succeed in the world.

Of course, the NECAP didn’t disappear right away, so we are still organizing against high-stakes testing in Rhode Island. But we have had some important and lasting successes. In the blink of an eye, a great deal of the framing around this issue changed. We made it difficult for RIDE and its allies to argue students needed to pass the test to be successful in life, when so many clearly successful people had just failed it. It became easier to break through the shallow “they don’t want high standards” frame, and to point out the arbitrariness of holding a high school diploma hostage to a single standardized assessment. And it taught our 50 volunteer test-takers valuable lessons, too, creating many new, important allies. Many of these elected officials subsequently were key to persuading the state’s general assembly to pass a resolution condemning the testing graduation requirement.

Since these actions, students have kept up the pressure. We held a major public forum on alternatives to high-stakes testing, led a sit-in at the department of education, met with Rhode Island’s governor, and more. Through it all, we in the PSU have been inspired by the acts of testing resistance around the country, from Seattle to Portland to Chicago to New York and everywhere in between. These actions gave us the courage to raise our expectations, and we now feel part of an emerging national movement. We hope our story will inspire others to speak out for just, student-centered educational transformations.


In June 2014, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation placing a three-year moratorium on the use of standardized testing as a graduation requirement. During the debate on the floor prior to voting, many legislators explained that it was students’ activism that changed their thinking on the issue. Members of the PSU—who have been working toward this for years—are excited. But there’s no time to rest; we still have lots more work to do to ensure all students in Rhode Island receive the education they deserve.  

Claudierre McKay was a senior at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, and an executive board member of the Providence Student Union (PSU) when this article was written. He is currently a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Aaron Regunberg is executive director of the PSU.

Tim Shea was also a senior at Classical High and a member of the PSU citywide leadership team. He is currently a student at Harvard University.

Illustrator Thea Gahr’s work can be found at justseeds.org.