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The Brave New World of High-Stakes Testing

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In Aldous Huxley's classic novel Brave New World, he paints the bone-chilling picture of a dark future of oppression. Citizens are divided into castes at birth, their jobs and economic positions predetermined. The future of the individual is taken out of his or her control and thrust squarely into the hands of the establishment. Because of the volatile political environment at the time it was written, Huxley's book struck a chord with his contemporaries and now, in 2013, parts of it still seem all too relevant.

As we continue to see the impact high-stakes testing has had on our youth, especially youth of color, it's hard to say that lessons from this cautionary tale from the 1930s don't still apply today. In fact, the model currently used for standardized exams was first created by Frederick Kelly back in 1914, 18 years before Huxley ever put pen to paper.

Across the country today, our children's futures are being decided by this antiquated method of evaluation. From No Child Left Behind, to Race to the Top and now to the Common Core, standardized tests are becoming more and more high-stakes. Grade promotion and graduation are often dependent on test scores; teachers and administrators receive financial bonuses for high scores but can be reassigned or even fired for reporting low marks; schools are either shamed or commended through public rating systems; and more and more, schools are being closed or converted to charter schools because of unsatisfactory test results. Indeed, in the name of "accountability," a single negative performance can unfairly jeopardize a young person's education and career prospects, derail a teacher's career and put a Scarlet Letter on a school.

In cities and towns nationwide, students, teachers, parents, communities and others are banding together to say enough is enough. They are tired of seeing young people -- and especially students of color -- being deliberately pushed out to raise test scores. They are tired of racially biased assessments dictating their diplomas. They are tired of having the creativity sucked out of their curriculum and of having to follow unrealistic pacing guides. They are tired of always being on pins and needles wondering whether their school is next on the chopping block because of its low test scores. Frankly, they are tired of seeing an outdated model dictate every aspect of the modern education system.

So, they are taking action. In Seattle, teachers spearheaded a unified boycott of the state's test, leading to an unprecedented victory where teachers can now choose whether to use the assessment. Students in Chicago, in solidarity with teachers, unveiled 12,000 pencils in a protest to symbolize the number of hours students would have to devote to testing in the next school year. Students in Providence convinced adults to take the state's graduation test -- and many failed -- and led a "zombie march" to show the impact of a high-stakes testing graduation requirement. Members of local school boards in Texas signed a resolution declaring that standardized tests are strangling education and draining it of its vibrancy and excitement for learners. Parents and others in Texas and Minnesota successfully challenged pro-testing legislation. And students and parents in Denver, Portland, New York and countless other places gathered petitions and led "opt-out" campaigns.

While policymakers are systematically moving us toward the Aldous Huxley's dark vision, people on the ground are pushing back. Through coalitions and collaboration, there's a movement brewing and it's gaining steam. It's time we finally listened to these voices and ditched a system that was put in place before World War I. Now, that would truly be a brave new world.