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Chicago Teachers Say No to High-Stakes Testing Madness

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Sometimes things get so crazy in our schools that classroom educators must use their "Teacher Voice" to restore sanity. That's what is happening in Chicago, where striking public school teachers are shouting "enough is enough" to test-driven school reform schemes. The strike is just the latest, and loudest, example of the growing national resistance to failed, top-down, test-driven educational policies.

Remarkably, despite the severe disruption to the lives of Chicago families, more voters polled support the teachers than oppose them. Many parents share teachers' disgust at what a tsunami of testing has done to their children's school days. They are concerned about what has been washed away: things like art, music, phys ed and recess.
Across the nation, tens of thousands of parents, teachers, and school leaders are rising up to resist so-called reforms based on standardized exam misuse. From Texas to Long Island and Washington to Florida, people with first-hand knowledge of the damage being done to academic quality and equity are pushing back. They want out-of-touch politicians and their funders to stop doubling down on strategies that have not worked.

The Chicago strike is the tip of the iceberg of teacher frustration. They're fed up with policies that blame educators for problems largely caused by the impoverished settings in which their students live and the city's own misguided polices. "Accountability" is the rallying cry of so-called reformers like Mayor Emanual and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But instead of punishing front-line teachers, policy makers at the city, state and federal levels should be held accountable for their failures to create conditions in which all children can learn.

The attempt to improve Chicago schools through increased use of high-stakes tests over the past 20 years has been a colossal failure. The damage is worst in classrooms serving the city's neediest children. (In Chicago, 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.) Mayor Emanuel's scheme to evaluate classroom educators based on their students' test scores, a technique independent experts say is severely flawed, will make the situation worse. If history is a guide, it will mean more curricular narrowing, more test prep, and better teachers fleeing for the suburbs. Some will seek jobs in private schools like the ones Mayor Emanuel's children attend, the elite University of Chicago Lab School.

Several years ago, the Lab School's director, David Magill, wrote, "Physical education, world languages, libraries and the arts are not frills. They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education." To his credit, Magill sees what's going on around him and is dismayed. In a statement on the school's web site, he said, "Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current [Obama] administration."

Mayor Emanuel can't say nobody told him. In March, researchers from 16 universities around Chicago sent him an open letter, saying, "The new evaluation system for teachers and principals centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education of Chicago's children."

The world is watching Chicago and waiting to see the outcome of this high-stakes strike. Meanwhile, educators around the country along with parents, students, school board members, and others are using their teacher voices to try and move school policy in a new, better direction.

FairTest initiated the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing as a vehicle for this growing movement. The resolution was cosponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, and Chicago Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), among other groups. So far, more than 400 organizations and 12,000 individuals have endorsed it. If you are looking for change, add your name and your voice.

DISCLOSURE: FairTest has received funding from the National Education Association.