Refusing To Give A Standardized Test

Bill Ferriter, I think, writes one of the most thought-provoking blogs around on education. I’d really encourage you to subscribe to it if you haven’t already. A couple of his posts have prompted me to write ones of my own here, and now he’s done it again…

Bill writes about Carl Chew, the teacher in Washington state who recently was suspended for two weeks for refusing to give his students a standardized test. In his blog, The Tempered Radical, Bill makes a number of very good points questioning Mr. Chew’s decision. I won’t repeat a lot of what Bill says (his post is definitely worth reading), and agree with much of it.

I don’t believe, though, that his final comment that “teachers like Chew show disregard for the values of the communities that they serve” is either fair or accurate.

I’m a veteran of civil disobedience from my seven years in the Catholic Worker Movement prior to my community organizing career (which both preceded my move into public school teaching five years ago).  I can say from experience that what is often called “prophetic witness” or “speaking truth to power” is a key part of our democratic history. I’d certainly include Mr. Chew’s action in that tradition.

At the same time, I think civil disobedience (as I’ve described educational technology) has a place, but also has to be kept in its place.

I think performing civil disobedience outside of the context of a strategic campaign is indeed often, to use the words in Bill’s post, “arrogant” and “egocentric.”  At the risk of sounding too harsh, I think it’s much easier to refuse to give a standardized test then to do the day-to-day and face-to-face organizing of listening and agitating people to develop an effective campaign for more accurate and just student assessments.

From my knowledge and experience, historically, civil disobedience has only been effective in making social change when done as a specific tactic in a well-organized and thought-out campaign where many people have been involved in its planning (nothing I’ve read about Mr. Chew’s actions indicate it was in his case, but, of course, it is possible that I don’t have all the information).

Which is not to say that there have also been important times in history, and there will be additional important moments, when individuals just feel that it’s critical to their own conscience just to say “no.”

Do I think Mr. Chew’s actions were or will be effective in making any sort of change in how students are assessed anywhere?  No.  Do I think they were probably arrogant and egocentric? Yes.

Do I think his action showed disregard for his communities’ values?  Definitely not.  In fact,   I’d say they might have been an extraordinarily accurate representation of the best values in our community traditions.

18 thoughts on “Refusing To Give A Standardized Test

  1. Larry writes:
    At the risk of sounding too harsh, I think it’s much easier to refuse to give a standardized test then to do the day-to-day and face-to-face organizing of listening and agitating people to develop an effective campaign for more accurate and just student assessments.

    Hey Larry—-

    I’ve been wrestling in my own mind with this issue for the past few days and in one sentence, I think you summarized what I’ve been feeling.

    This is a great point—-If we, as educators, want to own our profession, it’s this “day-to-day, face-to-face” work that needs to stand at the forefront of our efforts. We’ve got to build credibility and relationships with the broader community first—-and use those relationships as levers for change.

    I think that work is often overlooked by some “teachers-as-activists”—-and it’s something that I personally advocate for all the time. When we work to make our ideas transparent to communities that inherently trust us, we have far greater potential to be influential.

    I’m not sure that teachers recognize the power that they have. People want to believe in us and are already inclined to trust us. If we use that “head start” to articulate a vision for what might be, we’d be more effective than we currently are at affecting change.

    Very cool—-thanks for clarifying my thinking.

  2. I guess context is everything. A teacher who has been having kids watch videos all year long, refusing to give the test is different than one who is teaching the standards, or remediating students diligently for the school year who then refuses to give the test.

    Also, the Seattle PI article makes him look thoughtful, but I take it from Bill’s blog that Mr. Chew has been proffering himself as a saint in other forums.

    Mr. Chew is on the face of it, no Rosa Parks. There is no larger movement, and no larger plan, but this is not the 1960s where actions died without a plan, a larger movement, and accompanying publicity. With almost instant communication, word spreads quickly, and Mr. Chew’s actions, limited in their scope and execution, may have a resonance they never would have gotten in the past.

  3. Alice,

    You point is well-taken about the potential impact of instant communication. It’s one I hadn’t thought of.

    More people may hear about it, though I still suspect that without any kind of organization or plan nothing will happen.

    I would be pleasantly surprised, though, if I was wrong (and it wouldn’t be the first or last time!).


  4. Unfortunately, teachers (especially elementary teachers who are expected to be more nurturing overall) tend to be people that went into their profession to do good by society. A big hunk of their “compensation” is feeling that they are doing a good job, and the main provider of that compensation are the parents and students … who then may pass on a good word to administration and then they also get kudos there too.

    Teachers therefore don’t want to be seen as “boat-rockers”, complainers, but more able to take things on … especially so to make up for the stigma of teachers as incompetents per “why our kids aren’t the envy of the world test-wise” … its the teachers and their union.

    I believe this is a big reason teachers don’t collaborate more and fight for what is right. That would go against the “be a good girl/boy” teachers (again especially elementary teachers) tend to bring with them from their own school experience. It would require people that have never been “activists”, but if anything quiet and compliant to go against their grain. Mention to a group of teachers about rallying against testing, NCLB, for better working conditions, money for supplies, programs, etc. … most eyes look concerned/stressed and the room slowly empties.

    AND … no matter which tact teachers take they are criticized. When I taught in California one year during contract negotiations at a school board meeting one of the members drew applause by pointing out that besides the union negotiators and a few others there were no teachers in attendance … “they don’t care about their own futures so why should we!?” The next year the board had to move the meeting to a high school gym to handle the hundreds of teachers that appeared … and the same school board member (again to applause and a negative article in the paper the next day) pointed out how the teachers show great concern when we are negotiating their contract … are they this concerned about teaching our kids!!!?

  5. Sent from iPhone. Please excuse typos I miss.
    This story is important. In response to Alice, there is no “larger movement” because teachers have sold out an refuse to stand together and DO anything. There have been plenty of people SAYING we need to do something. But who is willing to put their neck on the line and say “I’m not playing this game this year.” King, Parks, and even Ghandi had a little arrogance and egocentrism. They had to have to be effective.

    Alice may have the greatest point in that asnqord gets around maybe someone will rise up to lead this teacher revolution. Don’t count on the NEA or any other organization to do it though.

  6. Brian wrote:
    Unfortunately, teachers (especially elementary teachers who are expected to be more nurturing overall) tend to be people that went into their profession to do good by society

    Another interesting strand to this conversation to be sure, Brian…..

    A few years back, I read a bit on the types of people drawn to teaching and another defining/joining characteristic is that they tend to be people who value traditions. Change is not something that they necessarily seek because they respect the patterns of behavior that have formed the foundations of the organization.

    We also take great pride in what we do—and rightfully so because we pour our hearts into it. If any cliche about education is undeniable, it’s that we didn’t get into this profession for the $$$. We got into it because we wanted to help kids….and that’s what we do for long hours and low pay every day.

    None of those characteristics are inherently bad, but they can lead to a “blindness” towards the need to change or to adapt. We embrace what was and protect it rather than thinking differently about what could be because we:

    1. Succeeded in the “system” as it’s currently structured.
    2. Poured our absolute hearts and souls into the work we’re doing.

    The more this conversation runs through my mind, the more interesting it becomes. I’m really enjoying the thought that the personalities of people drawn to teaching really influences the way we’re perceived and our actions when challenged.


  7. You will not see the unions coming out against NCLB/ESEA for one reason, it’s a loser. It makes the unions (and teachers) look like they don’t give a darn if kids learn. So when recent renegotiations for ESEA came up, the argument was that single test was not an adequate measure, and that there needed to be full funding. I generally agree with this point of view, because I think we do need to attempt to assess what we are doing, but doing it with one high-stakes test seems ridiculous.

    Around the same time ESEA renegotiations were starting, Nebraska’s proposal to use a portfolio based assessment system was rejected by DOE. Then Democrats in Congress blinked in the face of changing ESEA, so we are where we started, and getting nowhere fast. My suggestion is find a group that you agree with (no testing, some testing, portfolio-based assessment, pro-national standards) and work with them. We all agree that what is in place now sucks, now we all need to figure out what we want to take it’s place.

  8. Bill wrote:

    None of those characteristics are inherently bad, but they can lead to a “blindness” towards the need to change or to adapt. We embrace what was and protect it rather than thinking differently about what could be because we:

    1. Succeeded in the “system” as it’s currently structured.
    2. Poured our absolute hearts and souls into the work we’re doing.

    Does this statement remind anyone of something else (some of) our teaching work force is struggling to grasp? I think the ways we are working to overcome the absence of technology in some classrooms is the way we have to go about this problem. Like Alice has stated, find the people you agree with and start networking.

    However, I don’t think walking out will ever be the answer. With limited knowledge of this incident I think about the students, who were going to be tested one way or another. Did this teacher make the right choice, further raising the stress levels of students, having them test with substitutes? Did anything this teacher do set them up for success?

    As educators I think we have the job of fostering an environment that sets our students up for success no matter what the tools for measuring that success might be. Would Mr. Chew have done this for any other assessment he might not agree with? What about district level CRAs?

    Standing up for what you believe in is one thing, jeopardizing the success of an entire class is quite another.

  9. Great points. I appreciate your focus on community action and joint action. In my post on Chew I mention Rosa Parks, (I am a preschool teacher), I always make sure to teach my students that Rosa went to special training to learn civil disobedience strategies and that she was “waiting” for this time to come because she was ready. Although her stand was taken alone it was not taken independently.

  10. Brian, Ric, Bill, Alice, Steven, and J.M.,

    Thanks for expanding the conversation.

    The thought that the type of people that teaching attracts affects their willingness to push for change is an intriguing one. I have to reflect on that more, and do some analysis of how teachers compare to others whom I have been engaged with in my community organizing career.

    Also, in addition to finding the people we agree with and begin working with them, I think in order to be effective we also need to consider who the leaders or potential leaders are we want to work with and develop plans on how to build relationships with them and connect to their self-interests. If we don’t do that, we end up just getting who we can get instead of getting who we want.


  11. Hey, just in time, Eduwonkette (fast becoming a favorite of mine) has written about the accountability conundrum, and how the public (teachers, policy makers) prefer metrics (like test scores, to more authentic assessment (like portfolios). Check it out.

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  13. Wow guys, thanks for all the information here. I’m a new teacher… actually, I’m still a student teacher… I think that assessment and accountability are important aspects of this testing that needs to be kept, but there are obviously problems with the system. I do think though, that it is better than no accountability.

    I’d love to see a better system put into place, but there are flaws in every system. Portfolios are a great idea, but who is going to grade them and make sure they meet the standards? that is a lot of work. High stakes testing sucks. If the student has a bad day… But, at least from what I’ve seen, they get multiple chances to pass the test.

    The tests that we have now can easily be skewed, as teachers help students to get the correct answers. Having test administrators who are unbiased is expensive. Where would the funding come from.

    I’m very interested in this topic. I think it needs to be fixed, but how?

  14. Jason
    You must be at the high school level doing CASHEE if the students have multiple chances because at every other level each test is administered once a year. The tests are generally broken down into sections, and students have to finish each section in a sitting. If they have IEPs it may be broken down more because they are untimed, but you get the idea, it’s once a year, or bust (sometimes, bust for some kids).

    Portfolios have been tried and proposed for NCLB compliance out of Nebraska, but DOE said “nyet”. I think you would want to monitor the process, and audit it, but it seems a more fruitful direction to pursue then where we have been.

  15. I’m one of those who believe that portfolios are more authentic and accurate than a once-a-year standardized test. However, NCLB has been iffy on them and they are a huge amount of work. We use portfolios for our most limited English speakers rather than have them take the reading test. It requires a ton of hours from our teachers and we have a half time person who is focused completely on testing. The scoring is also fairly insane.

    In my opinion, we should create more authentic testing that is administered to 10% of students each year. You would never know if it would be your class or school so you would have to be prepared but we could implement testing that is more expensive if it were not given to all kids. (This makes sense at the elementary level where scores are not tied to children’s grades or promotion. At the high school level it might be different.)

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