by John Spritzler

August, 1999

More and more public school students across the country are refusing to take the new "high stakes" standardized tests, and parents and educators are sharply criticizing these tests which will soon bar many deserving students from promotion or graduation. A boycott of the Michigan high stakes test has reached 90% in some school districts. In Virginia a school board member in Bedford formed a parents organization that has signed up 1000 people against the Virginia test. The New York City Board of Education had so many complaints from parents and principals about excessive testing that they canceled the second grade reading test. Wisconsin state legislators recently killed the new high school graduation test after being deluged with calls from parents threatening to hold them responsible if their child failed and could not graduate. In Chicago students at the Whitney Young High School intentionally failed the test and then organized a demonstration outside the Board of Education offices. (Chicago teacher George Schmidt, editor of Substance magazine, has been suspended without pay and is being sued by the Chicago school board for $1 million for publishing the Chicago high-stakes CASE test after it was administered.)

In Massachusetts the high-stakes test goes by the name "MCAS," the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Among those refusing to take the MCAS are 17 Cambridge public school students, including 12 honors students at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin school, where 200 students signed a petition against MCAS, and seven 10th graders at Danvers High School, where 58 students signed a petition against the test.

At Danvers High School the crackdown was swift and harsh. The Principal suspended all seven students for three days. School officials and town police falsely accused one of the seven students, Curt Doble, of making bomb threatsóa felony. Police went to Curt's home, told his mother to stop "hiding her son," barged in without showing a warrant, handcuffed Curt, jailed him overnight, and set bail at $10,000 cash. The next day a judge declared there was no evidence and no probable cause for arrest, and wondered out loud how the warrant was issued in the first place. But the prosecutor continues to press charges, even though the only "witness" is another student who signed a statement that she never heard Curt make any threat, nor did she ever tell anyone he had. (You can help Curt's family by sending a contribution to the Curtis Doble Defense Fund, c/o John Spritzler, PO Box 427, Boston, MA 02130.)


Students at Danvers High School who refused the MCAS and their parents confronted the Principal, Superintendent, and Assistant Superintendent after the students were suspended. The parents and students gave the administrators so much heat that the officials said that they would meet with only one family at a time. One parent, Gene Sommerfeld, reported, "I refused to sit down. I went in the room and told them that my son is not going to take the test when the next round begins on May 17. Why? Because now the father has learned from the son. I said I know my 16 year old son is just a piece of garbage in your eyes, but he's standing up to you and saying, 'I'm not going to take it.' I'm his father but I knew nothing about that test until my son went out and got a body of knowledge and educated me. My position has changed. Before I urged him to take the test but supported him when he refused. Now I urge him not to. MY SON WILL NOT TAKE THE TEST. The father didn't know. I've got a Ph.D. in chemistry, but it took a 16 year old boy to make me understand. No form of punishment is acceptable, not suspension, not alternative service, not anything else. He has done no wrong, he cannot be punished...."

When the Superintendent asked each child's parents if they would convince their child to take the MCAS, they all refused. The mother of the boy arrested for being a "bomber" told me that she has gained even more respect for her son than she had before, and sees him in a new light. She said one of the good things about this frightening experience is how it has brought people together with their children and with each other.


High stakes tests consist typically of a state-mandated 10th grade test students must pass in order to be able to graduate high school. They are called "high stakes" because a studentís entire high school career rides on this one test. If he or she fails the test, it doesnít matter whether heís gotten all "A"s in everything else and had perfect attendance, he still canít graduate. Similar tests are now being imposed in earlier grades as well, such as the 4th and 8th grades, as "gateway" tests; a child must pass them to advance to the next grade, no matter what the quality of his schoolwork.

High stakes tests are being imposed in state after state in the U.S. and around the world as part of corporate-led education reform. Countries in Latin America are being required by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to impose education reform and high stakes tests as a condition for continued loans. South Korea, Indonesia, and other Asian countries have embarked on similar testing programs.

These tests are educationally very destructive. The Chicago Assessment System Exam (CASE) which teacher George Schmidt exposed is a good example. The Social Studies and Literature portions of the exam are superficial and confusing; the Math portion tests students on mathematics far above the tenth grade level. The CASE test, in other words, is designed to drive the curriculum toward an education that is "a mile wide and an inch deep," and at the same time to force many students to flunk out of school.

High stakes testing is part of the overall attack on working people in our society. For the last 25 years workers in the U.S. and around the world have been subjected to lay-offs, speed-up, and other assaults designed to weaken peopleís resistance to elite power and to whip them into shape. One of the most sophisticated means of management control has been "management by stress" or "continual improvement." High stakes tests are a management strategy whereby young people and teachers continually have the bar raised that they have to jump over, the standards raised that they have to meet. In this way millions of young people are being set up for failure, and successful and unsuccessful students alike are being told that education consists of changing oneself to meet the needs of the corporations.

These tests are not an aberration from the official education reform movement but part and parcel of it. In state after state and many countries, education reform has consisted of virtually the same programs and is intended to achieve the same goals. Privatization, raising standards, "School to Work," School Based Management, assaults on teacher tenure, merit pay, and other programs are intended to make public education more stratified and more intensely competitive, and to force students to accept their places in a more unequal, less democratic society.

Open resistance to high stakes tests is an important development: it can be the first step in a movement uniting students, teachers, parents, and others against the corporate assault on public education and for a democratic society.


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