In Austin, a spirited group of people on Friday joined a growing movement across the country to protest the dominant role that standardized testing is playing the country’s K-12 public education system. The protest, which began with a rally in front of the Texas state capital and after a short march ended at the Texas Education Agency building, was organized by Occupy Austin and supported by the local teachers’ union Education Austin and a number of education-oriented community groups. It included teachers, students, parents, and Occupy activists, some of whom are students, teachers, and/or parents.
Like other states, public education in Texas has narrowed the focus of its public education curriculum. Instead of providing a broad education that expands students’ horizons, encourages their curiosity and creativity, and eventually provides them with the intellectual tools that enable critical thinking, Texas public schools have become factories for teaching test-taking skills and enriching corporations that take advantage of new markets created by so-called education reformers.
“The problem with teaching to the tests,” said a young female teacher at Friday’s rally. “Is that (doing so) doesn’t encourage critical thinking. All teaching to the test does is show students how to fill in bubbles on a test sheet. It’s a human right to have free and appropriate education in which (children) have the ability to explore, to teach themselves, and to actually learn.”
She also criticized the way that the test taking culture that dominates public education has enriched a few private corporations at the expense of real education. “The State of Texas has a $500 million contract with Pearson, a London-based education company, to provide the state’s standardized tests,” she said. “If students fail the test, then they take a remedial course provided by Pearson, and if they fail the test again and can’t graduate from high school, then they can take the GED test, which is also provided by Pearson.”
Friday’s demonstration was not an isolated incident. More and more parents, educators, and students are becoming frustrated with standardized testing and business-backed education reforms that feature the greater use of standardized testing, more charter schools, and attacks on teachers.
In January, the Sacramento teachers union organized a gathering of more than 3,500 people from across the state to hear speakers who are looking for a new, more effective way of improving California’s public schools; one that limits the use of standardized tests, rejects the privatization of public education, and sees educators as partners in the movement for better public education rather than scapegoats.
Among the speakers at the event was the state’s education commissioner Tom Torlakson, who said that over testing distorts public education. According to Diane Ravitch, a professor of education history at New York University and a leading advocate for true education reform, Torlakson and California Governor Jerry Brown are trying to reverse the role that standardized testing is playing in California’s public schools.
Another speaker was Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. Darling-Hammond told the Sacramento gathering that real education reform depends on taking a broad approach that takes into consideration the social background where students come from. She pointed to Finland as a country that has taken education reform seriously.
“All children (in Finland) have housing and health care and pre-school. All go to schools that are well-resourced, with beautiful libraries. No children in Finland take external standardized tests,” Darling-Hammond said. “In Finland, they don’t allow their children to live in poverty.”
Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, also spoke at the gathering. Speaking of the advocates of standardized testing, Ravitch said that “they want to turn teachers into testing technicians.”
In a recent opinion column that appeared in the San Antonio Express, Ravitch said that none of the policies advocated by so-called school reformers, whether they be the increased use of standardized testing or more privately operated charter schools have any consistent body of evidence showing that they really improve education.
“The achievement gap begins before the first day of school,” Ravitch writes. “If we mean to provide equality of educational opportunity, we must level the playing field before the start of formal schooling. Otherwise, we’ll just be playing an eternal game of catch-up — and that’s a game we cannot win.”