What If We Had a Test and Nobody Took It?

In a rational world, the public school test prep season wouldn't heat up during the winter and the first of April wouldn't signify the beginning of the high-stakes test marathon, and the end of learning during the last quarter of the school year. Before NCLB, testing didn't distort instruction and it was done in the last couple of weeks of May. Now, for weeks after almost all students and teachers have completed their roles in the ordeal, testing make-up sessions disrupt school.


Testing drags on for so long for the same reason why so test prep is mandated. When stakes are attached to assessments, a cat and mouse game results. Schools seek quick and easy fixes to make accountability numbers look better and systems respond by tightening regulations. So, under-the-gun schools are required to test 95% of students or face sanctions. That is why teaching, learning, the completion of classroom projects, field trips, and the celebration of sharing the school year must take a backseat to rounding up the last test-takers.

The arcane 95% rule could be crucial in defeating test and punish malpractice, however. If only a student or two per class refuses to be tested, the entire school's results could be thrown out. And, the Buffalo News's Barbara O'Brien reports that up to 30,000 New York students may opt out of state tests. This boycott will prevent many districts from meeting their threshold. In one district, 28% of 8th graders refused to take the test. In another, there was a fourfold increase of opt-outers.

District administrators have a right to be alarmed, but there is no need for them to panic. One warned of the potential for the state to withhold aid, but the government can't crack down on everyone. This administrator sounded like a dog growling while backing off, "It will likely have an impact on individual teacher evaluations, building and district standing in the accountability system."

Of course there will be such effects in New York and elsewhere. Those value-added evaluations will become more legally unsustainable, and that is all to the good. School and district "report cards" will become even more ridiculous.

O'Brien notes that parents usually warned schools in advance of their refusal to let their children be tested. Sometimes, however, students just showed up on test day and refused to take the tests. And that points to our secret weapon. Previously, adults have mostly been too fearful to resist the testing steamroller, but the parents' boycott movement has taken off. Now, fed-up students are recognizing their power, as well as their moral authority.

If a very few students in every school took a stand, even the most determined advocates of test-driven accountability would know that they couldn't reach the threshold. They could waive the 95% rule, but that would not solve their problem. Test-driven metrics began as dubious measures and as they capture a smaller percentage of the entire student body, they become even more questionable. As the tested student population shrinks, punitive actions such as firing teachers, closing schools, and punishing students become more vulnerable to political and legal pushback.

Here's what I believe the endgame will look like. Students will ask each other how they feel about the way that they were deprived of a holistic and respectful education. They will think of their friends who are increasingly on the streets without a high school diploma because students are collateral damage in an assault on their teachers. Teens, especially, will realize that each one of them has the power to throw a wrench into corporate reform. High schoolers will see that they can now fight back against the cruel regime that caused their 3rd grade brothers and sisters to break into tears or, even, vomit on their tests. The result will be the 21st century version of the "Monkey Wrench Gang!"

Systems might withhold money for a few weeks or months, but that would just be a stepping into the anti-testing punch. The anger of parents, who are upset with time lost to testing, will boil over. Systems will have no choice but to make concessions to reality. Backing down on the 95% rule will just be a first step, however. The system will have inadvertently taught students the wrong -or should I say - the right lesson. As citizens of a democracy, they have the real power.

I have often fretted over what we teachers failed to do in a timely manner. Why did we not fight back? But, our big mistake was overlooking the moral power of our students. We should be proud that more and more of them are asking the question of What If We Had a Test and Nobody Took It?