Lessons from Chile: Annual Testing in Schools

Barak Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan reasserted this week their support for annual high stakes testing despite growing opposition from educators, researchers, parents, and students. While research evidence does not support current pro-choice and high stakes accountability reforms, their ideological appeal seems widespread. Perhaps we can learn from a country in which these neoliberal policies were imposed before they became prominent in the U.S.

Chile was ground zero for Milton Freidman's free market ideology under their dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s. In the U.S., both political parties have embraced neoliberalism since Ronald Reagan became president and Bill Clinton and other democrats abandoned Keynesian principals in the 1980s. Nowhere is this clearer than in education policy. The bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act resulted in No Child Left Behind, a policy that replaced equal educational opportunity with the "achievement gap" measured by high stakes tests. Precisely at a time when we needed social policies to address rising inequality, we narrowed our focus to education policy and shifted the emphasis from inputs and resources to outcomes and test scores.

The result of these education policies in Chile has been widespread protests by students, who are supported by parents who have been driven deep into debt by the high price of privatized education. More recently Chilean students are focusing on high stakes tests, arguing that they are lowering the quality of teaching and narrowing the curriculum. As is also the case in the U.S., these negative effects fall most heavily on the poor, who are the targets of these reforms. The neoliberal argument is that in order to have a market-based education system, parents and policymakers need these measures of quality in order to be effective consumers in a marketplace. In Chile, the national high stakes test is the SIMCE, which is applied in the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, and their results are published in the media.

While challenging the SIMCE is a long-term project, pressure on the government has resulted in a bill in congress to send test results to schools, but not make them publicly available. This would promote the idea that tests, at their best, are diagnostic tools for teachers and administrators, not indicators of school quality for consumers. Besides, everyone knows that a school's test scores are generally a proxy for the social class composition of the school.

A group of prestigious university researchers have signed a letter to the Chilean Department of Education, arguing against both high stakes tests and the publication of results in the media. While there are some concerns that the newly elected president, Michelle Bachelet, may be using the students' rhetoric as a way to co-opt the movement, the threat of massive demonstrations forces her to take their demands seriously.

While in the U.S. we are seeing promising signs of protest, including a significant parent opt-out movement against high stakes testing and petitions signed by teachers and principals, we do not yet have a movement that can counter the pervasiveness of neoliberals and their corporate funded think tanks.

On a promising note, Educator's professional associations are taking on high stakes testing from an evidence-based position that attempts to distinguish ideology from evidence. As high stakes testing has expanded from evaluating students to evaluating teachers, schools, and even teacher and administrator preparation programs, their design flaws and misuses have even experts in testing and measurement fuming. The American Statistical Association and The National Research Council have taken positions and provided guidelines. The American Educational Research Association is rolling out a position statement and guidelines in February focusing on the egregious misuses of value-added and growth models. As a consensus builds among educators at all levels that the net effect of high stakes testing is negative, we need to learn from other countries fighting these popular, but flawed education policies. After all, neoliberalism is a global phenomenon and needs to be countered locally and globally.