Let's face it: America's public school system leaves much to be desired, even -- and perhaps especially -- after the George W. Bush-era efforts to improve it. Finally, the counterrevolution has begun and I'm on tenterhooks watching it unfurl.
More American parents and students are fed up with No Child Left Behind's reliance on multiple standardized tests to gauge everything from student improvement to teacher performance. Almost everything about NCLB's approach toward improving public schools has struck me as decidedly counterproductive, especially its overdependence on testing.
The rebels leading this counterrevolution (against an initial round of public school reform that led to NCLB) loosely define themselves as belonging to the opt-out movement, so-named because they allow their children to opt out of testing. Their reasons are many. They doubt whether standardized tests accurately gauge student or teacher performance. They resent that, in many schools, tests are used for grade promotion or to qualify students for gifted and talented programs when other skills should be taken into account. They loathe the stresses these tests bring to students and teachers.
They fear that the influence of the powerful corporations that design the tests is overriding students' individualized educational needs. They see teachers being forced to narrow curriculae so that they focus almost exclusively on learning information and skills needed to pass exams. Classes designed to improve critical thinking, conceptualization, creativity and entrepreneurship get crowded out by the need to "teach to the test."
The Associated Press reported Sunday that parents across the country are choosing to opt out of standardized testing. The "Long Island opt-out info" Facebook page has more than 9,500 members. Many of them rallied last month in Port Jefferson Station, "after a group of principals called this year's state tests -- and their low scores -- a 'debacle.' "
The AP also reported that parents and students recently protested outside the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and that "students and teachers at a Seattle high school boycotted a standardized test, leading the district superintendent to declare that city high schools have the choice to deem it optional."
In Oregon, students organized a campaign persuading their peers to opt out of tests. In Providence, R.I., a group of students dressed like zombies and marched in front of the statehouse to protest a requirement that they must achieve a minimum score on a state test to graduate.
While I'm surprised it has taken so long to gel, this young movement's future is already in doubt for two reasons: First, NCLB requires each state to set its own learning standards. Each state also develops its own tests to measure student and teacher performance. But 95 percent of students must take the tests or districts risk losing federal support. If the movement grows too quickly and too many students opt out, school districts could go broke.
Second, since NCLB relies on different types of statewide data, NCLB's test tracking failed to produce national test-score gains. Nor was it able, on the basis of these data, to figure out how to close racial gaps in student scores. These failures led a second generation of school reformers to push for national standards, or what's referred to as Common Core Curriculum. Those common standards were adopted by almost all states. Common Core tests are due out next year and in 2015. School districts still will be required to meet the 95 percent testing quota.
Many parents don't even know they may have the ability to have their children opt out of testing and as more learn they do, the movement grows. At this critical juncture, and for the movement to continue to grow, supporters are meeting a grueling new burden head on. To eliminate the 95 percent quota, they are going to need to lobby Congress to change the law so school districts don't lose federal support.
Still, the desire is there and the movement is growing. Texas recently passed a law to reduce annual standardized tests for high school students from 15 to five. Like a rockslide rolling down a mountainside, watch the movement spread.
Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS' "To the Contrary," writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.