For the most part, 18-year-old James O'Rourke believes in the system. The senior at East Chapel Hill High leaves little doubt as to his future political aspirations. "I love Washington," says O'Rourke, sitting on a wire metal bench outside of his school. The sparks in his eyes are conspicuous. "It's something about the energy there," he explains, noting his desire to "have the power to change things and make life better for everyday Americans." O'Rourke is already planning to run for local school board when he turns 21, and then ultimately represent North Carolina in some capacity in our nation's capital.
However, though he believes in the system, O'Rourke is certainly not afraid to buck it. As a junior last May--while the test-heavy Bush education plan was gaining bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill--O'Rourke helped organize a widely publicized school protest where over 40 classmates refused to take a field test for the state exit exam that will be required for high school graduation starting with the class of 2005. Field tests are commonly used by the state as trials for the development of later exams. Many of the juniors flipped the tests face-down on their desks at the beginning of the four-hour exam. Hundreds of their schoolmates showed solidarity by signing a petition against "high-stakes" testing, or tests used to make critical decisions about a student's worthiness for promotion or graduation.
"The protest showed that we're not going to just stand by and let all of these important decisions be made about our education without us having a say," says O'Rourke. "We do have a voice and we're going to use it."
O'Rourke is not alone. Despite the recent promotion and passage of President Bush's Elementary and Secondary Education Act--which mandates testing every public school student in grades three though eight annually in reading and math and at least once in grades 10 through 12 by the 2005--06 school year--many critics of North Carolina's nationally recognized testing program are having their say. Over the past year, students, teachers, parents, high-ranking school officials and even psychologists have spoken out or organized against what many feel is the state's obsession with educational testing. A number have written position papers or adopted resolutions decrying both the harmful effects and increasing use of high-stakes tests in the state's public schools.
O'Rourke's student organization, TINTA or Testing is Not The Answer, is engaged in an ongoing campaign to educate and inform students and other citizens across the state of the negative impact of such tests on education. An offshoot of student government formed in the aftermath of the protest, TINTA uses e-mail, flyers and word of mouth to promote a shift in the focus of education from testing back to teaching. The group, which meets weekly, has sent out more than 300 brochures to other high schools, legislators and the State Board of Education. However, these students will not have to flip any tests this May since they were not chosen by the state as a site for field tests.
"I thought that was kind of funny," chuckles Bob Brogden, one of O'Rourke's teachers at East Chapel Hill High. He believes that the state may have avoided the school because of the protests last year. Like O'Rourke, Brogden is an outspoken critic of current testing policies who feels that more people need to voice their disdain with the program. "It's all about training kids to fit what corporate America wants," he says, noting how the tests are draining the creativity and innovation out of students and teachers while promoting conformity. "Instead of the standardized testing industry being set up to feed the needs of education, education is being set up to feed the needs of the standardized testing industry." Fortunately, continues Brogden, "there are kids like O'Rourke who can see through all of this."
Regarding the Bush education package, O'Rourke and Brogden both feel that, for the most part, it doesn't change much in a state that had already implemented many of the testing requirements specified in the legislation.
"North Carolina and Texas are the models that this legislation was based on," points out Sheria Reid, director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center. The former high school English teacher feels "it is inappropriate to use any standardized tests for promotion or retention. There's a place for such tests, but they should only measure minimal skills." A quality system of accountability, says Reid, should take into account a student's body of work over a period of time, their grades, hands-on abilities and their diverse background--elements often unaccounted for by the state. "It's scary," adds Reid, "that the entire nation is following our lead."
State education leaders see it differently.
"Though we continue to want to work with those segments of the community that oppose our policies, our commitment to high standards is going to remain firm because it serves the best interest of our students," says state Superintendent Mike Ward. He cites a recent opinion poll done by the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism before maintaining that "North Carolinians are generally supportive of our system of accountability."
Given the state's vested interest in maintaining its image as a model of educational reform--an image stroked by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in his recent visit to Duke University--the high-stakes label applies not only to these much-debated tests, but to the ongoing battle between North Carolina's educational establishment and those critical of its testing policies. If these opponents are successful in stemming the tide of standardized testing here, the ripple effects could be felt across the nation.
Even so, for O'Rourke, the current fight is more basic than that.
"It's about education, not standardization," says O'Rourke, reiterating one of TINTA's chosen mottoes. Although the college-bound senior will not be directly affected by the exit exam since he'll graduate before it's implemented, he sums up its impact. "I have two brothers that will have to pass it to graduate, and that scares me to death," says O'Rourke. "It's not that I think they won't pass it, but it's the fact that their entire education since kindergarten is going to depend on a two-hour test."
That, adds O'Rourke, is "not only inappropriate, it's absolutely ridiculous."
Judging from the activities of the past year, there are many in the state who agree. Last spring, a position statement issued by the North Carolina School Psychology Association highlighted what these medical professionals felt was the damaging impact of high-takes exams on students across the state. The organization recommended that the State Board of Education suspend these accountability measures since using such test results "to make major decisions about individual students is not adequately validated and will cause serious harm to North Carolina's most vulnerable students."
Within the months following the student protest by O'Rourke and his classmates, a number of school districts and Parent-Teacher Associations--including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District and PTAs at Y.E. Smith, Burton and E.K. Powe elementary schools in Durham--passed similar resolutions and position papers identifying substantial problems with the state's testing policies. Due, in large part, to such dissent, the N.C. General Assembly passed a Fair Testing Provision in their September budget package. Among other things, the provision stipulates that test results should not be used as the sole criterion for judging whether a child is promoted or retained and orders that a joint legislative committee examine whether the state's students are taking too many standardized tests. The committee's work is ongoing.
A month after the new legislation was adopted, the results of an independent audit of North Carolina's testing program conducted by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) were released. The audit had been prompted by costly state scoring errors on the math end-of-grade test given in the spring. The report concluded that the testing program was plagued by inadequate staffing, resources and coordination at the state level. Dr. Jim Watts, vice-president of SREB and a former member of the Education Research Staff at the General Assembly, subsequently characterized the development of the high school exit exam as a "train wreck about to happen." Watts felt that giving such a test on a single day would result in a high rate of failure, either prompting widespread litigation or the lowering of the passing mark to a level that would defeat the purpose of having standards.
In February of this year, the superintendents of the state's two largest school systems--Wake County's Bill McNeal and Charlotte-Mecklenberg's Eric Smith--also voiced concerns about the exit exam. Both encouraged the state to reconsider its implementation because of its potential for narrowing curriculums to tested subjects and increasing dropout rates. According to a recent study done by The Charlotte Observer, in 1999--the year that the current testing program was fully implemented --- the number of high school dropouts jumped 32 percent statewide.
Three weeks ago, at its annual convention in Winston-Salem, the North Carolina Association of Educators announced that it wants "crucial modifications" to the state's testing policies. Stressing that test scores are being over-emphasized, the teachers' association has collected thousands of signatures from teachers across the state who feel they should have more input in assessing student performance.
With this year's end-of-grade exams a little more than a month away, such anti-testing sentiment is showing no signs of subsiding. There are now more than 20 parent, student and educator groups critical of current testing policies statewide, with almost half of them based in the Triangle. Many of these organizations are coordinating their efforts, as exemplified by the H.U.G. Resolution currently circulating among them. The resolution demands that public education leaders "stop forcing our schools to use high-stakes testing as a criterion for promotion or graduation." It pushes the state to: 1) Help children before they fail (via timely and ongoing remediation); 2) Use a fair test for all students (one that appropriately accounts for the unique situations of Spanish-speaking and special education students); and 3) Guarantee certified and competent teachers for students. A recent study by Duke University's Sanford Institute of Public Policy reveals that minority students in North Carolina are far more likely to be taught by a novice teacher than their white peers.
Along with such efforts, Reid feels that parents "need to be calling, e-mailing and writing their school boards and legislators to express their concerns over what this program does to our children."
O'Rourke believes the same applies to students, especially since they are "affected the most and consulted the least. We need to be involved and use our unique voice in Raleigh."
Plans are also underway for a "Week of Protest" in May. A number of organizations critical of testing in 10 North Carolina cities have agreed to participate thus far, with more expected to join over the next month. The groups will engage in some form of weeklong protest that could range from picketing school board meetings to holding rallies and town forums.
"There's a lot of support from parents and various organizations for our position," says Clarice Dial, an active member of Parents United for Fair Testing. The grassroots and statewide parent organization, which is based in Raleigh, has been critical of the consequences attached to high-stakes exams and the stress they cause. Dial, who has two kids in the Wake County School system, suggests that kids would be much better off "if all of the money, energy and time being spent on testing could be focused on reducing class size and training better teachers."
Given that the state recently added an additional field test in third grade reading--meaning more test time for students--such protests and dissent are bound to increase. But regardless of the state's actions and the direction of the Bush legislation, Dial doesn't lose sight of who's in charge.
"We've got a lot of committed parents," she says, noting the steadily growing movement against high-stakes testing across the state. "And ultimately," adds Dial, "the schools have got to answer to us."
For more information on testing, parent/student groups and upcoming events, call Daniella Cook at the Common Sense Foundation at (919) 821-9270.