Standardized Testing:
High-Stakes for Students and for
Corporate Bottom Lines

by Bhawin Suchak

Parents and educators across the country are alarmed about the negative effects of high-stakes standardized testing on children and on schools. But few focus on the other impacts of this national plague - standardized testing is a hugely profitable enterprise, and it is the corporate bottom line that is driving public education policy today.

High-stakes testing not only harms children by reducing their worth to single test scores, but also directly threatens the core principles of public education. The line between public and private decision-making is being blurred beyond recognition by a maze of quasi-private "education-reform" groups with direct ties to big corporations. This alliance of interests has succeeded in using its power and money to influence policy reports, and promote a number of pro-testing political resolutions.

All this comes to a boil as our nation's schools stand on the brink of the largest high-stakes testing experiment in history. In June, Congress overwhelmingly passed President George W. Bush's highly touted education reform bill, which is expected to officially pass into law late this summer. The legislation calls for states to introduce mandatory standardized testing in math and reading for all children in grades three through eight by 2003, and penalizes "under-performing" schools by closing them or turning them into for-profit charter school operations.

At the same time, ironically, President Bush's home state of Texas is providing the clearest indicators yet of the dangers of high-stakes standardized testing. Research by leading educators shows that higher state-wide test scores have come as the result of an intensive "teach to the test" curriculum and the fact that those who would have scored low never took the test. Low income and minority students are suffering the most, they say.

According to mainstream media portrayals, the push for more testing is a grassroots effort to improve academics through higher standards. In actuality, it is teachers and parents who are most resistant to the president's plan and similar plans already in place in many states.

When finally in place, the Bush testing mandates will represent the pinnacle of a decade-long "education-reform" campaign orchestrated by a cabal of corporate executives, self-serving politicians, testing companies and public policy pundits determined to control and profit from public schooling. Public schooling is part of a $600 billion education industry, and privatization has long been the ultimate goal of this organized effort. The powerful coalition that advocates high-stakes testing, vouchers and charter schools envisions the eventual turnover of public schools into the hands of corporate contractors. Thus far, they have succeeded in veiling their true motives behind the banners of "higher standards" and "accountability," altruistically calling for higher levels of achievement for all students and schools.

In the process of raising standards and establishing testing programs nationwide, this new, so-called "reform movement" destroys any decision-making power still held by citizens and local school boards, replacing the democratic ideals of public education with the code of corporate rule.

The Education Industrial Complex

The origins of today's drive toward a system of high-stakes standardized testing can be traced back to the release of A Nation At Risk in 1983. The landmark report, issued by the Reagan Administration's Commission on Excellence in Education, exaggerated the demise of the nation's schools with fiery rhetoric and alarming facts. "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," the report warned, "we might have well viewed it as an act of war." SAT scores were plunging, the US ranked last among industrial nations in seven out of nineteen unspecified "academic tests," and drastic declines in math, English, reading and science scores were reported. The commission proceeded to issue an ambitious set of recommendations. Central to the proposals was a call for increased and more rigorous standardized testing to ensure children were progressing academically.

With such expert opinion behind them, so-called education reformists and testing companies clamored to get in on the action. In 1988 Carnegie Corporation protégé Marc Tucker, a strong proponent of high-stakes standardized testing, formed the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). This new organization boasted among its trustees Hillary Clinton, David Rockefeller and Richard Mills, who would become New York State's education commissioner. Almost instantly the NCEE became the most influential private education reform organization in America.

By 1992, NCEE's national testing experiment, known as the New Standards Project, was being used in eighteen states and six of the largest school districts in the country. That year Tucker's testing manifesto, Toward National Standards: Measuring Up America, was greeted with applause by the nation's education crusaders. In the book's opening chapter Tucker lays out the twisted rationale behind what had become the latest educational trend to sweep the nation:

If as some thoughtful people have suggested recently, our schools are actually test-preparation organizations, then the current movement toward national standards and examination may turn out to be the most powerful reform strategy we have.

Apparently Tucker was on to something. Within a few years, Education Week (July 13, 1994) was reporting that states were paying up to $500,000 annually to be members of his New Standards Project, which featured a strong "internationally benchmarked" testing program. Although the project never grew larger than its initial group of participants, it opened the floodgates for corporate-sponsored educational programs in the nation's public schools.

The New American Schools Development Corporation made the next major incursion into the growing education industry. David Kearns founded the organization in 1991, while he was deputy secretary of education during the elder Bush's presidential reign. New American Schools (NAS) was a purposeful effort to funnel federal taxpayer money into private educational endeavors. Besides being backed by a veritable who's who of corporate America, New American Schools received millions from Congress. Its mission was to "provide districts across America with comprehensive school reform approaches." These "reform approaches" were actually complete curriculum packages that overhauled the way schools functioned. Each came equipped with its own exclusively devised standards, along with the correlating textbooks, testing programs and teaching methods to ensure they were met. According to the latest New American Schools brochure, over 3,500 schools across the country have now adopted one or more of these packages, commonly referred to as "design teams."

New avenues of profit were rapidly opening up in public schools. The market for tests was steadily growing, as millions of dollars were made off the surge in standardized testing schemes. In the early nineties, private education reform initiatives partnered with testing industry giants such as Harcourt Brace and McGraw-Hill. These joint ventures became the "design teams" being pawned by New American Schools to districts nationwide. Cathy Jackson, former Editor-in-Chief of McGraw Hill's K-12 publishing division, is now CEO of the Modern Red School House design team. America's Choice, an NCEE design team that was in essence an evolution of the New Standards Project, enlisted Harcourt Brace to publish the tests used in its curriculum plan.

Not surprisingly, the New American School design plans gaining the most acceptance are essentially the same: standards-based curriculums that emphasize increased testing. America's Choice is a prime example. Currently in place in 197 school districts across the nation, it features a curriculum that puts heavy emphasis on early literacy, math and a rigorous testing program. In Duval County, Florida, nearly every one of their 63 school districts is under contract with America's Choice, and local districts have paid the NCEE more than $6 million since implementation of the program in 1999. Two years later, The Florida Times Union (March 9, 2001) reported that the makeover has left many parents and teachers in Duval County feeling like their schools are being used as guinea pigs for a national testing program.

Strategies for initiating a national examination system coalesced in 1996 when governors from every state convened with forty-four of the country's top corporate CEOs for a national education summit. Hosted by IBM CEO Louis Gerstner (who five years earlier pitched in $1 million to help launch New American Schools), at the company's conference center in Palisades, New York, the closed meeting was a watershed event for the "education reform movement." Participants, conspicuously including the major players in the testing industry but no teachers, defined what curriculums should look like in public schools and mandated that every state implement definitive standardized testing programs. This gathering of political and private interests was also noteworthy for spawning the education policy powerhouse, Achieve.

Directed by a board of six governors and six corporate leaders hand picked at Palisades, Achieve used its authority to spread the standardized testing mantra across America. According to Achieve, in four short years since its founding the number of states that have instituted mandatory standardized tests rose from thirty-nine to forty-nine. In addition, forty-five states have adopted comprehensive standards in the four core subjects, up from just fourteen in 1996. Clearly, states across the country were laying the groundwork for the introduction of a national testing program.

In May 2001, Achieve announced that it was embarking on a $6 million project, the Mathematics Achievement Partnership, which aims to develop a nationally standardized eighth grade math test and curriculum package. Fourteen states have already signed on. After a year of fine tuning, Achieve's math examination system will be available to school districts nationwide in fall 2002 - just one year before President Bush's federally mandated testing plan takes effect.

Each backroom handshake strips more and more power from teachers, parents and school boards across the country. No longer are educators the experts in what to teach in America's classrooms, or how to assess student achievement and progress. Powerful corporate groups such as The Business Roundtable (BRt) and National Alliance of Business (NAB), along with Achieve, now shape the public education agenda. The people no longer trust educators, croon these self-appointed experts. Witness this statement found on the NAB website:

The business community is uniquely positioned to advocate for systematic education reform. When educators talk about standards, some people may think it is self-serving. When business leaders talk about them, the public understands that this is important for the future of the students and the long- term benefit of the economy.

In actuality, standards-based reform has been blatantly self-serving and extremely profitable for many business leaders. Test and textbook publishers, whose CEOs and directors have been heavily involved in education policy shifts, have continued to report record gain. According to Publisher's Weekly, McGraw-Hill's education group saw its earnings rise 14.9% in 2000 to a whopping $2.4 billion, while Harcourt Brace's educational division posted an even more phenomenal increase of 29.8%, finishing with $754.7 million in revenue last year. Combined, these two industry giants control nearly 80% of the U.S. testing market.

Many more of corporate America's usual suspects also stand to benefit heavily from this breed of education reform. Fortune Five Hundred companies such as Dupont, IBM and AT&T are now in the process of developing tools and programs for the schools of the future. Former Dupont CEO Kurt Landgraf now presides over the Educational Testing Service, makers of the SAT and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). ETS, a company that has traditionally been led by the nation's top educators, is turning to this proven corporate executive to dive headlong into the seemingly endless river of profits for test-makers. Landgraf proves his worth, diligently spreading the pro-testing agenda. In March 2001, he spoke in front of a House Education Reform Subcommittee, urging that its members ensure the passage of President Bush's national testing mandates. ETS stands to gain significantly as current holders of the only recognizable national exam series, the NAEP.

Another corporate bulldog emerging from the shadows of the Palisades summit was Edward Rust. In the years following the high-level conference, he has been the most tireless crusader for standards-based education reform. A former collegiate wrestling champ and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Rust quickly rose to prominence in the corporate world with his hard-nosed approach. According to Business Week (November 8, 1999), when his company, State Farm Insurance, was found guilty of fraud in five separate class action lawsuits between 1997 and 1999, Rust refused to admit any wrongdoing. Ordered to pay a total of $1.5 billion in damages, the State Farm executive didn't budge, instead vowing to appeal each and every case.

While his lawyers battled consumers in court, Rust was waging war on the freedom and autonomy of American public schools. He used an intricate web of powerful and prestigious groups to push for schools to embrace business principles of management, which include more hierarchical control and increased monitoring of performance. By the end of 1999, Rust was chairman of National Alliance of Business, chairman of the Business Roundtable's education task force, director of Achieve, director of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank that boasts education-reformer Lynne Cheney as one of its senior fellows), member of John Glenn's National Commission on Math and Science for the 21st Century, trustee of the Committee on Economic Development and director of Hemerlich & Payne, an oil industry heavyweight.

Over the years Rust would write several columns for the trade journal/mouthpiece of the reform movement, Education Week. One in particular, "Higher Standards, Stronger Tests: There's No Turning Back" (1/19/00), called on educators and business leaders to step up the effort to promote more rigorous testing, and encouraged states to participate in NAEP examinations as a way to ensure they were all on the same page. The piece takes on an urgent tone towards its close, as Rust writes, "The challenge is not to back down when the going gets toughwe know these are the right priorities."

"Changing goals and reversing course spells paralysis and inaction," he continues sternly. "Let's stay focused and moving forward. There can be no turning back." While Rust readily admits that he is not an education reform expert, it hasn't deterred him from leading the corporate rush to transform schools into veritable testing laboratories.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Rust's career in the education reform movement came earlier this year. On January 31, 2001, he was elected to the Board of Directors of McGraw-Hill, the most lucrative testing company in the world. Almost simultaneously, Rust was chosen to head the incoming Bush Administration's Transition Advisory Team on Education. Brushing aside any notion of conflict in interest, he testified in front of education subcommittees in Congress in February and March, endorsing Bush's national standardized testing bill. Passage of the legislation means a windfall of profits for the very testing industry of which he is now an integral part.

The Myth of the Texas Miracle

The sordid tale of how big business and political powers hijacked our once-democratic public education system has left many scratching their heads. The so-called "Texas Miracle," behind which President Bush rode into office, is a prime example of how the discussion about what does and doesn't work in schools has been effectively distorted. Upheld by business and political leaders from both sides as an unequivocal success, the "miracle" has been proven in a series of in-depth studies by respected educators to be nothing more than a myth.

The Texas Assessment of Academic Standards (TAAS), which was initially developed by NCEE and Harcourt Brace, is perhaps the crowning glory of President Bush's years as governor of Texas. The wide-ranging high-stakes standardized testing program was introduced in 1990 by Governor Ann Richards, and was expanded in 1995 when George Bush took over as state executive. By the time Bush left the governor's office for the White House six years later, TAAS had grown into a model for a national testing program. Students in grades three through eight are tested each year in reading, math and writing, while high schoolers are tested in tenth grade and held back until they pass the examinations. A recent study by the Education Trust, not so coincidentally commissioned by the pro-testing Business Roundtable, reiterated what "experts have been saying all along," that Texas' demanding testing initiative has been a huge success, "dramatically decreasing racial learning gaps and improving levels of achievement for all students."

But according to a mounting collection of voices, TAAS has exactly the opposite effect. Walter Haney, an educational researcher at Boston College, was the first to dismantle the successes of TAAS in a paper titled, "The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education." During his extensive research Haney discovered that thousands of "low achievers" had been siphoned off into special education classes and exempted from the tenth grade TAAS to boost the overall scores. Many of these students, primarily blacks and Hispanics, dropped out. Although Haney's research confirmed the rise of test scores throughout the nineties, he attributed them to the transformation of Texas's schools into test-prep factories that replaced real curriculums with content that will appear on the TAAS. Haney concluded his report by saying, "the Texas model is not one anyone should seek to emulate."

In 1999, a Civil Rights Project at Harvard University study criticized the high-stakes TAAS as a "ticket to nowhere that in poor minority schools has supplanted the opportunity for high quality, meaningful learning." Written by Linda McNeil, head of Rice University's education program, and Linda Valenzuela, an education scholar at the University of Texas, the report based its findings on an in-depth study of the effects of TAAS on students in the state's poorest urban school districts. Their findings showed that a TAAS-based curriculum resulted in cutting class time for subjects such as social studies and science. Teachers are forced by administrators to spend that time drilling students on math and reading questions that will appear on the tests. The pressure on teachers to produce results is enormous, with school funding and principals' bonuses increasingly tied to performance levels on the TAAS. As a result, a large portion of instruction at poorly performing schools consists of test-prep drills and commercially produced TAAS practice worksheets. Ultimately, Valenzuela and McNeil conclude, it is children that suffer most from the detrimental effects of TAAS.

The TAAS system of testing exerts a direct, negative impact on the curriculum - it masks the real problems of inequity that underlie the failure to adequately educate children. By shifting funds, public attention and scarce organizational and budgetary resources away from schools and into the coffers of test industry vendors, the futures of poor and minority children and the schools they attend are being compromised.

Accounts of the reputed successes and failures of the high-stakes TAAS system are part of a wider, ongoing battle between testing advocates and those who favor more sensible assessment approaches. This is a crucial debate, for it is clear now that the Texas model is a near replica of the testing program that President Bush and the corporate education collective are in the process of instituting nationwide.

There is mounting evidence that the rise in high-stakes testing is leading to a spike in dropout rates in cities across America. A recent report commissioned by the Chancellor of New York City schools, Harold Levy, projects that "optimistically" just forty percent of the city's class of 2001 will have graduated on time. According to FairTest, a group opposed to high-stakes testing, since the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) came into fruition three years ago, nearly 1,000 students a year, mostly minority, have left the Boston school system before graduating. When Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the state's Board of Education, was informed of FairTest's findings, she offered this chilling response: "Suppose the dropout rate goes up slightly, but the skills of the kids who stay become significantly stronger. We'll be better off."

The most startling high school dropout statistics continue to come from President Bush's home base, Texas. According to a Harvard University study conducted earlier this year, the state's six urban districts, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, El Paso, Austin and Houston (where our new Secretary of Education Rod Paige was formerly superintendent), rank among the worst in the country with less than half of all ninth graders graduating by their senior year.

Growing Resistance

As states across the nation continue to implement high-stakes testing initiatives a widespread rebellion is in progress. Teachers, parents and students are awakening to the fact that these standards-based programs have little to do with improving academic performance. In May 2001, thirty-five percent of students in one Marin County, California, high school and twenty-two percent in another, boycotted the annual Star 9 tests, which are produced by Harcourt Brace. In Scarsdale, New York, more than two-thirds of eighth graders in the district sat out the recently implemented state tests, which in New York are produced by McGraw-Hill. And nearly 2,000, mostly inner-city kids from across the state protested at the State Capitol in Albany, demanding a repeal of increased high-stakes testing being mandated by New York's commissioner of education (and former NCEE trustee) Richard Mills. By 2003, all high school seniors in New York will have to pass five separate exams to receive a diploma. Other recent demonstrations against testing took place in Seattle, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Tucson.

Through spirited grassroots organizing and internet networking, savvy groups like the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE) and Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS (SCAM) have fostered an extensive resistance movement against statewide testing agendas. Two years ago in Wisconsin, a $10.1 million plan by Governor Tommy Thompson to link grade promotion to a single test score was met with outrage by parents and teachers across the state. The protests were successful in convincing the state legislature to scrap the plan in favor of policies that use multiple criteria to evaluate student performance. Teachers in Florida protested Governor Jeb Bush's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) ranking system, which allotted cash incentives for teachers whose students performed well on the tests. Many teachers refused to accept the bonuses, saying that taking the money would imply complicity in the state's irrational high-stakes testing venture. In New York City, veteran fourth-grade teachers are opting to retire or asking for re-assignment to other grades. Many are saying that teaching to the high-stakes fourth-grade tests has replaced all previous methods of instruction, and test-prep books have basically become the curriculum. In addition, this year vocal opposition from parents, teachers and students, killed a frightening proposal in Ohio. The plan called for the use of the standardized Ohio Proficiency Test (OPT) to place students in one of four tracks starting in kindergarten!

In addition to the frontline backlash from parents and students, child health professionals are also speaking out in opposition to more testing. The Alliance for Childhood, a coalition of prominent psychiatrists, child development experts and educators, recently called on President Bush and Congress to "rethink the current rush to make American children take even more standardized tests." They cited growing evidence that "test-related stress is literally making many children sick." Among those voicing their concerns were respected child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, and Howard Gardner of Harvard University. "What started as a process to improve student learning has become an increasingly irrational high-stakes endeavor," said Gardner, the originator of the theory of multiple intelligences. "Politicians may show short-term gains, but students, teachers, and the learning process are becoming casualties."

Kozol, a frequent critic of such ill-advised education policies, added that standardized testing has "no effect at all except to make children terrified of school."

The growing anti-testing movement has not gone unnoticed by the corporate cadre of reform, and has been met with swift action. In April 2001, the Edward Rust-led Business Roundtable Task Force on Education released a report titled "Addressing and Assessing the Testing Backlash." The report, essentially a pro-testing propaganda piece, brushes off the protests and urges policymakers and education reformers "not to panic." Citing public opinion polls conducted by Public Agenda, an organization financed by the Business Roundtable, the report claims that "there continues to be widespread support for standards and testing," and advises proponents "not to back down on efforts to develop and implement these school improvement policies."

Two activist teachers who chose to take action against the high-stakes testing machine have been met with reactions more ferocious than pages of moralizing rhetoric. Susan Ohanian, a longtime seventh-grade teacher in rural Vermont and author of several books criticizing standardized testing, recently came under fire for allegedly mailing copies of a Gwinett County, Georgia, high-stakes exam to the news media. Sheriff's deputies from Gwinett County tracked her down to her farm in the Vermont countryside and demanded that she reveal the names of activist parents who sent her the original test. She is threatened with extradition for a felony, punishable by five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.

Veteran Chicago teacher and journalist George Schmidt also found out how far defenders of high-stakes testing will go. In January 1999, Schmidt published six of the pilot forms of the CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Examinations), after they had been administered, in Substance, a newspaper devoted exclusively to the city's education issues. He had hoped to inform parents about possible flaws in the tests their kids were forced to take, and to open a dialogue with school administrators on the matter. Days after the issue began circulating, Schmidt's twenty-nine distinguished years of teaching in the city's public schools came under fire. In August 2000, Schmidt was officially terminated and sued for $1.3 million, the supposed cost of reproducing the tests he had published. In its motion for a temporary restraining order and a writ of seizure against Schmidt and Substance, the school board wrote, "The newspaper and other materials already disseminated must be confiscated, even if it takes the US Marshals' going into every Chicago Public School teacher's home."

Clearly the battle lines have been drawn. Corporate elites, endorsed by both liberal and conservative politicians, have hijacked our public schools, turning them into oversized for-profit test preparation factories. While billionaire CEOs increase revenues, so-called leaders are blindly substituting "one-size-fits all" standardized testing plans for real improvements in school quality.

What little input communities previously had in the day-to-day operations of their local schools has been crushed by the noisy rhetoric of standards. Any influence that teachers had over what was taught in their classrooms has effectively been stripped away so they can "teach to the test." And saddest of all, our children are being used as guinea pigs in this grand high-stakes testing experiment.

As public awareness of this travesty widens, the voices of dissent are growing. Many are questioning the role of multinational corporations, and the testing industry in particular, in shaping the discourse of education reform. Citizens are refusing to allow their elected local and state officials to sell out to the highest bidders for their schools. An increasing number of parents, teachers, students and advocates for children are ready to challenge the giant.

Formerly a newspaper reporter, Bhawin Suchak is currently a teacher at the Albany Free School and a co-editor of JFL.

Sources

Unless otherwise indicated, material about institutions such as the National Center on Education and the Economy, The New American Schools Development Corporation, Achieve, the National Alliance of Business and Educational Testing Service, and about corporations such as Harcourt Brace and McGraw-Hill, is taken directly from their web sites. A full list of web sites used to research this article will be posted on JFLs website, www.jflmag.org.

Resistance on the web

The website for Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE) is at www.caremass.org. The Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS (SCAM) is at www.scam-mcas.org. Both sites have links to others concerned about state and national high-stakes testing.

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