Florida Teachers Consider 'Civil Disobedience' To Say No To Testing

Nov 16, 2014

Miramar High School teacher David Ross says testing has taken more and more time away from teaching. He refused to administer an FCAT make-up exam in protest.
Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

In September, Alachua County kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles refused to give a state reading test.

She told the parents of her students it was an act of civil disobedience.  The Florida Department of Education later suspended the exam for this year.

Florida requires that most students are tested every year. Those results help determine which students graduate, ratings for public schools and teacher pay.

Supporters say Florida schools have improved since pioneering the use of tests. Testing forces schools to pay attention to every student’s progress.

Some teachers say they believe too many tests are bad for students. Around the state, students, parents, teachers, superintendents and school boards are discussing how to voice their opposition to testing.

But is the classroom the right place to raise those questions? Educators disagree about the best way for teachers to speak up.

TESTING DAYS INCREASING

Each year, Miramar High School American government and economics teacher David Ross counts the number of days students have to take a standardized test.

Two years ago he counted 67 days. Last year, it was 77 days. This year is on pace to be even more days, he says.

Ross has taught for more than three decades and is close to retiring. So when he was asked to administer an FCAT retake earlier this year, Ross decided he had enough.

He wrote an open letter and said no.

“My vehement opposition to the contemporary testing and accountability fixation," he wrote, "consequently, precludes me from administering this shameful and ignominious assault upon a bona fide and progressive education."

“I’m in the fortunate position that I’m nearing the end of my teaching career," Ross says, "and I felt this was my one opportunity to actually demonstrate my opposition to standardized testing.

"I would be so happy if others could follow suit.”

PROFESSIONAL CONSEQUENCES

Teachers' union leaders disagree. They say it's the union's job to oppose these policies so individual teachers don't have to.

"What we’ve said to teachers throughout is that this ultimately is a parents’ and a student decision,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

She says the union needs to help teachers tap their experience to tell parents why the current use of test results is bad for students.

Florida’s teacher’s union agrees and says teachers could have their state license revoked for refusing to administer a test.

Both unions say they need to get like-minded candidates elected.

“That’s why, as a union, we are being so out there and very public about what the impact of…this test-based fixation is in Florida," Weingarten says.

It's not just in Florida, where teachers are committing acts of civil disobedience regarding testing. Last year, Seattle teachers refused to give a local test they said produced meaningless results.

Teachers also have often been leaders on social justice issues, opposition to discriminatory pay and fighting for equity in school funding.

Students, parents and teachers have a stake in test results. So do the people and businesses that pay for schools.

“Doesn’t the public have a right to ask the question ‘Are students learning?’” asks Celine Coggins of Teach Plus, a non-profit which researches ways to recruit and retain teachers at high-needs schools.

THE CASE FOR TESTING

Amelia Van Name Larson resigned as an assistant superintendent for Pasco County schools because of a growing realization that Florida's testing policies were detrimental for students and teachers.
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF

Teach Plus supports the use of testing because it forces schools to address the gaps between high-performing and low-performing students.

But Teach Plus has surveyed teachers across the country about testing. Coggins says teachers find some tests useful, but are more likely to give poor ratings. She says a well-meaning idea could be ruined by bad tests.

“I worry that policy-makers have listened more to testing companies than they have to teachers in terms of what needs to be measured," she says, "and they need to listen more to teachers to get this right.”

University of Southern California education professor Morgan Polikoff says the classroom is not the appropriate place to object to state or local education policies. It would be difficult to run an education system if every teacher decided what was right and wrong in the classroom.

“My concern is that sometimes teachers could do things that are really, really harmful and say ‘Well this is based on my expertise,'" he says. “It’s not clear to me that one teacher’s expertise should supersede the expertise of the folks who crafted the policy, or who built the assessment or the millions of teachers who do administer the assessment.”

Polikoff says parents might find standardized test results useful and that people can have different ideas about what’s good and bad for children.

'RECKLESS' USE OF TEST RESULTS

Amelia Van Name Larson says educators have a responsibility to give tests -- even if they disagree with the exams.

“I think as professionals we have professional standards we have to abide by," she says.

Van Name Larson has worked as a teacher and school psychologist and helped start a charter school. And until October, she was an assistant superintendent for Pasco County schools.

In that position, Van Name Larson says she got a new perspective on how much testing influences school district decisions. She slowly soured on Florida schools – and decided she had to quit.

Her resignation letter says the way Florida uses test results is “reckless.”

“I have two grown children," she says. "I wouldn’t have put them in public schools today. And that was the final decision-making for me, that if I can not do something for my own kids, I won’t do it.”

Since quitting Pasco County Schools, she’s set to join an education publishing company. She thinks she’ll be more influential building support against testing outside the public school system.

“I think it’s very difficult for a teacher to stand up by themselves," she says. "I do think that we have a moral imperative of standing up as a community.”