Testing Times

A School Case Study

A highly successful, innovative and creative alternative to traditional education is confronted by the demands of contemporary standardized accountability. The account here is a chronicle of the resistance of a particular school, the Durant School, to the global changes that would destroy its local ecology—a school whose fight against the imposition of state standards and mandated tests has been a fight to preserve its integrity, its mission, and its autonomy.

Picture this: a public urban high school conceived in the late 1960s as an alternative to the traditional education and hierarchical structure of most city schools. A school that has not only upheld this unique educational and social vision through its 30-year history, but is deemed successful in terms of its high attendance and college acceptance rates, as well as its low dropout and suspension figures. A school whose 200 students—African-American, White, Latino/a, and Asian-American—choose to enrol there because of this unique vision and high success, and whose teachers choose to work there because they know the school affords them the freedom and respect to realize their innovative educational beliefs. A school that is frequently described by teachers, students, and parents alike as a community, a family even, due to its non-hierarchical structures and close, supportive relationships.
Moreover, these judgments of success are not made only by those involved in this school. The city's mayor recently commented on the school's achievements in a letter to the state education commissioner, noting that the school's “success rate in graduating at-risk students is approximately 20 per cent higher than the City School District's average rate.” In addition, the school “boasts some of the District's highest attendance rates, highest SAT scores, lowest suspension rates, and lowest dropout rates.” The mayor concluded that this school's “non-traditional, yet rigorous process for demanding accountability and assessing knowledge serves its students well.”1 This then is a school that has not only kept its unique vision alive, it has also passed the tests of a school's success that have been set over its 30 years.

Yet, what happens when this school, an oasis of non-traditional practices, is confronted in this current era of educational accountability by an entirely different vision of what a successful school should be? A vision embodied in newly mandated state standards and standardized tests? A vision that, in fact, parallels the over-standardized, over-tested types of schools which the school's original founders turned their backs on 30 years ago in their search for a successful alternative? One would common-sensically expect that any form of governance, state or local, would not change ‘a winning team,’ but in the new forms of governance, educational success does not exempt schools from systematic new forms of interference.

In the new regimes of governance in education, control of education is passing from the trusted coalitions of teachers, students and community that have been painstakingly developed in schools such as this. In a more general sense, control is passing from internal educational agents and student and parental communities towards external forces representing a different range of interests.2 Lobbying efforts by corporations and industrial interests impinge hugely on the judgments of politicians and state education commissioners. These forces drive educational governance in wholly new directions. New patterns of external and symbolic control typically focus on testing, transparency, and accountability. Whilst understandable in principle, in reality such methods often collide with the delicately constructed ecology of school life. As such globalization wreaks environmental havoc in the world generally, so, too, can its specific effects in schools grievously damage the local ecology of an educational environment.
Date of publication:
Number of pages
(as Word doc):
Publisher: Education Policy Analysis Archives
Co-author: Martha Foote
Subject: Curriculum
Available in: English
Appears in: Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 9, No. 2
Number of editions: 1

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