Testing Times

A School Case Study

This account, then, is a chronicle of the resistance of a particular school, the Durant School, to just those 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. In other words, it has been a fight both to survive and to defend a different, many would say more humane, vision of schooling.

Before we examine this school more closely, it is important to step back a moment and briefly contemplate a key argument for the standards movement: that the definition and prescription of higher standards will improve our failing schools. Though many dispute the notion that state-mandated curricula imposed in a top-down fashion and policed through the use of high-stakes, standardized exams will improve schools, we need to ask different questions. What will the standards movement do to our successful schools? Why must they comply with decrees and edicts pertaining to the content of their curricula when their graduates have a proven record of success in both college and the workplace? Why must their students submit to a battery of paper and pencil exams that supposedly demonstrate academic competency when this competency is already demonstrated by their post-graduation performances, let alone their classroom achievement? [And, we might add, why should the focus be only on strictly academic intelligence when more and more business gurus—the very people often influential in the standards movement—are stressing the crucial importance of social and emotional intelligence?]

The reply from standards advocates has been that if a school is already successful, then the standards and their accompanying tests should amount to nothing more than a few hours out of a student's life to sit for the requisite state exams that she/he will undoubtedly pass if the school is, indeed, of high quality. Such a response starkly exposes the narrow and limited perspective of what many standards advocates believe education is all about: a circumscribed set of skills and myriad facts that can be regurgitated onto a paper and pencil exam in a pressurized testing environment. It is this perspective that the non-traditional Durant School has been fighting in recent months. Not surprisingly, since the school was set up deliberately to alleviate problems generated by a previous era of educational thinking of precisely this kind.

Located in a small, industrial city in the northeast section of the US, the Durant School first faced the possibility of new state standardized exams in 1996. It was in April that year that the state's commissioner of education announced the adoption of a series of five standardized exams— in five different content areas—to measure the attainment of the state's new higher standards by high school students. The passage of all five exams would be mandatory for graduation, and no public high school student would be exempt. Though the exams would be gradually phased in so as to give teachers and students time to prepare, the Durant School was acutely aware of the immediate, and deleterious, impact of these mandates on its program. Specifically, in order to prepare its students for these exams, the school would have to begin both providing courses that specifically addressed the content of these new state standards and preparing students to take standardized exams. Both these practices are antithetical to the school's philosophy that students should have opportunities to learn in-depth in areas of their own interest, and that this learning is best demonstrated through presentations, portfolios, and long-term projects, or in other words, through performance-based assessments. In an attempt to preserve its integrity, an exemption from the state mandates was imperative.
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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