Putting Education Reform To The Test

Florida Teachers Consider ‘Civil Disobedience’ To Say No To Testing

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.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

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.

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.


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.”



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.


Amelia Van Name Larson resigned as an assistant superintendent for Pasco County school because of a growing realization that Florida's testing policies are detrimental for students and teachers.

Steve Newborn / WUSF

Amelia Van Name Larson resigned as an assistant superintendent for Pasco County school because of a growing realization that Florida's testing policies are detrimental for students and teachers.

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.


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.”


  • Sandra

    Until legislators get serious about reviewing the accountability system in place, parents views on the impact of excessive, experiemental, punitive assessments matter and continues to increase in size. Where else should pressure be applied if not the classroom?? Teacher Susan Bowles principled stand caused the FDOE to stop the scheduled testing on K-2 students across the state. Former Pasco Assistant Superintendent Larson also took a highly principled stand by resigning rather than continuing to participate in irrational harmful processes.

    This NPR article falls short in an opinion by a university professor whose views are not the same as California USC Professor Polikoff. At a minimum, NPR must provide some views from the numerous university professors and widespread professional organizations who have spoken out about excessive testing and current accountability procedures. There is something fundamentally wrong that should not take so long to seriously examine and repair.

  • Richard Patel

    Number of people entering teaching at the college level … dropping fast (down over 50% over the past two year in California). A recent survey in top colleges show that over 80% of top achieving students at our best colleges would never consider teaching as a job option. Ironically, charter and private schools are having a worse time finding teachers even though this is supposedly the haven for education (it really isn’t).

    In the next 3-6 years, one of the last baby boomer retirement booms will hit the profession.

    The number of voluntary resignations from teaching is at an all time high.

    There are substitute shortages all over the nation.

    New Mexico, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Indiana already reported teacher shortages in the state this year. That is likely to continue next year, and expand to more states next year and years to come.

    Given our nation’s history, we will wait until it is far, far too late to do something constructive to reverse this situation. By then, there will need to be a massive reversal in the evaluation procedure, a massive overhaul in testing, and likely a rethinking of current administrative philosophy which has drifted far, far into the authoritarian mode. Pay raises are likely not an answer, but states will need to start offering a lot of non-financial incentives (like tenure, like improved training).

  • edumom

    As an extremely well-informed parent who talks to other parents, I have noticed that most parents, reporters and politicians do not have the background information or understanding of testing, accountability systems, statistics, metrics (standards), grading equations, etc. to fully comprehend the effects of high stakes testing on children or their school performance. Parents see the emotional toll high stakes testing has on their children, but we need teachers to stand up for our kids since they see another side of testing and accountability than what parents know.

    Most of the arguments in favor of high stakes testing is faulty due to a lack of knowledge about accountability systems. High stakes testing does not always show what students have learned; testing is more likely to show who is a good test-taker. Furthermore, high stakes testing does not help close the achievement gap in a positive manner. Typically, the high-performer is hurt as curricula is geared toward the low-performer while the gifted and high achievers are forced into rigid, rote, low-level / grade-level work that does not allow them to excel and often causes these children to lose interest in school and give up trying. High stakes testing is the “great equalizer” as it forces lower-level learning on top performing children and closes the achievement gap by lowering the top, not raising the bottom. Top performers may appear to do well as the ceiling is at grade level even though these kids are capable of higher level performance.

    Accountability systems are a double-edged sword. They were developed in the manufacturing sector to reduce defects in inanimate products by measuring metrics to meet a goal. However, simply meeting certain metrics does not necessarily result in meeting a broad, overall goal when dealing with human beings, whether they be students, teachers, administrators, managers, etc. Before imploding, partially as a result of using the Six Sigma accountability system, Motorola employees used to say, “be careful what you measure because the metrics become the goal.” Certainly we saw that in public schools when curricula became narrowed as a result of metrics (standards) and teachers only taught to the test and schools quit teaching art, music, P.E. civics, etc.

    Decision-making is not effective when subtleties and ambiguities cannot be taken into account in the simplified world of accountability. As the 3M Company found, accountability systems cannot be rigid, as is our school accountability system, but rather must be flexible and used with consideration. As an example, the DCF metric of exiting children out of the system within a certain amount of time does not reliably result in children getting help quickly, but instead often has the opposite effect of pushing kids out of the system without getting appropriate help, all too often resulting in the child deaths as noted in the Miami Herald investigations into DCF. Accountability systems attempt to reduce decision-making into a simplified procedure, but rarely are answers so simple as yes/no or black/white as we see when accountability is employed. The term “accountability” as applied in measuring metrics and standards to achieve a goal is a misnomer that can result in the exact opposite of what the term implies.

  • Susan Bowles

    You failed to mention that I (Susan Bowles – AKA the Kindergarten teacher who refused to test) did so because it would have meant a loss of six weeks of instructional time for my students, and the test was not going to yield reliable data in any sense of the word since students were double clicking and triple clicking, skipping screens and hence not even having a chance to answer the questions. ( The test was not a test of computer mouse skills.) Also, teachers were instructed to wear headphones while the child tested also had headphones on. WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER 5 YEAR OLDS IN THE CLASS? Frankly, I couldn’t believe I was the first one to stand up and say no!
    And if we keep complying, what does that say about our school “society” as a whole? That we go along with what we are told to do? Well, that’s what the people of Germany did in the 1930′s. I am not IN ANY WAY equating testing with Hitler. I am suggesting that it is not uncommon to go along with authority, and not speak up. I am trying to say that we must be careful to evaluate our decisions both of obedience, and in extreme cases, disobedience.
    Children deserve instructional time. How can anyone justify the test I refused to give, if it was given as instructed.
    I have always been a compliant and loyal employee. However, my students take precedence over my own job security and over the “powers that be”. I will stand up for them.

    • StateImpactJOC

      The story links to the note you wrote to parents where you explained your decision.

  • gerard

    If you are a competent teacher, I can understand your concern, BUT, I am a college student and face instructors that are complete idiots on a daily basis. I am 58 years old, not a confused child. Wrong and outdated tests, bad computer programs, wrong and outdated information, and this incompetency is all blamed on the student. I attend SJRSC in Fl.

  • J R Gordon

    Rather than the bare comment about the number of days students ‘endure’
    standardized testing, I’d like to see what is behind the number. If a
    school year is 180 days (or whatever the actual), is 1/3 or more devoted
    to taking a standardized test? I find that hard to believe without
    more data.
    I recognize that some prefer no testing of students – why
    not just give everyone an ‘A’? However, at some point in each of our
    lives, we will have to demonstrate useful skills and knowledge. It’s
    not just ‘nice to know’. Without some form of measurement, do we just
    let our next generation skate through school years so they will feel

  • Bob Caveney

    Hi John,

    It may be that using tests and a teach schedule is the root cause of the schooling crisis. Consider: using tests and the schedule guarantees:

    A) some students will be ahead, bored, idle and not working;

    B) some will be behind, tending to fall more behind, a problem which only compounds.

    It’s this follow-the-schedule method, enforced with tests which
    causes students to fall more behind, relative to grade level, on
    average, the more years spent in public school.

    Moreover, attempting students (who unlike Model Ts are different) to fit in to a one size fits all schedule, is trying to solve the wrong problem.

    The right problem:

    Moving away from the schedule requires students get some amount of
    autonomy. This presents a different problem. Many students, are not
    _yet_ able to wisely and responsibly use the freedom required to follow
    their own individual plan. When autonomy is provided to students who are
    unready for that freedom, the result is chaos.

    You see the problem. For students to have their own plan, they need autonomy, autonomy many students are not _yet_ ready for.

    It seems like our two choices are guarantee chaos or guarantee idleness.

    There is a 3rd way from the Latin origination of education, educere, meaning to lead out the student from within.

    IF we could, and we can (we have evidence), by leading
    students through inner exercises in an “inner gymnasium”, little by
    little (it takes about a month), students begin to better hear the wise
    part within, develop the skill of the will, and a deep satisfaction
    takes hold;

    THEN it becomes safe to provide the very autonomy students need to work on challenges just right for each student.

    This is real education work – leading out the student from within –
    done by trained educators. Only students can do the knowledge work, the
    reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Leading out students from within solves a structural problem of ‘the-one’ and ‘the-many’ that is unique to eduction work.

    You can see a deeper explanation of this at http://schoolio.org/blogs/11867f/posts/35de5a5e

    All the best John,


  • Angela Eller

    I think this song is so powerful for the state of education right now. Here is “A Song for Teachers” http://commoncorerap.com/?p=2654

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