With SAT-9 testing set to begin in Berkeley elementary schools this week, a small group of parents, activists and students gathered outside Rosa Parks School to protest the exam and spread the word about a provision in state law allowing parents to opt their children out of the test.
“What if they gave an unfair, discriminating test and nobody came?,” asked Aaron Reaven, an organizer for the California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes “high stakes” standardized testing.
Under state law, teachers and districts can inform parents of their right to opt out, but cannot encourage parents to do so.
Deb Palmer, an English Language Learners resource teacher at Rosa Parks who spoke at the protest, said this provision in the law has intimidated other teachers.
“Many of my fellow teachers would like to be here, but they’re afraid to be,” she said.
Palmer was the only teacher at the protest. But over 300 teachers have signed a petition, drawn up by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, opposing the SAT-9. The teachers ran the petition as an advertisement in the Daily Planet last week.
Palmer said the prominence of the test and the financial awards attached to it encourage instructors to “teach to the test” rather than focus on important curriculum areas.
“We certainly don’t support that,” said Les Axelrod, an education research and evaluation consultant for the California Department of Education in Sacramento. “We think the way to prepare kids for the test is to design a good instructional program that’s aligned to the state standards.
“In practice, I know that’s not happening,” Axelrod acknowledged. But he said it’s up to districts and individual teachers to avoid teaching to the test.
Activists at the protest argued that the state would do better to spend education money in the classroom, rather than on testing.
“Don’t waste ink on this,” said Maria Luisa Garcia, parent of a Rosa Parks student, speaking through an interpreter.
Axelrod said spending on testing and awards, which approached $1 billion out of a roughly $53 billion education budget last year, was “money well-spent.”
Shirley Issel, President of the Board of Education, said there are problems with the current testing regimen, but argued that standardized testing is a valuable tool.
“The standards movement is the best hope we have for educational equity,” Issel said, arguing that tests hold educators accountable.
School board members Terry Doran and Ted Schultz also argued that tests can be useful, but raised concern about the monetary awards attached to test results, arguing that they can be divisive.
This year, according to Bill Padia, director of the policy and evaluation division for the Department of Education, the state gave $100 million to teachers and $350 million to schools with high-scoring students. The state plans to distribute another $212 million in Governor’s Performance Awards to high-scoring schools in the coming week, but the legislature is holding the money pending an examination of the troubled state budget.
Next year, Padia said, the $100 million in teacher awards will likely be cut because of the budget deficit and the $350 million, always planned as a one-time expenditure, will not be re-allocated.
A bill in the state Assembly, authored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, would eliminate the awards system and scrap the SAT-9 in favor of a new test, to be developed largely by teachers. The bill narrowly passed through the Assembly Education Committee last week.