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Testing Our Freedom:
Goals 2000, Vouchers, And Charter Schools

This essay, by Larry and Susan Kaseman, was originally published in their Taking Charge political action column in the January-February 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.


Now is the time for us to act to ensure that the testing and assessment goal of Goals 2000 does not become a springboard for increasing state requirements for testing of homeschoolers. Most state departments of education have submitted or soon will submit proposals to the U. S. Department of Education describing their plans for implementing Goals 2000. As part of this process, many state legislatures are now or in the next year or so will be considering legislation on state-mandated standardized tests and assessments. While such legislation will technically be directed primarily toward public schools, it will also affect private schools, including homeschools, indirectly if not directly. It is important for us homeschoolers to become informed about these legislative proposals. Then we can work to prevent increases in the state-mandated tests and assessments that homeschoolers are required to take. We can also take advantage of opportunities that may arise for us to improve our position regarding testing requirements. One possible improvement would be legislation that allows all parents to have their children exempted from state-mandated tests and assessments.
Reasons Behind The Increased Interest In Testing And Assessment
State-mandated testing has been the subject of on-going debates and legislative proposals since the first laws requiring testing of children in public schools were passed in 1972. However, interest is increasing as new legislative sessions begin in January, 1995, for several reasons, including the following:
* Goals 2000: Educate America Act passed by the U. S. Congress in March, 1994, makes increased federal funds available to states through a variety of programs. However, to qualify for such funds, states must have a program of required tests and assessments that conforms to the third of eight national education goals that were adopted as part of this act. This goal reads as follows:
(3) STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT AND CITIZENSHIP. -(A) By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nation's modern economy.
Most states seeking grant moneys under Goals 2000 will need to change their testing requirements to be in compliance with this goal, which represents yet another major increase in testing requirements imposed on schools by the government. When testing requirements were first enacted in the 1970's, most allowed each school district to select tests focused on academic subjects, thereby allowing the district to choose the subject matter and approach to education that it would emphasize and reward. Gradually laws have been changed in many states so that now the state dictates specifically which tests schools districts must use and when they must administer them. This goal takes the process yet a step farther by requiring that schools ensure that students learn (and thereby presumably demonstrate that they have learned by performing satisfactorily on tests and assessments) to "use their minds well" and prepare for "productive employment." The definition of education is being broadened beyond conventional academic subjects and the state's role in education is being greatly increased.
* Additional pressure from Goals 2000: Educate America Act for increased state requirements for testing and assessment comes from the National Education Standards and Improvement Council. The purpose of this council is to "certify and periodically review voluntary national content standards and voluntary national student performance standards that define what all students should know and be able to do." (Quoted from Goals 2000: Educate America Act, Title II-National Education Reform Leadership, Standards, and Assessments, Part B-National Education Standards and Improvement Council, Sec. 211.) Concerned parents may want to consider seriously what it means to have the federal government moving to define "what all students should know and be able to do." The implications are staggering for federal control of education; for uniformity of education; for denial of the unique and special strengths and differences among individual students; and for requirements for state and federal certification of students' knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
* Another reason behind the current legislation on testing and assessment is the fact that advocates of school choice, vouchers, and charter schools often support increased testing requirements because such tests are the keystone of their plans. Financing either vouchers or certain charter schools presents a major problem because they are designed to use public money to finance schools that are not held accountable to the public in the ways most conventional public schools are. To be more specific, vouchers are designed to give parents more choice in their children's education by allowing tax money to finance private schools, which of course are not governed by most of the state laws or regulations that apply to public schools. Charter schools are legally public schools, but they are not required to comply with certain state laws and regulations that apply to other public schools so they have the opportunity to explore alternative approaches to education. Many advocates of vouchers and charter schools believe that testing is a reliable form of "accountability," and they want or feel they need to demonstrate that public money is not being wasted.
This means that supporters of both vouchers and charter schools have a strong vested interest in convincing the public that education can be demonstrated, documented, and validated by scores on state-mandated tests and assessments and that expenditures of public moneys to public or private schools can be justified in this way. As a result, proponents of vouchers and charter schools are likely to support increased requirements in testing and assessment.
* Increasing criticism of standardized tests has led to attempts in some states to replace them with performance-based assessments, also referred to as outcome-based assessments. Among other things, standardized tests are criticized for being limited to academic skills and for not even attempting to measure such things as mechanical ability, artistic talent, critical thinking skills, or creativity. Performance-based assessments claim to overcome this deficiency by taking into account more of a child's physical, social, intellectual, and moral development. This broadening of the scope of what is being covered by state-mandated assessments concerns many parents. It raises questions about the extent to which parents should or need to turn over the responsibility for raising children to institutions and so-called experts rather than retaining rights and responsibilities themselves. Aren't some areas of growth and development (such as character development, morality and values, religious instruction, and social and religious values) much more the responsibility of parents than of institutions and professionals? Some parents are think that the personal interaction between a child and a test administrator opens the door for additional inaccuracies and distortions in test results. This is particularly true for children from families that question the values of the dominant culture; for children who are appropriately shy around strangers; and for those who do not conform to conventional trends in speech, dress, attitudes, etc. Simply put, doesn't it seem possible that a child whom a test administrator does not like, for whatever reason, will receive a lower score on the assessment than one to whom the administrator personally responds more positively?
How Requirements For Testing And Assessment Of Public School Students Could Affect Homeschoolers
Increased emphasis on testing and assessment in public schools could affect homeschoolers in several ways. For one thing, the more the general public accepts the idea that the state should prescribe specifically what "all students should know and be able to do" and that testing is a good way to evaluate and validate learning designed to meet the requirements of these state goals, the greater the pressure will be to require testing of private school students, including homeschoolers. More specifically:
* Over half the states currently require some form of testing of homeschoolers. (Specific laws vary from state to state. For example, some states allow parents to choose which tests their children will take while others do not require that parents report scores to the state.) In these states, legislation to change testing requirements for public school students could easily raise the question of whether testing requirements for homeschoolers should also be changed. Given the trend toward increases in testing and assessment, the changes would probably include an increase in the number, frequency, and/or scope of tests required of homeschoolers.
* In at least some of the states that do not currently require testing of homeschoolers, legislative proposals to change testing requirements for public school students could easily lead to questions about whether testing should now be required of homeschoolers as well. We homeschoolers would do well to find out whether such questions are being asked and be prepared to answer them.
* The use of testing in certain charter schools would bring pressure to bear on homeschoolers. Although charter schools are clearly defined by law as public schools, they are being perceived by many members of the general public as more like private schools, and in some cases they are being called "homeschools." The national publicity which Michigan's Noah Webster Academy is receiving is contributing to this confusion. Until a court ruled that Noah Webster was not in compliance with the law, it was a charter school based on "distance learning," an approach to education in which students rely on computers and/or television to receive instruction and communicate with instructors. Because Noah Webster's students were studying in their own homes, they were called "homeschoolers" even though their school situation was quite different from that of most homeschools in which parents, not a public school, take responsibility for children's education.
The more strongly charter schools are identified with private schools, including homeschools, the more strongly will the general public and legislators feel that homeschoolers who are not part of a charter school should nevertheless be required to take the same tests and assessments that charter school students are required to take.
* The increased numbers of Republicans in many state legislatures will NOT reduce the likelihood of legislation to increase testing requirements, even though in the past many homeschoolers have felt they received more support from Republicans than from Democrats. From its beginnings, the current "education reform movement" has been strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans. The original six national goals in education were agreed to by governors attending an educational summit convened in 1989 by President Bush. Bill Clinton (then Governor of Arkansas) played a key role in drafting the goals which were promoted by the Bush administration as part of their America 2000 education reform package. When Clinton was elected, the name was changed to Goals 2000 but few if any substantive changes were made in the plan. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act includes the original six goals plus two additions. This act passed in March, 1994, by a large majority in both the House and Senate, indicating strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Parents who want to maintain their rights and responsibilities in education cannot afford to rely on either major political party to protect their interests. In fact, the Republicans who have recently gained increased political power may well turn out to be even more likely than the Democrats to call for increases in testing and assessment and to support vouchers and charter schools.
What We Can Do
Note: Additional information and arguments that can be used to inform other parents and to communicate with legislators and the media are listed in the last three sections of this column.
* Study the wide and far-reaching effects and consequences of both state-mandated tests and assessments and parental exemptions from them so we are prepared to evaluate legislative proposals.
* Gather information. It can be requested from the state department of education and from state legislators. It is generally a good idea to contact both. Legislators get the information they give constituents from the state department, but sometimes the department takes requests from legislators more seriously than requests from private individuals.
Among the specific documents that we can request from the state department of education and legislators are:
-Current requirements for testing, assessment, and portfolios and changes which the department of education has proposed regarding testing of all students, public and private, in our state.
-A copy of the state application for grant moneys under the federal Goals 2000 program.
-Information about the steps our state is currently taking to implement Goals 2000, especially Goal #3 on testing and assessment. Ask whether new legislation has been proposed (or is expected in the near future) to change state requirements for testing and assessment in public schools.
We can also ask our local school boards for information about whether the district is putting together a proposal to implement Goals 2000 so that it can qualify for grants of federal money made possible by Goals 2000: Educate America Act.
* Share important information with others in our support groups, state-wide organizations, etc. Look for allies and be prepared to find them in unexpected places. We can make connections with other private schoolers, with public schoolers who are concerned about state-mandated tests, with public schoolers who are concerned about state-mandated tests becoming the basis for public money flowing to private schools, and with opponents of vouchers and charter schools who would oppose using tests to justify giving public money to private schools.
* Share our concerns with our state legislators through letters and phone calls. Ask them to inform us when legislation on testing and assessment is introduced, when hearings are being held, when votes are scheduled, etc.
* Think very carefully about the risks involved before deciding whether to allow our own children to be tested or assessed through screening sessions or as part of their schooling. We can also inform other parents, including those involved in public schools, about problems with and political ramifications of testing and encourage them to consider refusing to have their children tested. It is important to remember that virtually all screenings are voluntary and can be avoided by refusing to give our permission for our children to be screened. In situations in which tests and assessments are legally required, some parents choose civil disobedience.
* Understand ourselves and explain to others that charter schools are public schools. They are not private schools, and they are not "homeschools" in the commonly understood sense of the term.
We Can Also Work For Legislation That Allows Parents To Exempt Their Children From State-Mandated Tests And Assessments
A way to strengthen our position as parents who are committed to maintaining our rights and responsibilities in education is to work for legislation that will allow parents to have their children exempted from state-mandated tests if they so choose. On the second try, parents in Wisconsin succeeded in obtaining such a law, which states,
Annually, the school board shall notify the parents or guardian of each pupil enrolled in the 8th and 10th grades in the school district, including pupils enrolled in charter schools located in the school district, that he or she may request the school board to excuse the pupil from taking an examination administered under this section. Upon request of a pupil's parent or guardian, the school board shall excuse the pupil from taking an examination administered under this section. [Section 1m 118.30 (2) (b) 3 of the Wisconsin statutes.]
We will be better off insisting that ALL parents be allowed to exempt their children from testing, partly because legislation covering only private schools could backfire and end up increasing testing requirements for private schools.
In a situation such as this, it is better to focus on the state and local level than on the national level. Educational programs have to be initiated and carried out on the state or local level (regardless of what federal laws say). Also, it is much easier to have an effect on the state or local level.
People in states that currently require testing of homeschoolers may be asked, "If homeschoolers can exempt their children from standardized testing, how will we hold them accountable?" Possible responses include:
-In about half the states, homeschooling is working very well without standardized testing requirements.
-Innovative reforms of conventional schools sometimes include practices that homeschoolers have been using, including ungraded classrooms, flexible curriculum, peer teaching, and rejection of standardized testing.
Arguments Against Increased State-Mandated Tests And Assessments
Opposition to state-mandated tests and assessments will be more effective if we have clearly in mind a series of arguments that can be used to support our case. We feel more convinced ourselves, more committed to what we are trying to do, and we have a better chance of convincing people who are willing to listen to reason. Of course, many political decisions are based more on money, power, greed, and self-interest than on reason. But it's helpful to be prepared with reasons because many of them are powerful and because many people will undoubtedly agree with our case but might not initiate it themselves.
The following list of reasons is presented as a starting place, to stimulate thinking and provide a bit of a boost. It may seem a little jumbled. The reasons crisscross, overlap, and occasionally may even seem to contradict each other. Some reasons may be more convincing to parents, while others might work with legislators or the media. They are presented in all their jumbledness and diversity so readers can get a feel for the breadth and depth of questions surrounding testing and assessment and so reasons can be selected based on their intended audience.
* Perhaps the most important general reason for opposing increased state-mandated tests and assessments is that such opposition has the potential to be effective in opposing attempts to "reform education" by increasing government control of education.
Tests provide a frighteningly effective mechanism by which education can be controlled. Tests dictate curriculum; to have a fair chance to do well on the tests, students have to study the material and skills that will be covered on the test. Children's whole lives can be strongly affected by labels they receive as the result of tests which may not even be accurate! Whoever selects the content of required tests controls the curriculum of the schools that are being required to administer the tests. Test selections in effect determine which skills and aptitudes will be valued and indirectly which people will be rewarded and which will be labeled as "learning disabled" or "at-risk" and unable to measure up to society's standards.
If we allow the government (or any other institution or group of people) to gain increased control over the tests and assessments that are used in schools, we will have surrendered an enormous amount of our freedom of education, which is a foundation for freedom of thought. (People cannot think clearly and make their own decisions if they have not been exposed to a diversity of ideas or at least been given the opportunity to ponder things for themselves.) It is hard to grasp the enormity of what we stand to lose.
Of course even eliminating all standardized tests and assessments would not end government control of education and provide ironclad protection for our educational freedoms. But stopping or even slowing the increase in state-mandated tests and assessments would be a first step in slowing the increasing government control of education. Put another way, if we don't oppose increased testing, the problems we face because of increased state control of education will become even more serious.
Here is another situation in which "not to decide is to decide." We cannot maintain the status quo by doing nothing. For the reasons outlined above, if we do nothing, state-mandated testing will undoubtedly increase.
* Individual states do have the option of refusing to increase their testing requirements to comply with federal standards. This would mean that the state would have to forfeit some federal funds. Of course it would not be easy to convince states to give up money. Getting as much money as possible from the federal government is an important priority for state governments as they try to cover their expenses while keeping state and local taxes as low as possible. But when freedom of education is being threatened, it is time to question whether federal money is really worth the price that we have to pay for it, particularly in light of the following facts.
- Although the sums of money that states can get from the federal government sound large to the average citizen, the percentage of expenditures for education that is covered by federal funds is actually very low. On average, only about 7 per cent of the money that is spent on education for grades K-12 comes from the federal government. In addition, less than 1 per cent of the total will come from money appropriated for Goals 2000. Can our freedom be bought so cheaply?
-Participating in programs that are part of Goals 2000 will undoubtedly end up costing individual states much more than they actually receive from the federal government because schools will have to do testing and assessment, create new programs, hire additional staff, etc. in order to implement Goals 2000.
* Increasing evidence shows that tests are unfair, inaccurate, and particularly biased against women and minorities. People who do not have the same backgrounds, values, and experiences as the test makers often do not do well on tests.
* Much recent evidence points to the fact that parental involvement in education is the most important factor in determining how well children learn. Requiring standardized tests tends to undermine parental involvement by implying that "outside experts" are needed to direct and assess children's learning.
* State-mandated standardized tests and assessments encourage rote learning and memorization rather than critical thinking and problem solving.
* Tests interfere with learning. They interrupt the unique, unpredictable, and uneven process by which individuals learn by forcing them to make decisions they may not be ready to make. Any test is a vote of no confidence; people who have proven themselves or in whom their fellows have confidence are not required to take tests. Because standardized tests are designed so that few if any children even have time to finish them, the experience of taking such tests weakens children's confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their learning.
Specific Reasons Why Parents Should Be Allowed To Exempt Their Children From State-Mandated Tests And Assessments
* Responsibility for education belongs to children and parents, not to the state. If parents and children do not have some control over testing and assessment, they cannot exercise their responsibility for education.
* Standardized tests and assessments have tremendous power. They determine curriculum, since children must study what will be on tests in order to have a fair chance of doing well on them. Children's whole lives can be strongly affected by labels they receive as the result of tests which may not even be accurate! Tests are being developed that are intended to determine which 10th graders will go to college and which to apprenticeships. If instruments with such power are going to be used by schools, it is much safer to allow parents the opportunity to have their children excused from them.
* The subject matter on some tests is objectionable to some people. They should be allowed exemptions.
* If tests and assessments were really as important, beneficial, and necessary as their supporters claim, wouldn't people take them willingly and not need to be forced by law to take them?
Specific Reasons Why Homeschoolers Should Not Be Required To Take State-Mandated Tests And Assessments
* Requiring tests could be viewed as the state insisting on a uniform education for all children. This would contradict U. S. Supreme Court cases that establish parents' rights to secure for their children an education consistent with their beliefs and principles and that rule that the state may not have a monopoly in education.
* No substantial evidence exists to support the idea that testing is necessary. Homeschooling families throughout the nation are increasingly being recognized for the good job they are doing in educating their families. In the rare case in which a homeschooling family may be having some serious difficulty, it helps to remember the old legal maxim that "Hard cases make bad law." In other words, a law designed to take care of the worst possible hypothetical case is almost certain to be long, difficult to enforce, and more likely to prevent good people from doing good than bad people from doing bad. It is unfair and solves nothing to punish conscientious homeschoolers by requiring that they take state-mandated tests that do not solve the problems facing high-risk children.
* We need private schools, including homeschools, that can provide alternative approaches to education so children can receive an education suited to their needs and abilities. Children need opportunities to learn in a wide variety of ways, so they can use their unique strengths and learning styles. State-mandated tests and assessments would severely limit the ability of private schools, including homeschools, to offer alternative approaches, thereby negating one of their major advantages and strengths and depriving families of a badly needed resource.
* Since homeschooling parents work with a very small number of children over a long period of time, they can make excellent assessments of their strengths, abilities, and achievements through simple observation and use a variety of approaches to correct any deficiencies they may find. State-mandated testing and assessment is a waste of time and money.
Conclusion
The recently enacted Goals 2000: Educate America Act is pressuring states to change their requirements for state-mandated tests and assessments. Opposing increases in such testing is one effective way in which we can counter increases in government control of education. Even better, gaining legislation that allows parents to have their children exempted from tests and assessments strengthens our position as parents who want to maintain our rights and responsibilities in education. Now is a time to be alert and ready to take action as states submit proposals to the federal government about how they will respond to Goals 2000: Educate America Act.
1994 Larry and Susan Kaseman

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