How Acre stopped testing in North Carolina

By Page McCullough

Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, pp. 12-13

In 1987, the North Carolina legislature voted against giving the California Achievement Test to first and second grade children. In the following article, Page McCullough, the former executive director of the Atlantic Center for Research in Education (ACRE), explains how this victory was realized. Since its founding in 1978 as a group of parents, teachers, and teacher educators focusing on the needs of poor, minority and handicapped children in North Carolina's public schools, ACRE has actively worked against misuse of standardized tests. [In 1988, the state banned the use of standardized achievement tests in grades one and two and directed the Department of Education to construct developmentally appropriate individualized assessment instruments.]

The North Carolina campaign to stop norm referenced standardized testing in the first and second grades began in 1983 when the state's General Assembly voted to start using the California Achievement Test (CAT) in the early grades. ACRE opposed the use of the tests for many reasons: normed group achievement tests have low reliability and content validity for young children; the scores provided little useful information to teachers; the curriculum was becoming "test-driven"; and too much time was spent on testing.

Our work to repeal this mandate has been as much as a state of mind as any set of techniques. We knew we were in for a long battle because many politicians and parents want accountability and they see these tests as a good way to get it. The new testing program also enjoyed the fervent support of then Governor James Hunt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Craig Phillips.

In such an unfriendly atmosphere, ACRE began the campaign by researching the issue, monitoring relevant boards, educating parents and teachers, introducing ourselves and our position to the legislature, building a constituency, training citizens to lobby and "waiting for daylight."

ACRE's campaign efforts included monitoring meetings of the State Board of Education and the North Carolina Testing Commission, which is responsible for advising the State Board on all testing programs administered by the state. Our observers made it possible for us to know when questions were being raised about the CAT in early grades. When an elementary school principal asked for a review of the program, ACRE and the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children, (NCAEYC) got on the agenda to present our views. We learned to hone our arguments, and we learned that the testing commission was never going to recommend a change in the program.

When the legislature was in session, we monitored relevant committee meetings and made our position known. Not more than a dozen legislators supported us at first, but we learned how the General Assembly worked and we became familiar faces.

ACRE educated parents and teachers about the issue whenever we could. We held workshops and published articles about the issue in our newsletter. We created our own "Parent and Citizen Test Review Commission," which publicized our position opposing the testing of first and second graders. With these efforts, we built a small group of dedicated teachers who were willing to learn to lobby.


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ACRE found a firm ally in NCAEYC. This group has what our small organization does not: 1,700 dues-paying members. NCAEYC is composed of professors, teachers and day-care providers concerned with the quality of services for children from infancy to 8 years-old. ACRE had experience lobbying and cutting through the bureaucratic maze of the State Department of Public Instruction; NCAEYC had voters in every district. There's nothing like a lecture from one's first grade teacher to change a legislator's mind!

In 1987, a member of NCAEYC persuaded a respected and popular legislator, who had young children, to introduce a bill to stop testing altogether in the first and second grades. By this time we had a different governor, who was not interested in the issue, and legislators were beginning to hear complaints about the time testing was taking and the stress it caused young children.

ACRE's and NCAEYC's years of organizing paid off as teachers testified before legislative committees and our phone trees went into high gear. ACRE presented our position paper, signed by many elementary school teachers. Our most persuasive arguments were that young children were poor test takers, so the results were not reliable, and that the test ignored very important goals of our curriculum which cannot be measured with paper and pencil tests. The unanimous vote for the bill in the Senate represented a major change in perspective by lawmakers.

However, the bill stalled in the House when opposition from Superintendent Phillips and former Governor Hunt surfaced. Our legislative allies then attached a provision to the education appropriations bill eliminating the requirement for testing, and this provision was enacted.

Since our initial success with the issue, the NC Association of Psychologists and the NC School Psychologists have joined with ACRE, NCAEYC, and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) to form a larger Coalition. ACRE continues to monitor and keep our network and key legislators informed. The proponents of testing are attempting to restore state-mandated use of the CAT in grades one and two.

Our campaign suffered from the usual lack of time and money. Six years is a long time to sustain a volunteer group and we are no match for the personnel at the disposal of the bureaucracy and the test companies. Our work also suffers from a lack of parental support, which is a serious flaw. Parents have every right to know about their child's progress in school and we have not done a good job offering alternatives to the lousy measures now being used.

Our strengths in this campaign included an astonishingly persistent group of volunteers who became increasingly skilled in lobbying in a timely manner. We did our homework and knew a variety of arguments to use and with whom to use them. We were pragmatic and non-partisan and in the end had votes from the black caucus, liberal Democrats, and conservative Republicans. Finally, we owe a great deal to three experienced women lawmakers who were willing to work hard and trade chips for this issue.

Our conclusion is that successful campaigners must be prepared for a protected battle, must organize a coalition that can develop significant public support from critical sectors, must diligently monitor relevant state bodies, must find the persuasive arguments and evidence to influence decisionmakers, and must locate legislators willing to take the issue as their own. Finally, victories must be defended and hopefully expanded.

Reprinted from the FairTest Examiner, Spring 1988 quarterly newsletter of FairTest. A free sample copy is available from FairTest, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139.