More on FairTest and Why You Should Call Your Legislators TODAY

Two days ago, I wrote a blog post warning that FairTest was giving bad advice regarding the ESEA rewrite.

Admittedly, I wrote the post in a bit of haste.  I had a baby tugging at my leg, family members begging me to get off the computer, a fiery incredulity at what FairTest  had written  regarding its support of the new ESEA, and – yes – a heart-pounding sense of panic over how much confusion there seems to be regarding what will be in the new ESEA, and how very little time we have left to stop or delay the vote (t-minus 5 days).

So, I apologize for not making clear my view on this issue.

First, let me be clear that no, I do not know Monty Neill or Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, and I trust those who tell me that they are both firmly dedicated to education and our students.

But here is what I also know.

I know that unbeknownst to many of us, two distinct Opt-Out movements have grown up side by side.

One is true grassroots – the parents, teachers, and students who have had enough of corporate education reform, and who see opting out as a way to protest the usurpation of our schools

The other is what I will call “Corporate Opt Out” – the opt out movement quietly encouraged by groups like the  Education Commission of the States, next-gen ed reform masterminds like Tom Vander Ark, as well as the very testing companies that have already sold  their “summative testing” branches to focus on the  impending shift to embedded, competency-based assessment.

Corporate Opt Out has skillfully positioned the impending ESEA rewrites as a response to the voices of the people, who are worn down by years of NCLB-era reforms.

But this is not what the ESEA rewrites are.  They have been planned and  pre-cooked behind the scenes  by the very industries we seek to protest against.

Somehow, whether intentionally or not, FairTest has become allied with Corporate Opt Out.

They have signaled this not only through their advocacy of the ESEA rewrites, but also through their work behind the scenes as part of the Forum for Educational Accountability.

Here is some of what the FEA, chaired by Monty Neill of FairTest,  advocates:

“Support development of local and  state assessments that enable assessment of higher order thinking and that are instructionally
useful. Authorize significant sums to encourage states to develop these new systems.”
 “FEA supports the Guidelines’ having states expand their collection of “statewide longitudinal data systems” to include out-of-school factors such as students’ health and postsecondary experience.”
“Reforming the school improvement process to provide more assistance and give schools more time to implement necessary changes once they adopt an improvement plan.”
Read carefully, and you will see that these recommendations are identical to those being advocated by a swath of corporate reformers – including the Gates Foundation.
“Assessment systems” may sound nice to the battle wary among us, but believe me when I say that all your most detested testing companies  have been hard at work  at developing such systems.

Now see this, from FairTest’s annotated bibliography:

“Many states are working on performance assessments; some have included performance items as part of statewide exams. The Council of Chief State School Officers has a number of interstate consortia working on performance assessments, and they can put you in touch with states developing performance assessments, such as Vermont (portfolio assessments), Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Maine (performance exams).”

Now  read here, to see what this actually means in my home state of Maine.  (Spoiler alert: the Gates Foundation plays a prominent role.)

So you see, despite cries of bad form and intolerance of opposing views, I must stand by my position that FairTest is giving very, very bad advice by advocating that we support the new ESEA.

Please call your legislators today, and at the very least ask that they delay this vote.

Go here to find the number you need to reach your congressmen. (Don’t be nervous – someone friendly will answer, I promise!)









Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

13 thoughts on “More on FairTest and Why You Should Call Your Legislators TODAY”

  1. Guess who was one of the first groups to tweet ECS guide? NEA. They also state they are firmly dedicated to students and education. At the NCUEA conference last year I went to a session on Opt Out – as one of the founders of UOO I was excited to see what the union had to say about Opt Out – truly had no idea they were capable of running a session on Opt Out. Their power point had a slide on Fairtest but nothing on UOO – and this is a session on OPT OUT??? I raised my hand and asked why UOO wasn’t included in a session on Opt Out considering we are the only ones with 50 state guides and Opt Out leaders for every state – and considering that our focus is Opt Out and has been for four years – I had no idea that Fair Test had become the spokesperson for Opt Out? UOO was non-existent at NCUEA. NCUEA also assured me that everyone loved common core. I explained that I help parents across the nation opt out daily and I can’t find a single parent that likes common core. Also, Bob Schaeffer managed to make his way here to Colorado for a union rally last year that was hosted by CEA to speak on behalf of Colorado’s children and toxic testing even though activists here asked him NOT to come and stand beside our sellout corporate union president. They/CEA helped fund his trip to CO. And then that same union president used pictures from that pathetic rally to help her get re-elected at the delegate assembly. And guess who sat in on a Fairtest phone conference last year? An NEA lobbyist. More here on co-optation


  2. If you want to know how Pearson is planning to offer these new assessments, take a look at their web page. If you really want a fright look at the “products” they are offering-which clearly seem to be on the path of Competency Based Education. Keep in mind these products have been in development for years-so Pearson (and who knows else) have been in on it from the beginning.


  3. Hi Emily,

    I don’t disagree with your conclusions, but I feel like your analysis loses sight of the time span of this policy debate. It isn’t something that cropped up in the past couple years; it is a 25 year discourse. See for example Peter Greene’s recent post on outcome based education. As an outsider it is *very* hard to tease apart the various competing factions within the reform community. As a result, sometimes something that looks like a tricky mis-direction or feint is just the external manifestation of internal disputes, etc.

    Tom Vander Ark is doing what he has done for 20 years (more or less). Fairtest and others promoting assessment reform and performance assessment have been at it for 20 years (based on their newsletter archive). At this point it is probably impossible to use existing English words or phrases to describe a system of assessment or data collection about students that would set off alarm bells, if you’re looking at things from the perspective of the past three or four years.

    I guess I feel compelled to bring this up not because it has any implications for your conclusions, but at least two specific points:

    1) Tom Vander Ark isn’t some kind of evil genius. He’s basically selling the same sh*t he’s always been selling, and if it actually worked, he’s had sufficient resources and opportunities to show that it does in fact work. Mostly it doesn’t, sometimes it does, but not clearly more often than other things also work.

    2) None of the people you call “corporate opt-out” are actually encouraging opting out, as far as I see. It is fair to say the teachers unions are playing both sides at the national and mostly state level.

    3) People like FairTest and Yong Zhao (to refer to an earlier post) aren’t the problem. If you’ve been talking about assessment for 20, 10, maybe even 5 years, pretty much anything you’ve said in the past is going to sound prejudicial today in the wrong (i.e., today) context.

    4) FEA represents 139 groups. I don’t really know anything about it, to be honest, but just to read the statement it pretty clearly stakes out a moderate consensus position. Anything else is not going to be acceptable to 139 participating groups. It is the nature of coalition politics.


  4. Hi Tom! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

    I very much agree that this debate, as well as the push to OBE/CBE/PBE, has been going on for a very long time. I actually wrote a post a few weeks back about Tom Vander Ark’s trip to Maine in 2002 to give our state a 10 million dollar grant to implement a prototype of what we’re seeing now.

    And while I agree he’s no genius, he suddenly seems to be very powerful, as his vision of “personalized” and “competency” based education have made their way not only to ALEC, but also into the ESEA rewrites and the recent Testing Action Plan from the White House. I agree that it is you-know-what that he is selling, but at this point, my entire state has bought into it – and it looks like our whole country might, depending on what happens with ESEA!

    As for “corporate opt out” – Why else did the Education Commission of the States (which partners with Pearson et al) put out an Opt Out guide last spring? I also heard from a friend in Texas that a rep from the Foundation for Excellence in Education was encouraging Opt Out. Why? Same reason that McGraw Hill sold it’s summative testing branch to focus on formative! No one is going to need the big end of the year tests anymore if their plans go through.

    As for Fairtest and Yong Zhao… I think they might be part of the “problem” because I worry that the public is being mislead by their messages. Or maybe Fairtest has been misled. I just don’t know. But I do know that in advocating for the new ESEA and “personalized” learning (look up Zhao’s website OBA), they are both closely allied with the corporate ed reform. And to me, that’s a problem….


    1. Hi Emily,

      I am a little confused by the reaction (from you and other Opt Out advocates) to the Education Commission of the States opt-out document. It says “It is meant to provide state education leaders with a broad look at how their peer states are handling similar challenges,” and it reads that way to me. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at parents at all, let alone encouraging opting out.

      Exactly who is co-opting whom can be a fine distinction to draw. I would argue that long term advocates for assessment reform (e.g., Fairtest, Yong Zhao) have had their terminology co-opted by the testing companies and their advocates, and I think we’re getting a bit sucked into a circular firing squad situation because of it.


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