ACLU of MA Sues Education Officials for Silencing Critic of "High-Stakes" Standardized Testing

December 13, 2001 12:00 am

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BOSTON–The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today filed a lawsuit against state Department of Education officials for causing the cancellation of a keynote speech by a noted critic of so-called high stakes testing at an education conference in Northampton last May.

“”In America, the government is not allowed to suppress speech because of disagreement with the views being expressed or because of who the speaker is,”” said ACLU of Massachusetts cooperating attorney Michael Albert. “”It is especially troubling that public education officials seem not to understand the Constitution that they are supposed to teach kids about.””

According to the ACLU complaint, when state department of education officials learned that Alfie Kohn, author of a book criticizing high stakes testing, would be speaking at the Northampton conference, they threatened the conference organizers with loss of a grant they had received for some of the conference expenses, even though the grant was not being used to pay speakers.

The conference planners immediately canceled Kohn’s speech, telling him only that it was because of “”circumstances beyond our control.”” He was given no explanation until months later when a Springfield newspaper broke the story about the reason for the cancellation.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that the state’s move to halt the funding for the conference if Kohn spoke was a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees not only freedom of speech, but also the right to receive information. The ACLU also seeks an injunction against the Department of Education prohibiting it from denying funding in the future because of disagreement with the views of speakers like Kohn.

Kohn’s criticism centers around a lengthy series of examinations known as MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). In Massachusetts, this year’s 10th grade students will be required to pass the English and math portions of MCAS in order to receive a high school diploma in 2003.

Kohn described the state’s actions as unsettling but not really surprising. “”The same undemocratic sensibility that imposes high stakes testing also acts to suppress dissenting views,”” he said. “”It’s a small step from saying, ‘Pass this test or you don’t graduate,’ to ‘Drop that speaker or you don’t get your funding.’

“”While the Department of Education is spending $700,000 on ads to promote its MCAS test,”” he added, “”it is apparently afraid to let critics of the test be heard.””

Kohn was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the conference for charter and public school educators, organized by a committee of school principals, superintendents, charter school staff, and educators from Smith College, Mount Holyoke, UMass and other area colleges.

The conference organizers specifically requested that Kohn speak on the topic “The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools,” which is also the title of one of his books. This part of the conference was announced as open to the public because of the wide interest in Kohn’s work.

Kohn is joined in the First Amendment case by three people who had wanted to hear him speak at the conference: Leslie Edinson, principal of a public school in Springfield, Jan Shotwell, the parent of a high school student from Williamstown, and David Sprague, a counselor at an elementary school in Williamsburg.

Leslie Edinson, a Springfield public school principal, discovered only the morning of the conference that a panel he was scheduled to be on was a hasty substitute for Kohn’s keynote speech. When he realized what had happened, he read a statement of protest at the conference and walked out.

“”This stifling of dissent is morally reprehensible to me,”” said Edinson. “”Those who made this decision are not serving the children. I may not agree with everything that Alfie Kohn says, but I certainly don’t agree that state education officials should be censoring the dialogue.””

Sprague, a counselor, agreed. “”This conference was supposed to be an opportunity for people to come together to share different points of view. I have a number of concerns about how the MCAS test is affecting our entire education program and our ability to educate the whole child. Alfie Kohn’s views are important to that discussion.””

Janice Shotwell, the parent of a high school student, had been trying to learn more about the MCAS test because of its “”high stakes”” use. Public school students who do not pass the test will not receive a high school diploma. The more she learned, the more concerned she became that the tests were not improving public education.

“I read Alfie Kohn’s book, `The Schools Our Children Deserve’ and found out he would be speaking to the public in Northampton. I felt it would be a great opportunity to learn more and I wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Boston to hear him speak. I was really disappointed when I saw his name had been dropped as a speaker,”” said Shotwell.

A statement by the ACLU of Massachusetts on the use of high stakes testing is online at /node/9827

The case, Kohn et al. v. Barker, No. 01-5374, is being handled by ACLU cooperating attorney Michael Albert of Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks, and ACLU staff attorneys Sarah Wunsch and William C. Newman.

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