How is High-Stakes Testing Related to Child Labor in the U.S.?


"Creative Commons Classroom" by William Creswell is Licensed under CC By 2.0.

“Creative Commons Classroom” by William Creswell is Licensed under CC By 2.0.

Reblogged from Stop the CRCT Madness by Stephanie Jones.  Dr. Jones’ research engages the intersections of social class, gender, and race with language, literacies, and educational equity with a particular interest in social class and poverty.  You can follow her on her blog Engaged Intellectuals.

Context for Dr. Jones’ Article on Child Labor

I think Dr. Stephanie Jones’ Child Labor in the U.S. is very proper to reblog in light of events in Marietta, Georgia. A Marietta couple has refused to allow their children at the West Side Elementary school to take the high-stakes Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). These parents informed the school’s principal by email two days before the testing period that their third and fifth graders would not be taking the CRCT.

When they arrived at school to meet with the principal at a prearranged meeting to discuss what activities were planned for their students in lieu of the CRCT, they were instead met by a Marietta police officer who asked them if their kids were going to take the CRCT. When they said no, the officer told them they would have to leave the school property otherwise they could be arrested for trespassing.

The first response that these parents received from the school was a threaten to them and their children. They were told that all students must take the CRCT, or face the consequences. They were also told that this would risk their older child from going on an overnight field trip.

The Associate Superintendent of Marietta was quoted said this in its email reply to the family:

The District must deny your request that your students be exempt from participation in the CRCT or other standardized testing as well as reporting and recording of such scores. Federal and state law mandate the administration of these assessments. It is important for you to understand the potential consequences of electing not to participate in such nationally and state-required assessments.

But these parents are to be supported for standing their ground. Here is what the parents said in reply to the Superintendent, Assoc. Superintendent, and Principal of West Marietta Elementary School:

I believe that there was a MAJOR misunderstanding in what I communicated in my email Sunday night/Monday morning.
In no way, shape, or form, did either my wife or I ask for anyone to give us permission. What I said was that WE REFUSE to allow our children to be given the CRCT Test.

I do not require permission to refuse something.
Yet the response stated that, “The District must deny your request that your students be exempt from participation in the CRCT or other standardized testing…”
Once again… I did not “request” anything. I told you that my children would not participate.
I have read most of the Federal and State laws concerning this test, and there is nothing in the verbiage that states that the Rights of the Parents are declared void in the process of implementing the CRCT Testing. If I missed the point where we cease to be parents, I would like you to point those out to me.

It is in the context of the Marietta CRCT incident that I reblog her article here.

Dr. Jones writes:

In many places around the globe, young children toil in factories, harvest fruits and vegetables, clean houses, and perform other “jobs” we don’t want to imagine young children doing. This forced work in sweatshops, in factory farms, or in the illicit sex and drug trades is roundly condemned as “child labor.”

But what happens when you put about a million children in 1st through 8th grade classrooms across the state of Georgia and force them to work under conditions where their individual teacher’s salary will be determined by the children’s performance on a state standardized test or other metric? Is it Child Labor? Whom the children would be working for at that point – and what they would be working for – becomes unclear.

United States Child Labor activists in the early 1900s were concerned about children laboring in factories and fields from morning until night. They claimed that such labor eclipsed opportunities in childhood to be involved with both physical recreation and mental stimulation. In other words, the child was being exploited for the economic benefits of others while the child’s interests and well-being were outright neglected. Activists sought to end this practice and argued for a free, compulsory education for all children that – presumably – would not exploit children for the economic benefits of others. Child Labor laws made it illegal to work youth during traditional school hours for these reasons.

Today up to a million children in Georgia – all below the legal age limits for work – board a school bus before sunrise and can still be found slumping over “homework” well after nightfall. Physical recreation during school hours – that chunk of time during the day when it is illegal to “work” youth – has all but disappeared.

Child Labor activists in the U.S. were concerned about the physical health, emotional well-being, and intellectual pursuits of children. They saw the working conditions of child laborers as worse than unethical: long hours, no breaks, no recreation, and no space for rich intellectual endeavors were considered to undermine human potential and the long-term health of a larger society.

Ask a child how she spends her seven-plus hours of school each day and a similar list of unethical practices may be compiled.


Tell that child’s teacher that her salary will depend on the testing performance of that child and chart the negative consequences on children’s working conditions in schools. Teachers – workers in the system controlled by bosses above  – will be exploited. Students – the “producing” workers in the system whose production of test scores will determine reward for those above them – will be exploited.

Business owners and supervisors worked children for long hours with no breaks and no recreation (and no choice in the matter) because they assumed they would benefit economically from the intensity of the child’s labor. Some may have recognized these practices as abusive, but the economic incentive was too seductive. What was best for children and their overall education and well-being was neglected under conditions of Child Labor. The neglect of children’s social, emotional, physical, academic needs inside schools where they spend most of their waking hours for most of their childhood is likely to become accepted practice under Merit Pay legislation linked to test scores.

How do we want adults in school to our children? Is it okay with parents if other adults look at our child and see them as potential “assets” for raising their salaries or potential “deficits” for lowering their salaries? What kind of pressure might a child feel when he learns that his teacher’s earnings are connected to his test scores?

How hard will a teacher push a child if she or he is trying to create a higher “profit margin” in test scores? Are we willing to sacrifice children and the rights they won through Child Labor laws in the early 1900s?

The focus in education has centered on big debates about teacher and school accountability for too long. These debates exclude children’s experiences of policy and the roles they are forced into every time new legislation passes. Putting our focus back on children has the potential to remind us who matters in these debates and the prices children are paying for adults’ thoughtless actions. Merit Pay linked to test scores is a move toward implementing a 21st century version of Child Labor. Multiple measures of success for children, teachers, and schools can put us back on track. Schools were not meant to be factories where children toil, indeed compulsory education for all was viewed as the antithesis of child labor. The ethical treatment of children should be a measure of success for teachers and schools, alongside multiple measures of children’s academic growth and overall well-being.

There is a growing Opt Out of High-Stakes testing movement in the U.S.  Dr. Jones gives us further support and a different perspective about why using high-stakes testing could be Child Labor issue.  What do you think?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University