ONE OF THE GREAT scandals of modern American society is the lack of educational opportunity for many poor, urban, mostly minority children. The nation’s failure to educate these children properly deprives them of what should be an American birthright, the chance to live up to one’s natural potential. There are two possible responses to this scandal: Ignore it, or try to fix it. A three-year moratorium on standardized testing, favored by Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, would give the first option a big boost.
Many educational bureaucrats accepted “the achievement gap” as inevitable — and were willing to keep it largely invisible — until President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) agreed, through legislation that came to be known as No Child Left Behind, that every school should measure students’ progress in the most basic, essential skills — reading and arithmetic — and publish the result in such a way that the failure to educate minorities couldn’t be hidden in a big fudge of data. Many educators, including Mr. Starr’s predecessor, Jerry D. Weast, accepted the challenge and dedicated themselves to narrowing the gap — to maintaining progress among privileged students while working hard to help less privileged children catch up. Montgomery made impressive progress in closing the gap, as its leaders have been rightly happy to boast.
Now Mr. Starr argues for a three-year hiatus in standardized tests.
School reform is difficult, standardized tests are imperfect and there can be legitimate debate about how results are used. We believe that it’s common sense to measure teacher competence in part based on whether their students learn over the course of a year, and one way to measure whether students learn is via standardized tests. Others can disagree. We believe that it’s common sense to measure the most basic skills, reading and math, because so much follows from them. But art, music, gym and other subjects are important, too. We believe that well-run schools are proving every day that poor children can learn. But out-of-school challenges — nutrition, health and home support — have to be faced, too.
So, debate, yes. Improve, absolutely. But stop measuring? That’s a recipe not only for failure but for failure in which no one can be held to account. It would once again allow whole swaths of the nation’s best children to be prepared for little but wasted lives. We think that’s not acceptable.