A coalition of civil rights groups released a statement Sunday urging Congress to maintain one of the most controversial portions of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind: the requirement that public schools administer annual standardized tests in math and reading.

The statement came the day before U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was scheduled to stake out the same position in a speech at an elementary school in the District, highlighting a key battle line in the effort to rewrite the 2002 law.

No Child Left Behind expired in 2007 and efforts to revise it have stalled on Capitol Hill. But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary who is now chairman of the Senate education committee, has pledged to move quickly to rewrite the measure. Alexander has said he is considering whether to jettison the exams, which are administered to students in grades three through eight and once in high school.

The testing requirement has come under fire from a strange-bedfellows movement of teachers unions, parents and conservative lawmakers who argue that the exams represent an overreach by the federal government that has turned schools into one-dimensional test-prep institutions. And tests do not address child poverty, which many critics of the legislation consider the root cause of continued achievement gaps between poor and affluent students.

But the civil rights groups argue that No Child Left Behind’s testing requirement has unmasked yawning achievement gaps and forced all states and school districts to focus on serving poor and minority students, including those with disabilities.

“Kids who are not tested end up not counting,” Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, wrote in a blog post explaining the coalition’s position on testing.

In addition to the Education Trust, the coalition is made up of 18 other groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the National Women’s Law Center and several disabilities rights organizations.

Besides the testing requirement, the coalition wants Congress to continue requiring states to take action against schools that do not meet performance targets or close achievement gaps among groups of students. Under No Child Left Behind, such struggling schools have been subject to consequences ranging from firing staff members to closing and reopening as a charter school, actions that critics have said are overly punitive and disruptive and often do not improve student achievement.

The civil rights groups want Congress to address several new issues, including providing pre-kindergarten for poor children, an Obama administration priority, and providing equal access to technology for all students, a measure that some advocates consider an increasingly important equity issue in the digital age.

The coalition also is asking Congress to use the rewrite of No Child Left Behind to discourage suspension and expulsion, which are used disproportionately with poor and minority students, in favor of alternative forms of discipline. Reflecting a growing concern about the criminalization of student misbehavior and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the coalition also called on Congress to begin requiring schools to report on how they use police and how many students they refer to law enforcement.

The coalition has not taken a position on whether student test scores should be used in teacher and principal evaluations, a policy that is favored by the Obama administration and that teacher’s unions oppose as arbitrary and unfair.