Advocates for poor and minority children are pushing a novel idea: standardized tests as a civil right.
The nation’s major civil rights groups say that federally required testing — in place for a decade through existing law — is a tool to force fairness in public schools by aiming a spotlight at the stark differences in scores between poor, minority students and their more affluent counterparts.
And they are fighting legislative efforts to scale back testing as lawmakers on Capitol Hill rewrite the nation’s main federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind.
“Removing the requirement for annual testing would be a devastating step backward, for it is very hard to make sure our education system is serving every child well when we don’t have reliable, comparable achievement data on every child every year,” Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, said in recent testimony before the Senate education panel. Her group joined 20 civil rights organizations to lobby Congress to keep the requirement to test all children each year in math and reading.
The civil rights argument adds a new dimension to one of the most contentious education issues in decades: whether standardized testing is good for students. Congress is wrestling with that question as it reauthorizes No Child Left Behind. The Senate education panel is expected to begin debating a bipartisan bill next week that would maintain annual testing, but it is unclear how the bill will fare in the House, where conservative Republicans want to drastically scale back the federal role in education.
Critics say the testing mandate hasn’t done much to narrow the gap in scores but has drained the joy from classrooms, fostering a testing fixation that critics blame for ills including narrowed curriculums and cheating scandals.
A growing number of parents around the country are having their children opt out of federally required standardized tests, and people including President Obama and comedian Louis C.K. have complained.
“It’s reached a level where people are saying ‘enough is enough,’ ” said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which wants to end the standardized testing mandate. “People are sick of the overkill of test volume and the consequences, ridiculous things like rating art teachers based on the reading test scores in their schools.”
But civil rights advocates don’t trust states to pay attention to disadvantaged children if they aren’t required by federal law to test and make public the scores of blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities and English-language learners.
“I don’t think you can dismiss the role that assessments play in holding educators and states overall responsible for the quality of education provided,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group of civil rights advocates that includes the NAACP and the National Urban League.
States and school districts that don’t want to deal with the daunting task of improving the achievement of poor students complain about testing as a way of shirking accountability, Henderson said. “This is a political debate, and opponents will use cracks in the facade as a basis for driving a truck through it,” he said.
No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, ushered in an era of accountability by requiring states for the first time to test all students in math and reading in grades three through eight, as well as once in high school. Students are also required to take three science tests during their studies.
Under the law, schools must make public their test scores by groups according to race, income and whether they are disabled or English learners. Most states began annual testing in 2005, and the public data laid bare achievement gaps between poor children and their more affluent peers, usually divided along racial lines. No Child Left Behind penalizes schools that fail to raise test scores for all groups.
Teachers unions and others say the Obama administration has intensified the pressure by prodding states to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. Some say the idea of standardized testing as a civil right is “misguided.”
“The main victims of this misguided policy are exactly the people the civil rights groups want to help: teachers and students in high-poverty schools,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The focus on math and reading has squeezed out science, social studies and the arts from high-poverty schools, he said.
Tests don’t address the social problems that poor children bring to school or the fact that many start kindergarten already lagging behind more affluent children, he said.
They also don’t fix the inequality of a public education system funded primarily by real estate taxes, where schools in wealthy communities are well equipped and attract the strongest teachers, while high-poverty schools often have fewer resources and weaker teachers, he said.
“The idea that you can just ignore the conditions that create inequality in schools and just put more and more pressure on schools and if that doesn’t work, add more sanctions, makes no sense,” Orfield said. “As if it’s just a matter of will for the students and teachers in these schools of concentrated poverty.”
Civil rights groups agree that the country needs to address unequal resources, and they want any new federal law to require states to take action to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students.
But there is a main message that advocates have been sending in public testimony and at private meetings: Keep the tests.
Haycock credits annual testing and No Child Left Behind with a modest rise in math scores among black and Hispanic students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered by the federal government across the country every two years.
“The suggestion that No Child Left Behind destroyed American education is absolutely not borne out,” Haycock said at a gathering of the country’s top state education officials two weeks ago.
But black and Hispanic students made even greater gains on the NAEP before No Child Left Behind took effect.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3-million-member National Education Association, calls the current system “No Child Left Untested.” The union wants to replace the standardized test with different measures such as portfolios of work and presentations.
The NEA also wants Congress to require schools to publish an “opportunity dashboard” that would disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators, so that disparities between schools are transparent. The union is running television commercials in 13 markets that urge members of Congress to reduce the role of standardized testing.
Henderson, who has testified before Congress on the importance of keeping the testing mandate, sits on the board of trustees for the Educational Testing Service, the country’s largest such private nonprofit assessment company. He earned $88,250 from ETS in 2013, the most recent year for which tax records are available.
He said there was no conflict between lobbying for testing and earning income from a testing company. “I wanted to understand how testing is used and the quality of measurements,” Henderson said, explaining why he joined the ETS board about a decade ago. “It’s been a useful grounding in understanding the science of psychonometrics.”
In his deliberations over whether to keep the federal testing mandate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and current chair of the Senate education panel, noted that No Child Left Behind requires 17 tests over the academic career of each student.
But as those tests have grown in importance, states and districts have layered on additional tests to make sure students are on track to pass the federally required test, he said. “There’s a cascading effect,” said Alexander, who worked alongside the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), to craft a bipartisan bill. “Fort Myers, Florida, gives 183 tests during the year!”