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What are all these civil rights groups thinking?

President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind education measure into law in 2002. (Win McNamee/Reuters)
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What are all these civil rights and advocacy groups thinking?

Nineteen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Negro College Fund, just issued a joint statement (see text and full list of signatories below) about what they would like to see in a newly written No Child Left Behind law, which is the top priority of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate education committee. And in their statement, they make some faulty assumptions about teaching and learning that have been the basis of flawed education reforms in the past.

The issuing of the statement was done in concert with the Obama administration, which has for six years pushed high-stakes standardized testing as a central education priority and has continued to defend it in the face of a burgeoning national anti-testing movement that includes teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, students and other advocates.

Making standardized test scores a key metric for evaluating students, educators, schools and districts has resulted in a flood of new tests given to students that eat up significant portions of the school year in test prep and test-taking, a narrowing of the curriculum to emphasize the subjects being tested (English Language Arts and math) and an enormous anxiety among students and teachers that harms the teaching and learning process.

But the administration continues to push the idea that students must be tested annually from grades three through eight and once in high school in order to achieve “equity” for all students. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the case in a speech on Monday, and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the key Democrat on the Senate education committee, is doing the same thing Tuesday on the floor of the Senate.

Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, has said he wants to get a newly written education bill to the floor of the Senate by the end of February, which would be something of a momentous moment in the history of education legislation. No Child Left Behind is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law in 2002 and expected to be rewritten in 2007. It wasn’t, though it remained in force, and since then, Congress has not found the wherewithal to get the job done. Now Alexander wants to fast-track the process.

Alexander has said he is considering whether to eliminate the mandate for annual exams, which under NCLB are administered to students in grades three through eight and once in high school. Whether he is really considering this or using it as a bargaining chip for something else is unclear. But the idea has resonance with many in the anti-testing movement who believe public education has become perverted by the testing obsession, which began with NCLB under president George W. Bush and became even worse under Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative as states and districts added more and more tests to ensure that students could pass the federally mandated tests.

With tens of thousands of parents around the country deciding to opt their children out of new Common Core standardized testing and a growing backlash from educators, the Obama administration has in recent months backed calls for getting rid of redundant testing (which, of course, is a position that nobody in their right mind would oppose). But administration officials have called for limits on state and district testing, insisting that federal testing mandates remain intact. They argue that schools began to pay attention to low-performing students in various subgroups when testing data for each one was mandated by NCLB. And if the testing data is not required annually, they say, these students will be ignored again.

There are important problems with this thinking.

It presumes that high-stakes standardized testing has led to more equity for students. There is no evidence that it has. It presumes that high-stakes standardized tests are valid and reliable measure of what students know and how much teachers have contributed to student progress, but assessment experts say they aren’t. It presumes that requiring testing is the only way to ensure that minority and disabled students get attention. That’s shallow thinking.

We have had 13 years of federally mandated annual testing, and achievement gaps are still gaping. As education historian and activist Diane Ravitch noted on her blog, tests don’t help close achievement gaps; they only measure them. What standardized tests measure accurately is family income; look at SAT  and other scores to see how closely they are linked to wealth and poverty. Standardized tests benefit students from privileged families, not children from low-income and minority families or children with disabilities.

Why would civil rights groups think that it is a civil right for students to take a test? The joint statement makes other assumptions about education that are, well, merely assumptions.

As my colleague Emma Brown reported, the joint statement calls for Congress to maintain requirements that states take action when schools do not meet performance targets or close achievement gaps among groups of students. NCLB required that struggling schools face consequences ranging from firing staff members to closing and reopening as a charter school, even though there is no real evidence that these “remedies” have worked.

The statement says that alternative assessments for students with disabilities be limited “only to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, up to 1 percent of all students.” Why one percent? The Education Department says that it is estimated that about one percent have significant cognitive disabilities, but that is just an estimate. Why should students with the most significant cognitive disabilities have to take any standardized test? A few years ago in Florida, a boy born without the cognitive part of his brain was forced to take alternative standardized tests mandated by the state even though he couldn’t tell the difference between a car and a boat. The state finally gave him a waiver, but many parents with struggling children say that giving any standardized assessment to their child is useless. Why should all students be tested?

The joint statement calls for “equal access” to a number of things for all children, including “technology including hardware, software, and the Internet.” This assumes that technology fundamentally improves the teaching and learning process, and the evidence for most populations of students still isn’t there (though it is for students with disabilities).

So which groups signed on to the the statement?

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, American Association of University Women, American Civil Liberties Union, Children’s Defense Fund, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Easter Seals, The Education Trust, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Center for Learning Disabilities, National Council of La Raza, National Urban League, National Women’s Law Center, Partners for Each and Every Child, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, United Negro College Fund.

It is admittedly not that unexpected that these groups would sign such a statement, given that civil rights groups supported No Child Left Behind (and some of the key people behind the joint statement were advisers to the key legislators who worked with Bush on the bill). One of the key ideas behind NCLB was that teachers and schools simply did not have high enough expectations for disadvantaged students and that was the reason for the education gap. Things like hunger, sickness and violence were merely an excuse teachers offered to explain the poor performance by students.  This isn’t to say that some teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom; plenty shouldn’t, but the notion that public schools can broadly ameliorate all of the pathologies that students bring in from the outside by holding their teachers accountable for their test scores is pretty preposterous.

As Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program,  wrote in this blog post, titled, “What happens when you equate testing with civil rights”:

The collateral damage their approach has imposed on the unfortunate children they claim to be defending dwarfs the gains their approach might produce. There is no excuse for making our neediest children , who should love school the most, hate their school experience. The civil rights groups’ endorsement of universal testing is a terrible, terrible mistake.”

Here’s the full text of the principles:

Shared Civil Rights Principles for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
January 2015
The United States has played a historic and critical role in promoting educational opportunity and protecting the rights and interests of students disadvantaged by discrimination, poverty, and other conditions that may limit their educational attainment. For more than five decades, Congress has consistently recognized and acted on the need to promote fair and equal access to public schools for: children of color; children living in poverty; children with disabilities; homeless, foster and migrant children; children in detention; children still learning English; Native children; and girls as well as boys. Much progress has been made, but educational inequality continues to quash dreams, erode our democracy, and hinder economic growth. This federal role must be honored and maintained in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which must ensure the following:
I. Each state adopts college and career-ready state standards and provides:
All students a fair and equal opportunity to meet these standards, including:
Access to early childhood education for economically disadvantaged children and those with disabilities (ages birth to 5 years).
Equal access to qualified and effective teachers and core college-prep courses.
Equal access to technology including hardware, software, and the Internet.
Safe and healthy school climate with inclusionary discipline best practices.
Supports and services needed by English learners and students with disabilities.
Protections for the most vulnerable children, e.g., those in juvenile or criminal justice systems, those in child welfare systems, pregnant/parenting students, and foster, homeless, and migrant youth.
Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards, and
Are valid and reliable measures of student progress and meet other requirements now in Sec. 1111(b)(3) of Title I.[i]
Provide appropriate accommodations for English learners, who should be exempt only for their first year attending school in the United States.
Provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities.
Limit alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards only to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, up to 1 percent of all students; terminate assessments based on modified achievement standards; and prohibit the use of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to measure academic achievement under ESEA.
Allow, during a transition period, alternatives to computer-based assessment for students in schools that have not yet provided them with sufficient access to, and experience with, the required technology.
II. Federal dollars are targeted to historically underserved students and schools.
Title I is used to provide extra (supplemental) resources needed by high-poverty schools to close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes.
States, districts and schools serving the highest-need student populations receive more funding than others.
Targeted funding is provided to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children including youth in juvenile and criminal justice systems; Native American children; English learners; and foster, homeless, and migrant students.
III. State accountability systems expect and support all students to make enough progress every year so that they graduate from high school ready for college and career.
States set annual district and school targets for grade-level achievement, high school graduation, and closing achievement gaps, for all students, including accelerated progress for subgroups (each major racial and ethnic group, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low-income families), and rate schools and districts on how well they meet the targets.
Effective remedies to improve instruction, learning and school climate (including, e.g., decreases in bullying and harassment, use of exclusionary discipline practices, use of police in schools, and student referrals to law enforcement) for students enrolled are implemented in any school where the school as a whole, or any subgroup of students, has not met the annual achievement and graduation targets or where achievement gaps persist. The remedies must be effective both in improving subgroup achievement and high school graduation rates and in closing achievement gaps.
IV. States and districts ensure that all Title I schools encourage and promote meaningful engagement and input of all parents/guardians –regardless of their participation or influence in school board elections – including those who are not proficient in English, or who have disabilities or limited education/literacy – in their children’s education and in school activities and decision-making. Schools communicate and provide information and data in ways that are accessible to all parents (e.g., written, oral, translated).
V. States and LEAs improve data collection and reporting to parents and the public on student achievement and gap-closing, course-completion, graduation rates, school climate indicators (including decreases in use of exclusionary discipline practices, use of police in schools, and student referrals to law enforcement), opportunity measures (including pre-K and technology), and per-pupil expenditures. Data are disaggregated by categories in Sec. 1111(b)(3)(C)(xiii) of Title I,[ii] and cross-tabulated by gender.
VI. States implement and enforce the law. The Secretary of Education approves plans, ensures state implementation through oversight and enforcement, and takes action when states fail to meet their obligations to close achievement gaps and provide equal educational opportunity for all students.
Submitted by:
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
American Association of University Women
American Civil Liberties Union
Children’s Defense Fund
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Easter Seals
The Education Trust
League of United Latin American Citizens
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Council of La Raza
National Urban League
National Women’s Law Center
Partners for Each and Every Child
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
United Negro College Fund
[i] This section includes requirements to ensure the quality, fairness and usefulness of the statewide assessments. For example, they must assess higher-order thinking skills and understanding; provide for the inclusion of all students (including students with disabilities and English language learners); be consistent with professional and technical standards; objectively measure academic achievement, knowledge and skills; and provide information to parents, teachers, principals, and administrators so that they can address the specific academic needs of students.
[ii] This section requires assessment results “to be disaggregated within each State, local educational agency, and school by gender, by each major racial and ethnic group, by English proficiency status, by migrant status, by students with disabilities as compared to nondisabled students, and by economically disadvantaged students as compared to students who are not economically disadvantaged.”
Contact information: Scott Simpson, The Leadership Conference, 1629 K St NW Ste 1000, Washington, DC 200061639