The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty’

A school bus passes a sign encouraging parents to refuse that their children take state tests in April  in Rotterdam, N.Y.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Last month, a dozen civil rights groups issued a statement, under the umbrella of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, saying that parents opting their children out of high-stakes standardized tests are harming at-risk students. I published a few posts questioning the rationale of the groups (here and here, for example), which argued that only by obtaining data from annual standardized tests can further the goal of achieving educational equity. It said in part:

For the civil rights community, data provide the power to advocate for greater equality under the law. It’s the reason we’ve fought to make sure that we’re counted equally in every aspect of American life, such as in employment, the criminal justice system, and consumer lending.
Our commitment to fair, unbiased, and accurate data collection and reporting resonates greatest in our work to improve education. The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.

The following post is a new critique of that argument. It was written by Judith Browne Dianis, John JAckson and Pedro Noguera. Dianis is co-director of the national racial justice organization Advancement Project; Jackson is president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education; Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. A version appeared in The Hill.

By Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera

Recently some national civil rights organizations vocally opposed the growing “opt-out movement” in which parents and students are  opting out of annual standardized tests in various states to highlight the dangers of high-stakes testing. Those groups include the National Council of La Raza, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League. Uniting under the banner of the Washington D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, these groups are urging parents to comply with annual testing requirements. We strongly disagree with their position.

Data from these annual assessments are not a reasonable proxy for educational opportunity, and even more, educational equity. African American and Latino students are more likely to be suspended, expelled or pushed-out of school regardless of their performance on the test; and despite some improvement in graduation rates, significant disparities remain.

[Why the movement to opt out of high-stakes tests is a big deal]

Moreover, of all the topics that could be addressed as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is being considered by Congress for reauthorization, why defend a policy that has proven ineffective in advancing the educational interests of children of color and disadvantaged children generally?

Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled “failing” while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support. In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.

Why should wealthy parents be able to opt-out of the over-testing by sending their children to private schools while disadvantaged students are forced to exist in a high stakes, over-tested climate for the sake of producing data that confirms what they already know—their schools lack the needed supports?

We are not opposed to assessment. Standards and assessments are important for diagnostic purposes. However, too often the data produced by standardized tests are not made available to teachers until after the school year is over, making it impossible to use the information to address student needs. When tests are used in this way, they do little more than measure predictable inequities in academic outcomes. Parents have a right to know that there is concrete evidence that their children are learning, but standardized tests do not provide this evidence

While high-performing countries, wealthy parents and educational experts are calling for more student-centered and deeper learning experiences for their students, the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights as well as others are asking communities to continue the practice of subjecting students to tests that have failed to deliver very little in the way of excellence or equity.

Parents have a right to demand enriched curricula that includes the arts, civics and lab sciences.  The parents who are opting out have a right to do so, and they certainly have a right to demand that their children receive more than test preparation classes that leave them bored and less engaged.

We should all remember that NCLB is the latest iteration of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, a series of initiatives that created Medicare and Medicaid , and expanded Social Security benefits, among other efforts.  The ESEA was designed to compensate for disadvantages in learning opportunities between low-income and middle-class children. While it was never adequately funded, ESEA was envisioned as an “anti-poverty” bill.

We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty. While NCLB did take us a step forward by requiring schools to produce evidence that students were learning, it took us several steps backward when that evidence was reduced to how well a student performed on a standardized test.

It has long been acknowledged by many education officials that some of the goals set by NCLB —  such as 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 — were unattainable.  In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education began to give waivers from that goal to states that agreed to implement specific reforms. Why not give parents the right to opt out of tests when they realize states have not done the work of guaranteeing their children are being adequately prepared?

The civil rights movement has always worked to change unjust policies.

When 16-year-old Barbara Johns organized a student strike in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1951, leading to Brown v. Board in 1954, she opted out of public school segregation.

When Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she opted out of the system of segregation in public transportation.

And as youth and their allies protest throughout the country against police brutality, declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” we are reminded that the struggle for justice often forces us to challenge the status quo, even when those fighting to maintain it happen to be elected officials or, in this case, members of the civil rights establishment.