The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures and shouts to his congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967. (AP Photo)

It has become a common refrain among school reformers that annual standardized testing equals civil rights. In the last few years, some civil rights groups have sided with those reformers  who see standardized tests as a singularly legitimate way of assessing student growth, and they have criticized parents who have refused to allow their children to take such exams.

Last year, for example, a dozen civil rights group, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released a statement opposing Common Core testing opt-out efforts by parents and others, saying that the tests are valuable to students of color and those from low-income families who have been ignored in the past by school systems. The statement said in part:

 Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes, even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused.

A number of organizations — including other civil rights groups — came out against the statement, noting that it is the high-stakes tests and the misuse of the results that are harmful, not parents who are opting their children out of taking these exams. They also noted that there is no evidence that high-stakes tests improve the quality of education or help close achievement gaps. Yet the notion persists that the civil rights of minority and low-income students will be violated if standardized tests are not used as one — if not the — key measure of student growth.

As the country is about to mark a national holiday to honor civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., here is a piece on this testing-equals-civil rights issue. It was written by Steven Singer, a veteran  Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Pennsylvania with a masters degree in education. He is a husband, father,  blogger and education advocate who teaches eighth-grade Language Arts at a suburban school near Pittsburgh. He gave me permission to republish this post, which first appeared on his GADFLYONTHEWALLBLOG. Singer’s classes are made up of roughly 70 percent minority students, and an even higher percentage of his students come from low socioeconomic status households. Standardized test scores are low, he says, but creativity, passion and critical thinking skills are high.

 

By Steven Singer

 

“Daddy, I know who that is!”

“Who is it?”

“That’s Martin Luther King.”

“That’s right, Baby! Who was he?”

“We saw a movie about him today in school. He had a dream.”

Thus began a fascinating conversation I had with my 7-year-old daughter a few days ago.

I had been going through her book bag and found a picture of Dr. King blazoned above an article about his life.

“He wanted everyone to be nice to each other,” she said.

I laughed. My first-grade scholar isn’t that far off.

“He’s one of my heroes,” I said. “He means a lot to me.”

“That’s silly,” she said. “He doesn’t have any super powers.”

Before I could reply, her attention shifted to her stuffed Yoshi doll. She began to play.

One of the best things about being a parent is getting to see the world anew through the eyes of your children. My little girl offers me this vantage point everyday.

Dr. King can’t be a hero. He had no super powers.

Or did he?

“I have a dream,” he famously said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s a simple wish. A simple insight.

Or is it?

Do we do that today? Do our schools?

As a middle school teacher, I’m well aware how our public schools judge our children, and it’s not by the content of their character. It’s by their standardized test scores.

High scores mean you’re learning. Low scores mean you’re not. And if you’re not learning, that’s your teachers fault and we’re going to close your school or turn it into a charter.

What’s worse, we’re going to do it because that ensures your civil rights. That’s the story anyway.

Ever since rewriting the federal law governing K-12 schools began to be debated in earnest by Congress, the tale was told that high stakes testing is good for minorities. It makes sure schools aren’t neglecting them.

And now that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has been passed, well-meaning people everywhere are wondering if we’re looking out for our black and brown brothers and sister enough – do we have enough federally mandated high stakes tests? Is there enough accountability?

After all, the new law potentially returns much of the power for education policy to the states. What if states don’t give as many tests? How will state legislatures ensure black students aren’t being neglected? Why will schools actually teach black kids if we don’t threaten to close them based on test scores?

These would be laughable questions if they weren’t asked in earnest. With such frequency. Even from some civil right organizations.

Some things to consider:

1) The ESSA does absolutely nothing to limit standardized testing.

When Congress was rewriting federal education policy, parents, educators, students and experts of every stripe asked for a reduction in testing. It didn’t happen. Exactly the same number of tests are required under the ESSA as there were before it was passed – once a year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

2) Punishing schools doesn’t help kids learn.

Once upon a time, it was the government’s job to provide schools with adequate resources to help kids master their lessons. Instead the  federal government decided to pursue policies that led to the use of arbitrary goals and the closing or privatization of schools that were deemed to have failed to achieve those standards.

This may come as a surprise, but no school has ever been improved by being closed. Students who are forced to relocate don’t suddenly do better. In fact, they usually do worse academically. Moreover, there is exactly zero evidence that charter schools do better than traditional public schools. In fact, the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction.

3) Standardized tests are poor assessments to judge learning.

Standardized testing has never been shown to adequately gauge what students know, especially if the skills being assessed are complex. The only correlation that has been demonstrated consistently is between high test scores and parental wealth. In general, rich kids score well on standardized tests. Poor kids do not.

Therefore, it is absurd to demand high stakes standardized testing as a means of ensuring students’ civil rights.

Judging kids based on these sorts of assessments is not the utopia of which Dr. King dreamed. We are not judging them by the content of their character. We’re judging them by the contents of their parents bank accounts.

There are real things we could be doing to realize racial and economic equality. We could do something about crippling generational poverty that grips more than half of public school students throughout the country. We could be taking steps to stop the worsening segregation of our schools that allows the effects of test-based accountability to disproportionately strike schools serving mostly students of color. We could invest in our neediest children (many of whom are minorities) to provide nutrition, tutoring, counseling, wrap around services, smaller class sizes, and a diverse curriculum including arts and humanities.

But we’re not doing much, if any, of that.

Why?

Because we’re too concerned about continuing the policies of test and punish. We’re too concerned about making sure huge corporations continue to profit off creating, grading and providing materials to prepare for annual standardized testing.

Dr. King may not have had super powers. But almost 50 years ago, he saw through the types of lies being uttered today as part of the education reform movement.

Our school policies for the past few decades have been about denying the right to an equitable education to our poor and minority students. Though the ESSA holds promise to limit federal meddling, it does nothing to change that. And all these people who cry foul at a potential loss of federal power are either ignorant or crying crocodile tears.

It’s no wonder that hundreds of civil rights organization oppose high-stakes testing. Nor is it surprising that the media rarely reports it. And it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that many of the civil rights organizations who began championing testing are those who get big donations from the philanthro-capitalists pushing this agenda.

Standardized testing doesn’t protect civil rights. It violates them.