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Why civil rights groups support standardized tests

(Mitsu Yasukawa/AP)

No Child Left Behind was mainly designed to help black, Hispanic and poor children. After all, they were ones who were being "left behind." Yet 13 years after President George W. Bush signed the law in 2002, there's still debate about just what it's meant for America's disadvantaged communities.

As my colleague Lyndsey Layton reports, most of the major civil rights organizations support the law's requirement for yearly standardized tests for all students in Grades 3 to 8. The annual tests are easily the most visible and controversial aspect of the law.

These groups see testing as a civil rights issue, a way to guarantee fairness. Meanwhile, some activists and educators of color feel the tests are a distraction from helping students improve or, worse, an indirect form of punishment for shortcomings beyond their control.

This debate is coming to a head as Congress considers an overhaul for No Child Left Behind, which all sides agree is several years overdue.

Among advocates for civil rights, there's broad agreement on two main points: The federal government should make sure that impoverished school districts have enough money and that suspensions and expulsions are not unfairly keeping many children of color out of school, denying them the chance to learn.

And the NAACP, the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens, among other organizations, signed a statement in January calling on Congress to maintain the testing requirement.

"We can't take our foot off the accelerator now," said Daria Hall, who directs policy at the Education Trust, an organization dedicated to improving education for disadvantaged students. "We have to maintain assessment, accountability and reporting."

It's this position that has caused frustration not just among educators, another important Democratic constituency, but also with some civil rights activists. The Advancement Project, for example, argues that children should take locally designed tests once every few years, said Judith Browne Dianis, one of the organization's directors.

"Our position on this issue is driven by the fact we work with parents and young people in school districts throughout the country, and so we hear the stories and the concerns from the ground," she said.

The debate comes down to the question of whether the testing requirement has helped or hurt children of color. Under the law, schools have to show that their test results are improving, not just on average but also among disadvantaged groups of students. If they fail to make progress, schools are subject to an array of consequences and can be required to replace staff members, although very few schools have confronted the most extreme sanctions provided for in the law.

Proponents such as Hall say that public disclosure of test scores, along with the possibility of sanctions, has forced schools to do better.

"Since we have had federal requirements for annual testing, full public reporting and for serious accountability for the results of every group of children, including black, Latino and low-income children, achievement among those students has improved," she said. "Unequivocally, we have seen gains in achievement, particularly for poor kids and kids of color."

Many minority communities celebrated the law. For decades, black parents had suspected that education officials were ignoring their children. Test results are a matter of pride for parents, too, said Denisha Jones, a professor of education at Howard University.

"It was the first time that schools couldn't keep quiet about their inability to educate all students, and especially students of color," she said. "For a lot of African American families, they see the test as an opportunity to prove that their kid is as smart as anybody else's."

Jones, however, thinks this enthusiasm was misplaced and says annual testing has done more harm than good. The requirement led teachers to teach to the test, she says, taking class time away from developing real skills.

It's a common critique of the law. Some say the problem is particularly acute at schools with more black and Hispanic students, since their test scores tend to be lower, and educators might go to extremes to be sure they do well.

Jones disputes the claim that the education law has lessened the gap between white and Asian students and everyone else. "It's actually had the opposite effect," she said, faulting civil rights leaders for not making more of an effort to acknowledge the views of educators in their public statements. "Unless you're in it yourself -- unless you’re a teacher, you're a parent -- you have to step back and listen to those folks. A lot of people in some of these organizations aren't seeing the direct effects."

Research on the consequences of No Child Left Behind has been inconclusive. The testing data generated by the law does show gains among black and Hispanic children, said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University. On the other hand, average scores had been improving for years before No Child Left Behind, and it isn't clear that the law contributed at all.

Reardon and other researchers found evidence that students of color were doing better at schools that risked sanctions if those students did not improve, but the gains were minor overall. Other schools, meanwhile, escaped scrutiny because their minority populations were too small. No Child Left Behind actually appeared to harm those students' performance, possibly because educators were focusing on the groups whose scores mattered under the law.

In short, it does look as though educators can sometimes improve the way they teach when test scores are at stake, and there certainly have been real successes at a number of schools across the country. Yet these improvements just aren't substantial or widespread enough to really help students of color in the aggregate.

As this helpful chart from Five Thirty Eight reveals, the average white 13-year-old still knows more math than the average black 17-year-old. The gap has narrowed by about a third over the past 40 years, as shown in the graph below. Reardon speculates that even making optimistic assumptions about No Child Left Behind, the difference would take another two generations to disappear.

Reardon said he doesn't think that it's necessary to test every student at every school in order to figure out how large the racial differences are in test results, and he said Congress should focus on making sure educators have the resources and the expertise they need to make real changes where they are necessary.

"If you took your temperature every day, it wouldn't make you healthier. The reason to take your temperature every day is help you respond appropriately if it looks like you’re getting sick," he said. "What's really going to improve test scores is whether or not schools are going to be able respond effectively."

Insisting on adequate funding is one thing that advocates for children of color all agree on, and a reason they're opposed to a proposal from House Republicans that they worry would move money out of poor districts and into wealthy ones.

"The poorest districts get hosed under this proposal," said the Education Trust's Hall. "No Child Left Behind had such a strong focus on outcomes. We need to maintain that focus on outcomes, but we also have to really bolster our focus on resources in order to maintain those outcomes."

All the same, the controversy over testing potentially has political significance for the 2016 campaign. Education is one of the few issues that truly divides Democrats, and the question of testing sets two of the party's most important voting blocs against each other. Candidates will have to think carefully about where they stand.

In some states, No Child Left Behind has widened the racial achievement gap slightly. In others, the law has narrowed the gap.

The American Federation of Teachers recently proposed a kind of compromise in which students would be required to test every year but poor results wouldn't have consequences for schools. Hall rejects that approach, saying the tests wouldn't serve any purpose.

"To me, that sounds a whole lot like testing for testing's sake," she said.

If students aren't doing well, then schools are more likely to find excuses to prevent them from testing, which often involve suspensions or expulsions, argues Dianis, of the Advancement Project. The group's research points to a reversal in the trend of graduation rates in large urban districts, with rates increasing until the passage of the law and then declining.

"If you know your job is on the line, if you know your school is on the line, sometimes it may be easier just to get rid of the kid," she said. "That's an unfortunate consequence of our overreliance on testing."