What Are These Civil Rights Groups Thinking?

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What Are These Civil Rights Groups Thinking?

President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind education measure into law in 2002. (Photo: Win McNamee/Reuters)

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.”

Read the full joint statement by the groups here.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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