We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

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Civil Rights groups have long championed the needs of people of color, women and minorities.

Segregated schools, voting rights, police brutality – all of these have been the subject of long and brutal fights for equality.

Perhaps the strangest turn in 2015 has been the fight for standardized testing.

That’s right. Organizations that you’d expect to see fighting against racism have been clamoring for access to multiple choice bubble exams.

In fact, the Democrats have used this as an excuse for their failed attempts to keep the much maligned Test and Punish policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law – currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – is a testing corporation’s dream filled with policies that have been failing our children for 13 years. Unsurprisingly, teachers, parents and students are demanding relief.

But do Civil Rights groups who fought against unfair testing as a prerequisite to vote now really demand unfair testing as a prerequisite for a high school diploma?

The answer is yes and no.

SOME Civil Rights groups have demanded more testing, and others have demanded LESS.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, wrote Congress an open letter in July asking for an end to high stakes testing. And the JJA wasn’t alone. The alliance was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations who signed on to the letter to “…call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

However, the JJA’s call has been largely ignored by lawmakers and the media. A much smaller coalition of Civil Rights organizations in favor of testing, on the other hand, has been given so much press you’d be excused if you thought they represented the entire activist community.

Yes, 19 Civil Rights organizations wrote to Congress in January, 2015, asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

However, 11 Civil Rights groups – many of them the exact same groups – wrote to Obama in October, 2014, asking him to reduce standardized testing.

What happened in less than 3 months, to change their minds?

It’s hard to say, but in October the prospect of rewriting the ESEA – the federal law that governs K-12 schools – seemed impossible. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could find any common ground. It looked like the law – which was last reauthorized in 2007 – would be pushed aside until at least the next president was sworn in.

But then like magic when the political situation changed and reauthorization seemed like it might actually happen, suddenly a coalition of Civil Rights organizations found their love for standardized testing.

It seems highly unlikely that these two events are unrelated.

But why would these organizations change their tune so quickly?

One very real possibility is money.

Most of the groups now backing standardized assessments accept huge sums of money from one of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates. And Bill loves standardized tests.

In many ways, his business profits from them. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wouldn’t exist without his backing, and they depend on standardized tests. Moreover, most states give these assessments on computers – many of which have Microsoft emblazoned on the hard drive. And this doesn’t even count the test preparation software sold to help students get higher test scores.

The sad fact is that standardized testing is big business in this country. Everyone from book publishers to software manufacturers to professional development providers to for-profit prisons depend on the continuation of the testocracy.

And many of these Civil Rights groups would be crippled without that Gates funding. Others seem more like think tanks that really have nothing to do with Civil Rights.

Take Education Trust – an advocacy group that helped create NCLB and CCSS. It should be no surprise the organization took $49 million from Gates and thinks bubble tests are just wonderful.

However, even laudable groups like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) owe Gates a debt.

UNCF took more than $1.5 billion from Gates. Ostensibly that money is supposed to go to scholarships. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how could the organization go against the wishes of perhaps its biggest donor? The consequences could be disastrous for UNCF’s entirely worthy mission.

One can imagine administrators stuck between a rock and a hard place having to compromise their stance against testing in order to continue helping people of color fulfill their dreams of going to college.

Other suddenly pro-test organizations taking money from Gates include: La Raza, The Leadership Conference, National Urban League, and Children Defense Fund.

And that’s only the half of it.

To make matters worse, standardized tests don’t enhance students’ Civil Rights. They violate them.

Test scores are used as an excuse to continue spending less money on poor schools who serve mostly minority populations.

Proponents say these assessments hold schools accountable for providing children with a quality education. But how can you provide an education of equal quality with a rich school when you don’t receive even close to the same amount of funding to begin with?

Moreover, test scores have been shown countless times to be poor indicators of academic success. They are, however, excellent predictors of parental income. Poor kids score low. Rich kids score high. So when we take away funding based on low test scores and increase it based on high test scores, we only reinforce the status quo and compound the hurt against people of color.

But this sudden public mea culpa from some Civil Rights organizations is being used by political pundits to justify continuing the practices that would make Martin Luther King, Jr., turn in his grave.

And it’s not over. As Congress continues to hobble together a new version of the ESEA, politicians – mostly Democrats – are bound to lobby for as much federally mandated testing as possible. Even Obama has promised to veto the bill if it doesn’t contain enough love for the testing industry.

It’s up to education voters to educate themselves on the subject and demand real Civil Rights reforms.

End the system of Test and Punish.

Remove or reduce standardized testing from our schools.

Provide equitable funding for schools serving impoverished children.

And give our students of color a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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16 thoughts on “We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

  1. This is why I cannot bring myself to support the ESEA re-write, both the house and senate version enshrine test in punish into federal law. Both continue the disastrous path of mandating standards based education with yearly testing for accountability.

    It is true that the powers of the secretary of education have been reduced but the principal of our federal government turning local school boards into tax collecting agencies responsible for instituting state and federal education policy is more solidly established.

    Local communities deserve a more significant voice in the education of their own children than do faceless bureaucrats in remote capitals. Test and punish is a policy favored people who understand little about pedagogy or human cognitive development and have no professional experience in educating children. This policy ultimately leads to the privatization of public schools, loss of creativity and degradation of American democracy.

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  2. […] The administration has nothing to say about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There’s nothing about sanctions on districts that don’t provide proper services for ELLs. There’s nothing about ensuring adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for all students – especially the poor and minorities. Instead the Department of Education pretends like high stakes tests are candy bars and what poor disadvantaged minority ELL disabled kid doesn’t love the soft velvety chocolate taste of a multiple choice test!? […]

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