EMPATHY V. CRITICISM: HOW TO RESPOND TO THOSE WHO THINK MORE TESTING IS NEEDED TO IMPROVE PUBLIC EDUCATION

Originally published by emPower Magazine on Wednesday January 21, 2015

On Sunday January 11, 2015, a group of 19 civil rights organizations released a statement that outlined their shared principles regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Of the seven recommendations, there is one that has many education activists a bit alarmed by the position these groups are taking,

“Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards…”

In 2001 ESEA was reauthorized under President George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was birthed. For many teachers NCLB was the starting point for testing mania that has taken over public education today. Under NCLB public schools that received Title I funding were forced to test all students each year, make public the results of those tests based on race, and make adequate yearly progress (AYP) or risk being turned into a charter school. And of course the mandate came with no funding for schools that were already witnessing declining budget allocations in many states.

Since 2001 public education has been the target of education reformers who believe that more testing especially high stakes testing, and firing teachers based on test scores is what low-income, minority, and special needs children need to succeed. Unfortunately President Obama made things worse when he instituted Race to the Top which is NCLB on steroids…more testing, more charters, and more evaluation of teachers based on their ability to increase test scores. Many teachers have publicly left the teaching profession due to the excessive testing and impossible mandates. And more and more parents are choosing to opt their children out of standardized testingwhile some teachers are refusing to administer tests they believe are not an accurate measure of what a student has learned.

FairTest-Pipeline-Infographic

Despite the growing anti-testing movement, civil rights groups like the NAACP and Children’s Defense Fund, believe that testing is needed to ensure equity and fairness for all children. This belief is perplexing to those who see the damage excessive testing has done to all children. An article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post criticizes this decision by asking what are all those civil rights groups thinking? What is missing in the article is an attempt to find out why so many civil rights organizations believe that yearly standardized testing is the best way to close the achievement gap. For many parents of black and brown children, they saw NCLB as the first time schools were forced to admit that they were not doing a good educating their children. The mandates required each school to disaggregate the test scores by race and gender. This made it painfully obvious which schools were not producing satisfactory levels of achievement in minority students. We always knew there was an achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white counterparts, but now we can see what the gap looks like in every school. And now these schools have no choice but to make sure these students improve their scores or risk being labeled as failing and forced into an improvement plan.

On the surface this line of thinking makes sense. Before NCLB many schools could hide the fact that some groups of students were not doing well. Many parents believed that prior to NCLB some teachers and schools did not try to educate all students, especially students of color. Given the racial history of public schools this is not an outlandish conspiracy theory. Since public schools were legally mandated to end segregated schooling, disparities in achievement and equity have plagued black and brown children. Any student of color in the U.S. can describe to you at least one racist encounter they experienced in public schools. The fact is public education in the U.S. was not designed to serve children of color well. This does not mean that all teachers are racist, but it should shed light on why civil rights groups might welcome testing that appears to hold schools accountable for the education of all children.

Yes there is racism in public schools. There will always be some type of racism in every aspect of American culture and institutions. But the solution to dealing with racism in education is NOT mandated testing. Testing shows us that there is an achievement gap but that gap cannot be closed through more testing. The results of standardized testing tells us more about the income level of families and less about what a student has learned or how good teachers are at their job. Contrary to the supposed benefits of testing all children, high stakes standardized testing and the test-prep culture contribute to low-achieving students being pushed out of school, a decline in graduation rates for children of color, and an increase in the school-to-prison pipeline. As classrooms are turned into testing factories and teachers and principals are pressured into raising scores, children become less engaged, act out more, and get into trouble which is often the first step to entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who cannot pass mandatory graduation tests are forced to drop out. And some school districts push students out of school to keep them from taking the tests and bring down the scores. These disadvantages far outweigh the possible advantage that mandated yearly testing could have on children of color.

So why would 19 civil rights organizations demand more testing when there is a vast amount of research that shows how harmful high stakes standardized testing can be for low-income and minority children? I suspect that part of the reason is that the corporate reformers talk a good game. They appeal to parents who feel like they are trapped in failing public schools by co-opting the language of the civil rights movement. This is how an organization like Teach for America can be lauded by many as the savior of public education when in reality they place inexperienced, unqualified, mostly white recent college graduates in schools with students who have the most need, for a couple of years increasing the historic problem of teacher turnover. They claim to want to help low-income students but in reality they are a business that profits off of de-professionalizing the teaching profession by turning teaching into a 2 year temporary experience that anyone can do with five weeks of training. However if you are a parent and your child has consistently had teachers who are racist or do not seem to care, you might just appreciate this energetic fresh faced new comer. It is not hard to see how some parents can be deceived into thinking that the education reforms being forced onto schools are going to finally turn our public school system into an equitable and anti-racist institution.

So before you criticize these civil rights group for endorsing more testing you might want to ask yourself what would lead them to take that position. And you should ask yourself if your criticisms of them are going to expose the dangers of standardized testing or further alienate a group of people who have routinely been shut out from mainstream conversation. Criticism does not build allies or welcome people who have been marginalized to join the fight. This does not mean that we should not engage in a thoughtful discussion that challenges the dangers in believing standardized testing can put an end to racial discrimination in schools, but consider the difference in thisresponse and the message it sends.

Likewise, when we deepen the conversation about standardized testing, we usually discover that parents and educators want similar things for our children. If standardized tests are widely and loudly touted as an anti-racist measure of opportunity and fairness, some parents who are desperately searching for some measure of fairness for their children might latch onto that. Those of us who are opposed to high-stakes standardized testing shouldn’t moralize with people, or disparage their viewpoints or their experience. Rather, we have to validate their experience and find a way to deepen the conversation.

If you are an ally to the education activists who are fighting to save public education from the grips of testing and profits, we need you to empathize with these people and not insult them by calling their thinking shallow. The reality is the corporate reformers know how to appeal to these parents concerns. They show sympathy and profess to be committed to helping these children escape the schools that continue to fail them. Maybe if we did the same they would see us as allies and join our fight. The true work of reforming public education into a system where oppression and discrimination are not tolerated and children engage in meaningful learning with teachers who use authentic assessment to guide students into tapping in to their full potential, can only be done when we stop criticizing those who have historically been on the receiving end of a unjust public education system and learn to work together to make our shared vision a reality.



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