Testing and Civil Rights

ESEA Debate Highlights Culturally Divergent Views on Federal Role in Education

A complex cultural divide is developing around the reauthorization of ESEA.  ESEA/NCLB is a huge bill with many parts, so the divide is not necessarily a clean split (aka for the bill or against it). Indeed, there are few people who are simply against reauthorization of the bill, most want it restored in some form. There are deep, wide differences, however, over its provisions and implications, and many like myself—a parent and teacher of color—are finding the answers to these questions are not cut-and-dried, but they are critical to our professional work and, more important, to the lives of our children and the future of our communities.

Among those questions are: Whether and how much of a role the Federal government should play in oversight of education. How should states, local school districts, and individual schools be held accountable for the quality of education they provide to all students, and by whom?

Maybe you had to actually live through the era of massive resistance, Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, and the Little Rock Nine (among many others) to understand why some of us aren’t particularly excited about returning total control of education to the hands of state and local officials.  Of course, my perspective on this issue is very much affected by my ignominious context. The Federal government has some serious unfinished business in public education here dating back to the Brown decision.

Key to the issue of Federal responsibility is reaching consensus on what constitutes accountability.  The Shared Civil Rights Principles for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by a broad coalition of civil rights groups including NAACP, National Council of La Raza, GLSEN, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, calls for annual assessments in grades 3 – 8 and at least once in high school that measure students’ progress towards meeting career and college-ready standards.  Fawn Johnson, editor at National Journal.com notes on the Education Insiders blog:

Federal law currently mandates 17 annual tests—seven in math and seven in reading each year for grades 3 through 8, and one reading and one math test for high school students. There are three required tests in science, one for grades 3 through 6, one for grades 6 through 9, and one for high school. On balance, that’s not so bad, but those aren’t the only tests that students take. In Florida, [Lamar] Alexander said, students take a total of 200 tests. The additional assessments are layered on by the state and the school districts.

The state and local tests come about because schools are preparing for the federal tests, which have “unrealistic expectations with respect to student achievement,” according to Harvard education professor Marty West.

West who testified before the House Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee about ESEA reauthorization as an expert witness on testing, favors “restoring to states virtually all decisions [emphasis mine] about the design of their accountability systems, including how schools and teachers are identified as under-performing and what should be done to improve their performance.”  West and others point to several studies that conclude student performance on standardized tests can in fact predict what students are likely to accomplish as adults (e.g., college graduation and level of earnings).  While he concedes that under the current testing provisions, many schools have narrowed their curriculums and restricted students and teachers from engaging in higher order learning, West and others insist that steadily rising scores on low-stakes measures, such as NAEP, indicate the accountability push has improved the overall quality of education for significant groups of students.  But even he acknowledges that making high-stakes judgments based on test scores alone is unwise and unreliable.

If the majority of public schools in America had an assessment program such as the one described by NYC teacher Stephen Lazar in his testimony (see pp. 6-7) at that same HELP hearing, this would be a very different debate. But we don’t, largely due to how state and local authorities choose to implement those systems and fulfill (or subvert) the intentions of the law. Lazar stressed not only that the system his school uses is more intellectually challenging and authentic than the one that relies solely on standardized tests, but also that it was developed from the bottom up—by and with teachers—rather than mandated from the top.

Such a system represents an important step towards a more equitable model of local control, and I believe, represents the true intent of Federal law, particularly the provisions of Title I. Yet, parents and teachers across the country have reported for years that those provisions are routinely ignored, circumvented, and corrupted at state and local levels. This is particularly disturbing since the parents, students, and teachers disenfranchised through these maneuvers are those who have suffered the most from long-term discrimination and inequity which is what Title I was designed to address.

Stephen Lazar argues for a balance of federal and local roles in assessment:

…Congress should remove the high stakes from mandated tests, limit the number of tests used for accountability purposes, allow schools to use more sophisticated and useful assessment tools such as performance assessments, and schedule mandated assessments at a time that they would provide useful and actionable information on the academic needs of students. To do this requires a better balance of the federal government’s role in education with that of local decision ‐ making….It seems clear that when setting standards and evaluating success, the federal government needs to hold states, school districts and schools accountable for not perpetuating a “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But federal and state governments need to recognize that the best educational decisions for students are made by those who are closest to them, those who possess the fullest and deepest understanding of their needs. Educators’ voices need to be the loudest in making the decisions of what is tested, how students are tested and when students are tested.

I would amend that last part to say the voices of accomplished educators, those who have demonstrated both academic and cultural proficiency in their work with students AND the voices of parents and students should be equally valued parts of those local decision-making processes on assessment and accountability.

Could the Federal government support and protect such democratic processes at the local levels? What would it take to get a consensus and passage on such an approach from the current Congress? What would it take to get states and local districts to adopt such approaches with integrity and fidelity?