Battle Over Standardized Testing Exposes Deep Rifts in Education Reform Community

One faction says the high-stakes exams hurt children of color, while the other side believes they help the fight for civil rights.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The words read like a familiar manifesto against standardized testing, condemning it as harmful to students, a drain on classroom instruction time that doesn’t accurately measure achievement, and an unwieldy tool that’s used for every purpose than the one intended: helping to improve education.

However, a harsh statement released by the advocacy group Network for Public Education is actually the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle between two education reform factions. They’re fighting each other while simultaneously battling the education establishment.

In the statement, released in late June on its website, the NPE says the tests, which are mandated by No Child Left Behind, are being used to “rank, sort, label, and punish” African American and Latino kids. Designed to “unveil the achievement gaps” with white students, the tests instead became a justification for a white-supremacist agenda: “Thousands of predominantly poor and minority neighborhood schools—the anchors of communities—have been closed,” according to the statement.

Robin Hiller, NPE’s executive director, said in an email interview that the statement is the organization’s pushback against education activists who want to squash the growing movement to boycott tests that are tied to the Common Core curriculum standards. Her organization, Hiller said, also wants Congress to end annual testing and “return the nation to grade span testing” in elementary, middle, and high school.

She also confirmed the statement is directed at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a mainstream organization that opposes boycott efforts. The LCCHR says minority students and parents should buy in, not opt out, for the sake of racial and educational equality.

“Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes, even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused,” says an LCCHR statement.

“These data are used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners,” the LCCHR continues. “Anti-testing efforts have resulted in statewide bills and local pressure on schools to discourage students from taking assessments, which would undermine the validity of this data.”

The dueling statements have exposed a rift between mainstream organizations like the LCCHR and assertive, more progressive ones like NPE over the future of standardized tests and what tactics to use to make sure students of color are treated equally.

There’s no doubt the black-white student achievement gap has been stubborn to close, and the high-stakes tests are often cited as evidence. According to the most recent Education Department data, students of color typically score some 20 to 26 percentage points lower than white students in reading and math.

While some education analysts point to failing schools in minority communities to explain the discrepancy, some education advocates say the tests themselves are culturally biased, posing questions that middle-class whites understand but without relevance to children of color.

If the push to get students to reject the tests gains steam, it could bolster the “opt-out” movement launched by education activists in more affluent communities. They complain the tests are given too frequently and put more pressure on kids already under the gun from long school days and stacks of homework.

Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, wrote in an email that overreliance on test data has had a disparate, largely negative impact on minority students and “does very little, if anything, to enhance their learning.”

The shots fired between the NPE and the LCCHR, Aronson says, illuminate an angle on standardized testing that doesn’t receive as much attention, and reframes it as a civil-rights issue. Moreover, he adds, the tests help feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

“High-stakes accountability systems that evaluate schools and teachers by looking at test scores lead to some terrible treatment of low-scoring students in attempts to maintain high scores—treatment that pushes many children into the streets, which for black and Latino males significantly boosts incarceration rates,” he wrote.

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The tests, and those who evaluate them, tend to overlook the “toxic levels of stress” in hardscrabble urban minority neighborhoods, Aronson wrote.

“I have seen children in schools I work with who are clearly traumatized by what’s going on in their neighborhoods and homes: When they arrive to school they are expected to care about prepping for a bubble test in subjects that will do them no good in addressing their most pressing predicaments,” he wrote. “It’s very hard to watch, and I dare say, it is about as effective an approach to developing children as it is elevating.”

The good news, he added, is “there are vastly better ways to approach educating our children.” Unfortunately, education policy experts seem stuck “in this testing-evaluating mind-set,” so drastic action may be necessary.

“If the opt-out movement can shake things up and force us to rethink how we educate and evaluate our children,” Aronson wrote, “then I’m all for it.”