Why Some Black Leaders Aren’t Down With Opting Out of Standardized Testing

Marc Morial of the National Urban League is among the many critics of the push to ditch state-mandated assessments.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 6, 2016· 2 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.

Given that America’s schools are as racially segregated as ever, with few signs of true, widespread integration on the horizon, a new movement calling for white suburban and minority urban parents to join forces against standardized testing could be hailed as progress.

Some national civil-rights groups, however, are blasting the mostly white opt-out movement’s high-profile attempt to recruit African American and Latino parents to their ranks—a recruiting pitch that analysts say gained traction last year and has expanded significantly during the current spring testing season.

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Keeping minority students who attend struggling urban schools from taking standardized tests, critics say, eliminates an objective, baseline measure of how well kids are learning. It also makes it tougher to determine whether their teachers are effective and how resources are being allocated compared with white districts.

“If we don’t have testing, we don’t know where the achievement gap is. We’re flying blind,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told TakePart.

“I don’t have any argument” with critics who say testing should be curbed, Morial said. But he believes opting out of the tests can be even more damaging to students in the short term—and do long-term damage to communities whose schools need resource parity with affluent white districts.

“It’s about holding school districts and teachers accountable to make sure districts are performing,” Morial said. “We have to make sure every kid learns. We need tools to hold people accountable.”

But leaders in the opt-out movement point to scores of parents in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia who have thrown in with their suburban opt-out counterparts. They argue that the system of constant, fill-in-the-bubble assessments eats up time that could be spent teaching or counseling their kids, and that administrators typically use scores to close struggling schools rather than shift resources to help them improve.

“They definitely use those tests against the children and the neighborhood and the community,” Shakeda Gaines, an African American mother and member of the Opt Out Philly group, told Politico. “What happens to the community when the school closes? It destroys the whole neighborhood. This is more than we bargained for.”

The opt-out movement largely began in suburban and rural, mostly white districts when parents and some teachers complained that administrators were testing their kids far too often. Constant beat-the-clock testing, they argue—as often as once a semester through high school and sometimes more—cranks up the pressure on students.

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A “teach to the test” culture squashes critical thinking and creativity and wipes out individualized assessments, according to critics. Besides mandatory state assessments, students in some districts are tested as often as once a year on math and reading proficiency; in previous decades, testing typically happened just once in elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Jeff Strohl, an education policy analyst at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said both sides have a point: Testing can help identify deficiencies in struggling urban schools, while overtesting, or misinterpreting the results, can harm the very students—and schools and communities—that need help.

“I look at it like a thermometer: I take your temperature, you’ve got a fever,” Strohl said. “It can give us those indicators of where we can help and who needs help.”

Still, the concept of minority communities and whites coming together in the opt-out movement isn’t necessarily mutually beneficial, Strohl said. “All students are facing the over-testing issue; wealthy white parents aren’t facing the under-resourcing of schools problem,” he said.

Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said critics of the white-minority, opt-out alliance are missing the point.

The average kid in a hardscrabble urban school district takes 112 standardized tests from elementary school through high school, and “it hasn’t helped,” Schaeffer said, adding that struggling districts are still struggling. There’s a better way to determine “unequal resource distribution without jumping the shark of having year-round testing,” he said.

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“We want to make clear that we need a new direction,” he said. “More and more testing, with more consequences attached to it, isn’t the answer to these real problems.”

Over-testing “is an important issue for parents of all backgrounds,” Schaeffer said, adding that there has been “a significant increase” in parents of color joining the opt-out movement. “African American and Latino parents have the same concerns about testing overkill” as white parents.

The bottom line, he said: “More testing isn’t the answer; better assessment is the answer.”