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Is forcing every child to take annual standardized tests in reading and math a civil rights issue?

That certainly seems to be one of the questions most in consideration in Washington, since deliberations began on how to rewrite the federal government's most significant education policy No Child Left Behind.

Back in January, when congressional committees in both houses began their conversations, The Washington Post reported that "a coalition of civil rights groups" had released a statement urging Congress to maintain the annual standardized tests in math and reading.

"The testing requirement has come under fire from a strange-bedfellows movement of teachers unions, parents, and conservative lawmakers," notes The Post's Emma Brown, "who argue that the exams represent an overreach by the federal government that has turned schools into one-dimensional test-prep institutions."

Indeed, parents and teachers across the country are up in arms about their schools' overreliance on standardized tests. The blog site Fairtest, by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, keeps a running tally of news stories across the country reporting on resistance to the tests, including boisterous street protests, demonstrations at school board meetings and state capitals and efforts to boycott the tests. You'd be hard pressed to find a state where there isn't open and prominent rebellion against the tests.

A lot of the controversy addresses not only the existence of the tests but also how the scores are used for high-stakes decisions on how schools and teachers are performing and whether to pass students onto the next grade or to graduation.

The nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, has come out firmly against the annual testing. So has the other national teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers at least in terms of how they are being used in the high-stakes decision-making.

But the civil rights groups argue that annual testing is necessary, Brown reported. "No Child Left Behind’s testing requirement has unmasked yawning achievement gaps and forced all states and school districts to focus on serving poor and minority students, including those with disabilities."

"Any rewrite of No Child Left Behind should keep annual testing provisions" writes the editorial board of The Washington Post. Their editorial accused teachers unions of giving "lip service to accountability as long as their members aren’t the ones held to account."

"The tests were intended as a way for schools to see whether all student groups, but particularly minorities and poor students, were being taught adequately" an article in The New York Times states, noting that the Obama administration is steadfast in insisting annual tests stay in the legislation.

A particularly vehement defense of annual testing appearing at the blog site Education Post, operated by a former communications director in the Obama administration's Education Department, compares proposals to curb annual testing to efforts by the National Rifle Association to block most federal research into gun violence and deaths. The writer calls it a "blatant attempt to dump the evidence."

So how 'bout that evidence?

Are Black Males Better Off?

After 12 years of test-driven education accountability aligned with a "civil rights" cause, you would expect to see substantial improvements among student populations most in need of being better served by the system.

That's not the conclusion of a new report released by The Schott Foundation for Public Education. [Disclosure: Schott is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.] The report, the most recent edition of "The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males," analyzed over a decade of data on the chronically troubled population of young Black males in the country and found too little progress and evidence of recent deterioration.

Despite stated intentions of federal education policies, gaps in scores in reading and math tests on the National Assessment of Education Progress between black males and their white peers continue to be wide. Nationally, 38 percent of white males scored at or above proficient on the 2013 NAEP assessment in reading, but only 17 percent of Latino males and 12 percent of Black males did. In math, 13 percent of Black males scored at or above proficient on the 2013 NAEP Grade 8 math assessment, while scores were 21 percent of Latino males and 45 percent of White males.

These gaps in achievement get reflected in graduation rates. Of the 48 states where data were collected, "in 35 states and the District of Columbia, black males remain at the bottom of four-year high school graduation rates. (Latino males were at the bottom in 13 states.)"

Nine states and the District of Columbia still have alarmingly bad track records for graduating black males of 55 percent or less.

While there has been some progress in high school graduation rates for black males over the past decade, the report's estimate of 59 percent for the 2012-2013 school year are actually lower than the 61 percent mark the U.S. Department of Education forecasted in 2011, which means the direction for these students may be going backward.

Nationally, the graduation gap between black and white males has not only persisted, but widened from 19 percentage points in school year 2009-10 to 21 percentage points in 2012-13. Eleven states have over a 25-percentage point gap between black and white student graduation rates.

In higher education, these attainment gaps are reflected in data as well, showing only 16 percent of black males eventually holding a bachelor's degree or higher – half of what white males achieve and only somewhat better than the 12 percent rate among Latino males.

"Black males continue to be both pushed out and locked out of opportunities for academic achievement," the report states, "including notable disparities in their enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and participation in Gifted and Talented programming. Furthermore, Black students were more likely to be classified as students with disabilities."

These findings continue to make clear there is "a systemic problem impacting black males," as Schott's executive director John Jackson writes in remarks.

The report calls for "tailored approaches adapted to personal educational needs, social contexts, and students’ learning styles. The current standard approach does not serve high or low achievers well."

You could argue these findings are irrelevant to issues of standardized testing – that the tests are meant to chart the academic progress of each student year to year, and eventual trajectories such as high school graduation and college degrees are affected by other factors not discernible through annual testing. But that's the point. While so much emphasis has been focused on standardized testing, much bigger, more important issues impacting young students of color have been sorely neglected. The demands of testing have simply crowded out those issues.

The Bigger Picture On Test-Driven Education

"For very good reasons, many civil rights groups lined up behind NCLB (just as some now continue to support test-based reforms)," a recent brief from the National Education Policy Center states.

But "it is important to note that achievement gaps were well known prior to NCLB," the brief notes. So what have we accomplished, in terms of civil rights advancement, with 12 years of test-driven reform?

"Since NCLB became law in 2002," the researchers write, "students may have shown slight increases in test scores, relative to pre-NCLB students. Looking at the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), however, any test score increases over the pre-NCLB trend are very small, and they are miniscule compared to what early advocates of NCLB promised. We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it."

A recent broadcast of the Diane Rehm show had a noteworthy point-counterpoint on the issue of testing between pro-test advocate Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Elaine Weiss of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, who advocates for a very different direction in education policy.

In the discussion, Chingos claims there was "pretty good research evidence" that the goals of of NCLB have been accomplished in part, but Weiss points to a study by the National Academy of Sciences that found an overreliance on test data had produced no substantial gains in student achievement and had led to narrowing of the curriculum, particularly in schools serving low-income students.

The study, reported on by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, found, "Standardized tests commonly used in schools to measure student performance – including high school exit exams and tests in various grades mandated by former president Bush’s No Child Left Behind law – 'fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways.'"

While Chingos argues to the radio audience that annual tests can tell us what effect a school has had on the year-to-year progress of a student, Weiss counters these tests "do a horrible job of telling us how schools are doing." In fact, because of the strong correlation of test scores to the household income level of the student being tested – a correlation that is undeniably true all over the world – tests mostly "tell us how many poor kids are in the school," Weiss explains.

What should we be doing instead?

How 'Bout This Instead?

To begin with, "Testing should not be driving reform," the folks at NEPC assert. The disparities among subgroups of students will not close by perfecting our testing strategies but only when we commit to "sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn."

Their conclusion is, "An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts, and schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing."

Instead they call for "a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright."

Echoing these recommendations, the policy document from Broader, Bolder Approach linked above calls for "comprehensive supports for the disadvantaged students." Specifically, the document advocates universal access to high-quality early childhood education and family supports, more "quality time" for enriching instruction, and a "supports-based approach" that includes attention to these students' nutrition, health, wellness, counseling/guidance, and mental and emotional health.

Another intriguing idea is to change annual testing from high-stakes assessments of every student to a sampling of students – disaggregated by race, income and other factors – for the purpose of diagnosing learning problems – a sort of schools-based NAEP.

However, the civil rights argument for The Big Annual Test continues to devolve into circular reasoning: Justifications for the tests are based exclusively on what the tests produce – that we need to test every poor black and brown child every year to see what their test scores are.

We know what to do when we're going in circles. Change directions.

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