I applauded national civil rights organizations for urging Washington leaders to defend annual student assessments as they overhauled the No Child Left Behind law. Yet, not everyone was a fan.

It seems obvious to me that civil rights advocacy needs objective information to show us whether or not government institutions are closing racial and economic disparities. Which is why it’s baffling that our progressive allies would push back on one important method of getting that information when it comes to public education.

White progressives were first to pushback. The latest in that stream is Marc Tucker, president of National Center on Education and the Economy, who wrote a clever missive to the civil rights community suggesting they “reconsider” support for annual accountability testing. He argues accountability testing forces school districts to buy cheap tests that measure only the most basic cognition, and that testing a smaller sample of students could achieve more while using fewer resources.

Realizing that we are in the middle of a white educational rights movement, with white parents reasserting their political power to redirect schools toward the needs of privileged children and teachers’ unions exploiting that as a way to shield their members from accountability for results with children of color, voices like Tucker’s make sense. His constituency is made up of aging white leftists and their sisters of mercy in the white educator workforce.

Now the Tucker argument comes with a black face.

Writing in that well-known black publication, The Hill, Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera say civil rights leaders are wrong to support annual testing. It’s a betrayal of a true civil rights education agenda they say.

For reference, Browne Dianis leads The Advancement Project, Jackson leads the Schott Foundation, and Noguera is an intellectual celebrity popular with teachers’ unions and their ancillary allies like the Advancement Project and the Schott Foundation.

I’ll be flip here. Their argument boils down to this: annual assessment of student proficiency doesn’t cure cancer.

They say:

Data from these annual assessments are not a reasonable proxy for educational opportunity, and even more, educational equity. African American and Latino students are more likely to be suspended, expelled or pushed-out of school regardless of their performance on the test; and despite some improvement in graduation rates, significant disparities remain.

All of that is true. Yes, educational opportunity is important. Yes, black and brown students are more likely to be suspended. Yes, local education authorities have not only tolerated but perfected practices to push undesirable students out of desirable school programs. Yes, educational disparities exist across public education today.

And, yes, these are voluble red herrings. We won’t battle any of those issues with less objective data.

In fairness, the authors say they “are not opposed to assessment” and that they believe “[s]tandards and assessments are important for diagnostic purpose.” But they say “too often the data produced by standardized tests are not made available to teachers until after the school year is over, making it impossible to use the information to address student needs.

Different assessments play different roles within the education hierarchy. Some assessments inform classroom instruction, others inform management, parents, taxpayers, and policymakers.

Testing students each year helps education leaders monitor progress districts and schools make toward getting student groups (especially marginalized students) to meeting standards year over year. Teachers get a steady feedback loop from other data streams, including many they devise themselves, throughout the year to inform their teaching.

If they don’t, the problem isn’t annual testing.

How we’ve won

I feel we’re getting lost. We’re forgetting how civil rights methodology works. Our historic fight for advancements in jobs, housing, education, and justice systems has always been bolstered by using data, exposing racialized gaps, and forcing government and society to change the negative numbers by executing affirmative interventions. That is traditionally how we’ve won.

Any group – black or otherwise – suggesting we erase the very data we use to illustrate systemic discrimination isn’t following the civil rights playbook. It’s bewildering why the Dianas, Jackson, and Noguera argument urges us to put down a major weapon in fighting institutional racism.

If these authors want us to know that standardized testing isn’t perfect and it too often is done poorly, point well-taken. Some teachers and their districts have not yet discovered a way to teach above the test. For that reason they are left teaching to the test. In some cases teachers and their school leaders have diluted curriculum and narrowed the scope of their instruction.

While that has been the sad consequence in places with poor district leadership and low-quality teaching forces, that does not overshadow our need to know whether or not our children are becoming proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians. All available information tells us that the relationship between teaching and learning isn’t working for us, which means we need to keep observing all available information.

It’s strange to me that in nearly 800 words the authors sidestep teaching, teacher quality, and instruction. They focus our attention away from the classroom, where, presumably, student learning takes place. This aligns with the agenda of national teachers’ unions. They would send us backwards to a 20th century testing scheme where under-performing black and brown schools were whitewashed in a vague sea of averaged test scores.

Remember the bad old days when we had a crazy array of local standards that made it nearly impossible to hold government accountable for results? Our students were tracked out of college preparation programming and into vocational classes; in many cases they were not counted if they were English Language Learners or special education students; and in 30 states they didn’t even disaggregate results by race – basically making our kids and their needs invisible. That was wrong then and it’s wrong to suggest we go back to that.

In the last wave of school reform we learned a lot about what to do better. It matters that we support all the needs of our children. It matters that teachers have world class supports to do their best work. We should not be testing kids simply for the sake of testing, instead, it should be meaningful for students, teachers, leaders, and communities.

At the same time, we want the positive trends in graduation, reading and math proficiency, and gains in special education achievement to continue.

Civil rights groups are right to push for annual testing and to keep the racially unequal results of those tests front and center. They should continue to fight even when friends oppose them. Let’s not be confused: disabling and sabotaging data mechanisms is usually a strategy of people opposed to civil rights, not those who claim to support social progress.

I expect many of our traditional allies and opponents to get this story wrong. They don’t always live in our tradition. They are blind with privilege and self-interest. Their anti-testing campaign and it’s attendant national tantrum is becoming a full-blown civil wrongs movement.

It’s sad to see black faces on such a thing, but still, we’ve come too far to turn back now.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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