By the time a student in one of Chicago’s public schools completes eighth grade, she will have taken an average of 180 standardized tests. That’s part of the legacy of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that ushered in a regime of test-based accountability for schools and teachers. Federal lawmakers are now in the middle of overhauling the law, and there is real appetite for scaling back the power that the Department of Education has to punish schools based on test results.
Yet many Democrats are still committed to the driving philosophy of NCLB: that accountability measures tied to annual tests are essential for closing achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their classmates. This position is espoused by the White House and Education Secretary Arne Duncan; by leading Democratic lawmakers, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on the education Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee; and some civil-rights groups, including the NAACP and the Urban League. “When we don’t hold our schools and states accountable for educating every child, it is the kids from our low-income backgrounds, kids with disabilities, kids who are learning English and kids of color who too often do fall through the cracks,” Murray said recently.
Whether and how to boost accountability is one of the sharpest points of contention in the ongoing Senate debate about a bipartisan overhaul of NCLB crafted by Murray and Republican Lamar Alexander. As it currently stands, the legislation would not end the era of high-stakes testing, but it would shift to the states the question of how tests are used to evaluate and discipline teachers and schools. The White House and other Democrats would like to include stricter rules for states to identify and intervene in low-performing schools, saying they’re necessary to protect poor and minority students.
The debate has been narrowly framed as a partisan question of federal versus state control over testing. But some educators, parents, and advocates are calling for a deeper discussion about whether standardized testing serves a civil-rights agenda at all. Instead, they argue, it does the opposite. “In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that DC based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests,” write Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project, John Jackson of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University (and a Nation contributor), wrote recently.