Does High-Stakes Testing & Accountability= Social Justice & Civil Rights?

Last week I had the opportunity to give the Social Justice Keynote for The California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators (CALSA) at the University of San Diego for their Sixth Annual Research to Practice Academic Conclave on May 8, 2015. CALSA is:

A community of diverse educational leaders skilled in addressing the needs of Latino/a students and dedicated to increasing the number of highly effective Latino/a administrators.

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Here is the transcription of the lecture focusing on high-stakes testing and local accountability:

I have the unenviable position of being your after lunch speaker.

Looks like that gentleman in the back is already ready for his afternoon nap.

First, I want to thank each and everyone one of you for dedicating your life to our state’s children.

Second I’d like to invite you to tweet quotes and photos at me during this talk to @ProfessorJVH.

Third, this new lecture represents the advancement, evolution, and application of my thinking about high-stakes testing.

I’d like to begin thousands of miles on the other side of the planet. That place where we were always trying to dig to as a young child— China.

Julian Vasquez Heilig at Great Wall of China in 1996

Julian Vasquez Heilig at Great Wall of China in 1996

I have visited China three times, once in each of the past three decades.

What really struck me during the time that I lived in China— and my subsequent visits— was the severe integration of high-stakes testing into Chinese society to sort and stratify.

I recently authored a policy brief with DongMei Li, a Chinese graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin (See After Thousand of Years, #China Changing Mind on #Testing ? #edreform). We wrote that Chinese society has been driven by testing for thousands of years, dating back to ancient times when civil servants and leaders were selected based solely on the imperial service examinations given in the Forbidden City and elsewhere.

While this old exam system was terminated after more than a thousand years in 1906, the high-stakes testing culture persisted— and has played a critical role in selecting “talent” in Chinese society.

Currently, the public school environment in China is testing-oriented because the sole mechanism enabling college access for the vast majority of high school students is the national higher education entrance examination.

Also, for many years, entrance into high schools was determined by high school entrance exams. If you scored well, you would attend an academic or vocation school— score poorly and your journey ended with only an 8th grade education.

Thus, high-stakes testing is not a new educational reform. China has used tests to sort their society for more than 1500 years!!

Closer to home, for about 100 years, high-stakes tests have been used to sort and track students in the United States.

Tests were first spurred on by the racist Eugenics movement (See Film Review: Defies Measurement weaves together problematic purposes of ed reform) and also IQ exams that were used to sort soldiers during the world wars.

High-stakes tests were created to sort, they were not created for civil rights and social justice purposes.

However, now that the federal government is requiring and monitoring high-stakes testing, they have been retread as civil rights and social justice.

Civil rights groups realized the disparate impact on students of color as high-stakes tests began to rise in prominence in education policy in the 1980s.

300px-Florida_counties_mapIn the Florida case Debra P v. Turlington, it was argued and acknowledged by civil rights groups at the time that the tests had a disparate impact on students of color.

They were NOT considered social justice.

The Fifth Circuit Court ruled in favor of Florida and stated that tests actually “eradicate racism.” (See Courts on high-stakes tests: They “eradicate” “insidious” “racism”)

Despite the fact that the high-stakes exit test had a clear disparate impact on students of color and the severe inequality and underfunding of schools in the Sunshine State.

In Debra P, the federal court’s decision paved the way for the high-stakes testing era to flourish and be later codified as national policy in No Child Left Behind.

We should ask ourselves the meta question:

615px-Flag-map_of_Texas-1.svgHas the high-stakes testing and accountability regime imported from Texas for NCLB even worked?

Honestly, I began my career as a testing and accountability cheerleader. But my mind was changed once I experienced it up close in the late 1990s working in the Research and Accountability office of the Houston Independent School District.

In fact, the Texas Miracle was the primary evidence that No Child Left Behind’s testing and accountability regime would work— at least according to George W. Bush and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Then, after George W. Bush left office. The nation had “Hope” that there would be “Change” in our education policy. Did Barack Obama go a different direction? (See Breaking News: Sec. Duncan and Sec. Bennett are Kissing Cousins)

For today’s moment of Zen, check out John Oliver’s recent piece on standardized testing from his show Last Week Tonight.

I wanted to show a few clips here today, but it has too much non-academic language…

Well… honestly he just used lots of NSFW innuendo to describe Obama and Duncan’s approach to testing, standards and accountability.

So I’ll give you my G-rated version instead.

At the reception later I can give you my PG-13 thoughts.

After nearly ten years of Texas-inspired high-stakes testing and accountability, President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan went with more of the same in Race to the Top.

Arguably their top priority, Common Core and the tests they were designed for and by the testing companies have become the primary agenda in California and elsewhere.

Well, one of the exceptions is Texas, where Common Core was actually made illegal by the legislature— true story.

So, has Bush and Obama’s high-stakes testing and accountability policy worked?

As shown in the John Oliver show, recent research from Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford demonstrated that No Child Left Behind has actually slowed our nation’s progress towards the closing of the achievement gaps. They calculated that at the new slower pace experienced under NCLB, it will take 80 more years to close the achievement gap.

Furthermore, we cannot forget that No Child Left Behind-inspired accountability and testing is political and arbitrary. States can manipulate the public conversation about education via test scores (i.e. manipulating cut scores to arbitrarily raise or lower scores across the state), graduation rates (i.e. manipulating the denominator by legally not counting dropouts as dropouts) and accountability ratings (changing formulas and even the type and scale every so often— A-F etc.).

So, what can we do instead?

It is important to recognize why some argue and have lobbied in DC to keep testing in schools in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind— soon to be known as “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.”

Although, I think they should have gone with this moniker for the law instead:

“A New Name, but more of the Same Act of 2015”

The belief expressed in the conversation in DC is that a light of social justice won’t be shone on the inequities in schools for ELLs and others if high-stakes tests are neutered in federal law.

scantronThus, the conversation about how to measure and address injustices in our system has been dominated in the reauthorization conversation by:

we need high-stakes tests, or

we need more tests, or

we need a greater or lesser frequency of tests, or

we need different/better tests… etc.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in their recent press release acknowledged the issues with high-stakes exams, but argued that if we don’t have a high-stakes test, we would not have any valid information to tell us about what is happening in schools.

I am vexed by the fact that we readily acknowledge the problems with tests for ELLs and others, but in the same breath many say they want to keep this problematic regime.

History is clear.

High-stakes tests are an ancient sorting mechanism and they have not improved the education system in the United States. In fact, our growth has slowed overall.

Thus, our educational policy leaders and stakeholders must consider new approaches.

california flagLocal Accountability in California is that new way. If you love or hate Local Accountability, it turns out I am partially to blame.

We should support a multiple measures qualitative and quantitative community-based dashboard approaches to evaluate the success of states, districts, schools, teachers and students without the primary or majority focus being a high-stakes standardized exam.

In sum, we should take advantage of the abundance of data we already have in federal and state data. And consider collecting new data that we feel is more specific and or valuable than the state assessments have been for educators.

For our public conversations about education, we need multiple measures dashboards to understand the successes and failures of our schools.

Local Accountability has the potential to be a “Coign of Vantage” for ELLs and other historically underserved students in California and the nation.

In a recent paper with Sonya Horsford that was published in the Journal of Urban Education, we discussed that the failure of top-down school reform to improve long-term outcomes in urban communities has prompted educators, students, parents, and citizens alike to question the ways in which we hold public schools accountable for student learning and performance.

Education research— representing a wide range of disciplinary perspectives including: history, sociology, political science, and public policy and interdisciplinary fields, such as leadership studies and program evaluation— has contributed greatly to our understanding of the role of schools, neighborhoods, and communities in urban education reform.

Although research and policy discourses analyzing and comparing the effectiveness and drawbacks of reform— whether top-down or grassroots— are far from new, our knowledge base concerning how such efforts should take place, by whom, and the degree to which they are sustainable— is growing.

We must press for community-based reforms in the public discourse instead of top-down, privately controlled reforms.

We can utilize community-based, democratic approaches to student and teacher assessment.

We must also support stakeholder collaboratives such as community-based charters instead of corporate based charters.

We must do this because democratic control of public schools drives the health of our democracy!

So my challenge to you today is to think about how we grow and access the capacity of local stakeholders including students, teachers, administrators, parents, educators, the faith community, business leaders and others to engage in a spectrum of reforms that are currently being pushed toward private control.

Of, course this work isn’t easy, as some recent evaluations of local accountability plans and processes have suggested. It’s a paradigm shift away from a decade of top-down reform.

But, we must act to change the public conversation about the successes and failures of our schools.

This approach is not anti-education “reform” but instead presents an alternative to top-down, privately controlled policy.

In conclusion, community-based reform and policy changes the conversation from educators and local stakeholders as the “problem” by instead re-empowering them as the solution and strengthening the thread that links communities to vibrant, participatory neighborhood public schools.

Want to know about Cloaking Inequity’s freshly pressed conversations about educational policy? Click the “Follow blog by email” button in the upper left hand corner of this page.

Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

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  • Pingback: Making it Rain Tests: Are the new Common Core exams invalid? Inaccurate? | Cloaking Inequity

  • Thank you for writing this amazing essay. I have one question. Why even have the concept of public charter schools? Can’t we just make our public schools local and more responsive to the needs of our students? Keeping Maslow’s hierarchy in mind, every child deserves a stable home and family resources. We need living wage jobs and dignity in our nation. I have created these websites. I appreciate all of your work professor and I’m sure we will win this battle.


  • “Tests were first spurred on by the racist* Eugenics movement (See Film Review: Defies Measurement weaves together problematic purposes of ed reform) and also IQ exams that were used to sort soldiers during the world wars.”

    I have been seeing idea that standardized testing was a product/spurred on of the Eugenics movement more and more (internet echo chamber??) in the last couple of months or so. From my reading of the history of standardized testing-mainly Callahan’s “Education and the cult of Efficiency” and Lehman’s “The Big Test” and miscellaneous other readings over the years, the Eugenics movement did not “spur on” the testing phenomena. The original tests were designed to find students from across the country to go to the upper level universities who didn’t have the “legacy” tag which at the time was the main criteria for entrance to the elite Eastern colleges. The Eugenics movement latched onto the results, which we know were completely biased towards an upper class white upbringing, to supposedly “prove” their theories, hey it’s all so scientific, eh?!?! And yes, out of original IQ work came tests for the military to first use in WW1.

    Julian**, if you have any citations for the claim that it was the Eugenics movement that first spurred on, advocated for these educational malpractices I’d appreciate reading them.

    Duane Swacker

    *The Eugenics movement was not only/necessarily “racist” but included attempting to find differences in the various European “white” groups with Northern European features being extolled as better than those “swarthy” Southern European folks. Adding the term “racist” limits what the Eugenics movement was in an almost uniquely American perspective of race/racial issues.

    **I hope you don’t mind my using your first name as we briefly met and chatted at the first NPE conference in Austin (not that I would expect you to remember me as I met and chatted with a lot of folks then whom I wouldn’t remember unless I saw them again). And, yes, I know you’re not José-ha-ha!!


  • Pingback: Julian Vasquez Heilig: Testing Does Not Promote Equity | Diane Ravitch's blog

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