.@NAACP Now: Will we get more testing status quo from Presidential Candidates?

I recently wrote an article for the NAACP national office about the 2016 presidential race, high-stakes testing, Common Core and civil rights. I wrote the piece for NAACP Now, a forum that includes “voices of members, activists, partners and supporters who believe in our cause to bring about social change.”

Here is the article entitled Will we get more testing status quo from Presidential Candidates? (pdf version):

Many were recently disappointed by the lack of conversation about K-12 education in the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas. The Progressive Magazine asked me to reflect on the dearth of coverage. I wrote.

The recent Democratic Party presidential debate in Las Vegas left many observers scratching their heads. Why did the candidates and their CNN hosts ignore K-12 education?

Is education not important enough to merit discussion as a top national priority in 2016? The public clearly cares about education. US News reports that education is the third ranked search term on Google. When Gallup asked an open-ended question on the most important issues to voters in the 2016 campaign, education came in sixth.

We know that education is important to the public. What issues do voters identify as most important? A recent poll found that “less testing” was tied with “parental involvement” for the most important issue.

High-stakes tests came to the nation with the passage of No Child Left Behind during the presidency of George W. Bush. The tests were framed as education reform. However, high-stakes tests were born in China to sort and stratify society. 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 spurred early on by the racist Eugenics movement. The Seattle NAACP recently quoted W.E.B Du Bois, Co-founder of the NAACP

It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [first] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.

As Du Bois acknowledge about 100 years ago, tests were created to sort, they were not created for civil rights and social justice purposes. However, now that the federal government is requiring high-stakes testing via NCLB and some civil rights organizations have supported it, tests have been retread as social justice.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 9.10.09 AMThe current “tests are civil rights” status quo has not always been so. The NAACP realized the disparate impact on African American students as high-stakes tests began to rise in prominence in state-level educationpolicy in the 1980s. In 1979, the NAACP filed Debra P v. Turlington, a lawsuit against the state of Florida, challenging the state examination based on the disproportionate impact on Black students’ opportunity to learn and graduate from high school. The high-stakes exams required by the state of Florida were NOT considered social justice by the NAACP. However, the court disagreed with the NAACP and the Fifth Circuit Court ruled in favor of Florida and even stated that tests actually “eradicate racism.” (See Courts on high-stakes tests: They “eradicate” “insidious” “racism”)

The Court’s 1980s framing of high-stakes tests is the essence of a policy makeover that transformed them from a thousand-year-old sorting mechanism into civil rights. This is despite the fact that the high-stakes exit tests have had a clear disparate impact on students of color in the midst of severe inequality and underfunding of schools. In Debra P, the federal court’s decision paved the way for the state-level high-stakes testing era to flourish and be later codified as national policy in NCLB.

We should ask ourselves the meta question: Has the high-stakes testing and accountability regime imported from Texas for NCLB even 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.


Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, basketball buddies

Despite the failure of high-stakes testing, 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 NCLB waivers and Race to the Top.

Arguably the current Administration’s 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.

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 Black students and others if high-stakes tests are neutered in federal law.

Thus, the conversation about how to measure and address injustices in our system was dominated in the ESEA 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 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 it is readily acknowledged the problems with tests for Black students, 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 stopped—according to the most recent NAEP data.

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


Local Accountability in California is one potential new way. 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.

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.

In the upcoming Iowa debate, CBS and the Des Moines Register should press Democrats on whether they will abandon the high-stakes testing platforms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The candidates should welcome the opportunity to chart a new course by introducing community-based and multiple-measure assessment alternatives for education policy. Clearly, education can be a winning issue for Democrats as it is “the top turn out message,” according to recently conducted survey. If Hillary, Bernie, or any of the other candidates want to capture the hearts and minds of NAACP voters, they should stay true to the NAACP’s long-term advocacy against the disparate impact of high-stakes testing on Black students.

I will soon have the finalized California NAACP resolutions where the members took a stands against high-stakes testing and supporting the opt-out movement during the recent 2015 state conference held in Southern California.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s post on testing click here.

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