What do you do with minority students?
The state of Florida is looking to hide them under the rug.
The state is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – a move that has some civil rights groups alarmed.
The request goes something like this:
Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?
Florida: Dunno. We lumped them in with everyone else.
Fed: Are there any big discrepancies between white students and poor, black or Latino students?
Florida: Dunno. We don’t look at that.
Fed: Do you at least allow English Language Learners to take tests in their native language?
Florida: Nope. They need to speak English or fail.
The waiver hasn’t even been fully drafted yet and submitted to the federal Department of Education.
However, civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and several local activists are asking that the state reconsider sending it and/or the federal government categorically deny it.
These organizations are worried that such measures, if approved, would allow Florida to ignore the needs of minority students.
In fact, lumping minority students’ test scores in with the majority white population would obscure whether they were struggling at all. So would explicitly ignoring any achievement gaps between the majority and minority populations.
And forcing students to take tests in a language with which they aren’t even proficient yet is just plain cruel.
But it highlights several conflicts at the forefront of the public education debate.
First, there’s the question of who controls our schools – the state, local or federal government.
Second, there’s the question of what is the best way to ensure every child is getting a quality education.
The first question is at the heart of a disagreement between many on the political left and right. Democrats generally favor more federal intervention, while Republicans favor more state control.
Which side will end up victorious is hard to say. In situations like this, it’s even hard to say who SHOULD be victorious.
In general, local control is better than administration from a far. But it’s kind of hard to stand up for a state legislature that has no problem segregating minorities, under funding their schools and then trying to hush it all up.
It’s kind of like parenting. It’s better that children stay with their parents, but if their mom and dad are abusive jerks, perhaps all bets are off.
Secondly, we have the question of accountability. What is the best measure of whether a school is providing a quality education?
Like the No Child Left Behind legislation before it, the ESSA specifically uses standardized test scores for this purpose.
However, test scores are terrible at determining accountability. They’re economically and culturally biased. Rich kids tend to pass and poor kids tend to fail. At best, they show which students have been the most economically privileged and which have not.
But we don’t need test scores to see that. We can simply look at students’ socio-economic status. We can look at whether they’re living below the poverty line or not. We can look at their nutrition and health. We can look at whether they belong to a group that has historically been selected against in this country or not.
And once we find that out, we shouldn’t punish the school for having the audacity to teach poor and minority children. We should give them extra funding and resources to meet those students’ needs. But the current test-based accountability system doesn’t do that. Instead it cuts off funding to schools that need it most while pushing public schools to be closed and replaced with charter and voucher institutions that have a worse record of success.
In short, accountability is vital in our public schools, but the way we determine who needs help and what we consider help are drastically out of step with student needs.
These are two issues that desperately need resolution, and we’re putting them on the desk of the one Education Secretary in our nation’s history least equipped to deal with them – Betsy DeVos.
Fed vs. states? She’s for whichever pushes school privatization.
Test scores? She loves them!
Civil rights? Her administration is infamous for expressing doubts that such things even exist.
But at the same time, some on the corporate left may use her dunderheaded opposition to justify test-based accountability.
“See?” They’ll say. “We need standardized tests to protect minority children!”
Um. No. You don’t.
Likewise, some on the right might try to characterize Florida’s attempted waiver as an act of defiance against test-based accountability.
It’s not. Officials in the Sunshine State aren’t concerned with undoing the testocracy. They’re perfectly fine with high stakes testing – so long as they don’t have to do anything special to help black and brown kids.
It’s a situation where blatant self-interest can easily be hidden under a fake concern for children.
On balance, civil rights groups’ concerns are justified in relation to Florida’s drafted ESSA waiver. But they’re wrong if they think test-based accountability is in the best interests of the minorities they serve.
If you’re going to use standardized tests to hold schools accountable for providing a quality education – and that’s a Big IF – it’s unfair to obscure data about minority students and possible achievement gaps. Moreover, it’s reprehensible that you wouldn’t even bother to test them fairly by letting them take these assessments in their native languages.
However, it would be even better to dispense with test-based accountability in the first place. It would be better to see student needs directly and not as a reflection of test scores. That would more easily allow help to reach the students and not the vulture industries circling above our public schools waiting to pick them apart in the name of accountability.