We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

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Civil Rights groups have long championed the needs of people of color, women and minorities.

Segregated schools, voting rights, police brutality – all of these have been the subject of long and brutal fights for equality.

Perhaps the strangest turn in 2015 has been the fight for standardized testing.

That’s right. Organizations that you’d expect to see fighting against racism have been clamoring for access to multiple choice bubble exams.

In fact, the Democrats have used this as an excuse for their failed attempts to keep the much maligned Test and Punish policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law – currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – is a testing corporation’s dream filled with policies that have been failing our children for 13 years. Unsurprisingly, teachers, parents and students are demanding relief.

But do Civil Rights groups who fought against unfair testing as a prerequisite to vote now really demand unfair testing as a prerequisite for a high school diploma?

The answer is yes and no.

SOME Civil Rights groups have demanded more testing, and others have demanded LESS.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, wrote Congress an open letter in July asking for an end to high stakes testing. And the JJA wasn’t alone. The alliance was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations who signed on to the letter to “…call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

However, the JJA’s call has been largely ignored by lawmakers and the media. A much smaller coalition of Civil Rights organizations in favor of testing, on the other hand, has been given so much press you’d be excused if you thought they represented the entire activist community.

Yes, 19 Civil Rights organizations wrote to Congress in January, 2015, asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

However, 11 Civil Rights groups – many of them the exact same groups – wrote to Obama in October, 2014, asking him to reduce standardized testing.

What happened in less than 3 months, to change their minds?

It’s hard to say, but in October the prospect of rewriting the ESEA – the federal law that governs K-12 schools – seemed impossible. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could find any common ground. It looked like the law – which was last reauthorized in 2007 – would be pushed aside until at least the next president was sworn in.

But then like magic when the political situation changed and reauthorization seemed like it might actually happen, suddenly a coalition of Civil Rights organizations found their love for standardized testing.

It seems highly unlikely that these two events are unrelated.

But why would these organizations change their tune so quickly?

One very real possibility is money.

Most of the groups now backing standardized assessments accept huge sums of money from one of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates. And Bill loves standardized tests.

In many ways, his business profits from them. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wouldn’t exist without his backing, and they depend on standardized tests. Moreover, most states give these assessments on computers – many of which have Microsoft emblazoned on the hard drive. And this doesn’t even count the test preparation software sold to help students get higher test scores.

The sad fact is that standardized testing is big business in this country. Everyone from book publishers to software manufacturers to professional development providers to for-profit prisons depend on the continuation of the testocracy.

And many of these Civil Rights groups would be crippled without that Gates funding. Others seem more like think tanks that really have nothing to do with Civil Rights.

Take Education Trust – an advocacy group that helped create NCLB and CCSS. It should be no surprise the organization took $49 million from Gates and thinks bubble tests are just wonderful.

However, even laudable groups like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) owe Gates a debt.

UNCF took more than $1.5 billion from Gates. Ostensibly that money is supposed to go to scholarships. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how could the organization go against the wishes of perhaps its biggest donor? The consequences could be disastrous for UNCF’s entirely worthy mission.

One can imagine administrators stuck between a rock and a hard place having to compromise their stance against testing in order to continue helping people of color fulfill their dreams of going to college.

Other suddenly pro-test organizations taking money from Gates include: La Raza, The Leadership Conference, National Urban League, and Children Defense Fund.

And that’s only the half of it.

To make matters worse, standardized tests don’t enhance students’ Civil Rights. They violate them.

Test scores are used as an excuse to continue spending less money on poor schools who serve mostly minority populations.

Proponents say these assessments hold schools accountable for providing children with a quality education. But how can you provide an education of equal quality with a rich school when you don’t receive even close to the same amount of funding to begin with?

Moreover, test scores have been shown countless times to be poor indicators of academic success. They are, however, excellent predictors of parental income. Poor kids score low. Rich kids score high. So when we take away funding based on low test scores and increase it based on high test scores, we only reinforce the status quo and compound the hurt against people of color.

But this sudden public mea culpa from some Civil Rights organizations is being used by political pundits to justify continuing the practices that would make Martin Luther King, Jr., turn in his grave.

And it’s not over. As Congress continues to hobble together a new version of the ESEA, politicians – mostly Democrats – are bound to lobby for as much federally mandated testing as possible. Even Obama has promised to veto the bill if it doesn’t contain enough love for the testing industry.

It’s up to education voters to educate themselves on the subject and demand real Civil Rights reforms.

End the system of Test and Punish.

Remove or reduce standardized testing from our schools.

Provide equitable funding for schools serving impoverished children.

And give our students of color a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed


Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?

NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

In ESEA Debate, Education is Caught in the Middle Between the State and Fed


Watching Congress debate national education policy is a bit like going to a tennis match and finding a truck and tractor pull has erupted.

“Isn’t this supposed to be about how to make our schools better?” I want to scream.

“No!” someone yells from the stands. “This is about States’ Rights vs. the Fed. Go, States!”

Face palm.

The current brouhaha centers around the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The present version, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is a thorough disaster. Thankfully Congress is trying to rewrite the legislation.

However, in doing so the emphasis has been less on making things better and more on deciding who gets to make decisions about schools.

Republican President George W. Bush greatly increased federal control with NCLB, something Democratic President Barack Obama has continued through his education policies.

These days, the GOP has done a 180 and is the champion of states rights to make their own education policies.

Given the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on standardized testing, punitive accountability systems and top down education standards, a move away from federalism seems completely justified.

But this is becoming the heart of the debate even at the expense of children, parents and teachers.

Take Opt Out.

NCLB allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, but school districts can be punished for it. If more than 5% of the students in a district don’t take the federally mandated tests for whatever reason (including parental opt out), the district’s Title I funding is put in jeopardy.

In many parts of the country, parents are refusing to subject their children to these tests anyway. They are voting with their feet. They are telling our lawmakers they do not want their children to take standardized tests so often – or in many cases – at all.

The good news is that BOTH of the two drafts of the ESEA allow for parental Opt Outs. However, who gets to decide if doing so will penalize your school?

The House version says that opting out will not hurt your district. Period. But the Senate version leaves the matter up to the states. State legislatures get to decide if withholding your child from standardized testing will have punitive consequences for your district.

This is absurd.

It’s not a matter of States’ Rights vs. the Fed. It’s a matter of parental rights.

As a parent, I should have final say over what my child does or does not have to do in school. There may be limits in extreme circumstances (i.e. vaccines) and in terms of content (i.e. science, history), but in general the rights of parents and children should trump all others.

Ironically the parents who shield their children the most from standardized testing are those who champion it for everyone else. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is sending his children to a Chicago private school that does not use standardized tests. Likewise, Obama’s children attend a private school free from the influence of his education policies. Same with corporate education reform cheerleaders Governors Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel.

So many cooks who refuse to eat their own cooking!

But to return to the ESEA, pundits are lauding the Senate Opt Out restriction as a selling point between the versions of the proposed law. The House version has a better Opt Out provision, so you can choose it.

However, it is also poisoned from the start because (unlike the Senate version) it includes a backdoor voucher provision. Called Title I Portability, the House bill essentially would suck up funding now given to impoverished districts and spit it back into the lap of richer ones. Poor kids need additional funding because they go to poor schools that have less money to spend educating them. If a poor child goes to a rich school, she doesn’t need additional funding – the school already spends more to educate her than a poor district ever could. But the issue is a bit of a nonstarter anyway because Obama already has promised to veto any bill containing it.

So the only option is the Senate version, and they just sunk a big turd in it.

But like any factory farm sausage, you often have to learn to accept a few unsavory morsels in with the meat. Even if the final bill includes this Senate provision, it will be an improvement over NCLB. Punishing schools for parental opt outs is the status quo. If even a few  states decide not to punish their schools because of parents choices, that will be a step in the right direction.

It’s just so frustrating to watch our myopic Congresspeople take such baby steps forward.

Why would anyone try to override parental concerns about testing?

Many legislators worry if all students aren’t tested, there will be no way to determine if school districts are properly educating students.

But that is exactly the point!

Standardized testing does not show how well a school is functioning! It only shows how many poor students go to the school. Rich kids score well; poor kids score badly. And academics? There are so many better means of assessing them than multiple choice exams graded on a curve!

If lawmakers really wanted to ensure all students were getting a quality education, they’d hold BOTH the state and federal governments accountable for equitably funding our schools. No more funding based on local wealth. No more poor kids getting less funding than rich kids. No more kids doing without because mommy and daddy have lousy paying jobs.

Parents, children and educators have been crying out to lawmakers about the injustice of using high stakes tests as means of punishing schools for the poverty of their students. THIS is what needs to change. THIS is the essential reform we’re crying out to be enacted!

But no one’s listening. All they care about is which team is winning – Team State or Team Fed.

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and it was mentioned in the Washington Post.

Trust Tests, Not Teachers – Accountability for Dummies


This week, the American Federation of Teachers decided – after years of opposing high-stakes testing – to embrace it.

That’s right. The second largest teachers union in the country took everything their constituent educators hate and gave it a big old sloppy wet kiss.

They call it grade span testing. Tests would still be given almost every year, but only three – one in elementary, one in middle and one in high school – would be high-stakes. The rest would just be “informational.”

Why not get rid of all high stakes tests?

Why not at least get rid of the “informational” ones and reduce the total to three?


The idea goes something like this. We have to ensure our schools are serving the needs of all our students. And the ONLY way to do that is through standardized tests!

Huh!? The ONLY way!?

That’s what they’re saying. Anything else – unless it is coupled with test scores – is unreliable.

Classroom grades? Insufficient!

Portfolios of student work? Insufficient!

A sworn affidavit by classroom teachers on the lives of their firstborn children!? Probably insufficient, too!

To be fair, one could argue at least the AFT is trying to reduce the number of high-stakes tests. But the total number of tests will remain the same as it is now – ridiculously high! Kids will still test just about every year – much more than any other comparable country. Test prep will remain the de facto curriculum at most schools.

Moreover, the very idea that all the other non-high stakes tests could somehow remain purely informational is naive at best!

Even if the terrorists only put the gun to your head occasionally, that still perverts the whole process.

Why would the AFT change its long-held position now?

It’s no accident. The law that governs our entire K-12 school system is about to be rewritten.

Congress is trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When the law went through its last rewrite, it was called No Child Left Behind – a classic Bush era euphemism to hide that the legislation did exactly the opposite of its name.

Simply put: it was a disaster.

It made annual standardized testing the centerpiece of our whole school system. We couldn’t do anything without it. Bubble tests became the only measure of success.

Forget that all the evidence shows standardized tests don’t actually measure student learning. They show parental income. Rich kids generally score high and poor kids score low.

Forget that they’re based on highly subjective cut scores that fluctuate each year and are determined by temporary workers most of whom have no education degree and have an incentive to fail the most students they can.

Forget that they steal time from actual learning, create an environment of fear and are the prime excuse to punish and close schools serving minorities and the poor.


Standardized tests return a score, yes. And if you ignore how that score is subjective and educationally inaccurate, you can pretend it’s a universal measure of learning. Then you can use it to justify almost anything as being educationally necessary.

Skimp on education funding? They deserved it because Accountability.

Privatize a school? They deserved it because Accountability.

Bust a union? They deserved it because Accountability.

That’s nonsense!

We used to know better.

Students used to be accountable to teachers and parents. If you didn’t do your homework or try your best in school, you’d earn a failing grade.

Teachers used to be accountable to their principals. Administrators would observe their teachers throughout the year and determine if they were doing a good job.

Principals were then accountable to superintendents who were, in turn, accountable to the school board and finally the community of voters.

The buck stopped at the voting booth. But not anymore!

Now the student, teacher, principal, superintendent, etc. are all at each others throats being held accountable to the standardized tests.

Who’s accountable for the tests? The for-profit corporation that developed them. And who is the corporation accountable to? It’s shareholders.

So we’ve gone from a system where the buck stopped at the community to one where it stops at investors.

Does no one else see a problem with this? Communities are made up of people many of whom have a vested interest in the children who live and go to school there. We’re talking about parents, teachers and taxpayers who want to live among other educated people.

But shareholders only care about getting a return on their investment. They don’t care about the quality of the service they’re providing – only that they can make money providing it. And if lowering the quality will raise the payout, so be it!

So when people justify standardized testing based on accountability, they’re really deifying the bottom line – profits.

But, of course, you can’t say that aloud.

The move is being cloaked in the costume of Civil Rights and progressive politics. The AFT partnered with the Center for American Progress – a privatization cheerleader that poses as a bastion of liberalism. Likewise, 19 Civil Rights organizations including the ACLU and NAACP were convinced to sign on.

Silly me. I thought Dr. King had a dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character – not the results of their bubble tests!

But – say-it-with-me – Accountability.

There can be no alternative but standardized tests.

We can’t trust classroom grades. We can only trust cut scores.

We can’t trust teachers. We can only trust corporations.

We can’t trust the school board. We can only trust the shareholders.

And thank goodness! Otherwise, Congress might listen to what ordinary folks have to say!

Heck! Congress is starting hearings on it next week! They could vote to stop mandating annual standardized testing! Can you imagine how that would hurt the testing industry!? Billions of dollars might be lost! Imagine the kickbacks and political favors at risk!

So raise your glass to the bottom line, and say a prayer that the parents, teachers and taxpayers don’t do anything to hold us accountable…

Like, for example, emailing testimony against testing to the US Senate at FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov by Monday, Feb. 2.

-Special thanks to Aixa Rodriquez and Owen Jackman for being extra sets of eyes when my own couldn’t stay open anymore. If there are remaining errors, they are mine alone.

-This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association Blog.