Re-Claiming a High Quality Education for All as Civil Right

Last week I shared my letter to Senator Al Franken regarding the every Child Achieves Act. In that letter I encouraged Senator Franken to support the “Tester Amendment” which moves federal requirements for testing from every year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to once each in elementary school, middle school and high school. However, a number of civil rights groups have expressed support for annual testing and a requirement for increased disaggregation and statistical analysis of the results to insure that schools continue to maintain a focus on the achievement of poor, minority and ELL children.

At some level seeing the need for testing as a civil rights issue makes sense, as we clearly must insure that we really are attending the learning of all children. But as we have seen in the years since the implementation of NCLB in 2003 the focus on testing has had a powerful negative impact on schools and teaching. Fortunately annual testing is not needed as a barometer of how we are doing and the Tester Amendment captures that. Testing one time each in elementary, middle school and high school would still give schools and school districts an annual picture of how children in targeted groups are performing in comparison to their majority peers. If schools districts find areas that need attention, they could then locally decide to what measures to use and how to address the issues. The National Assessment of Educational Progress collects this information at the national and state level every four years. Ideally, I’d like to see no federal testing mandate so school districts could develop multiple ways to represent their work. But our history indicates that some districts have not always made sure that all children achieve so the Tester approach seems like a reasonable  compromise.

But even reducing the amount of time, money and effort spent on testing and still knowing that poor, minority, immigrant and ELL students don’t do as well on the tests as their majority peers is hardly a solution. To a large extent poverty drives the tests scores and teachers on their own can do little about it. (I do however believe that teachers should be in the forefront of a social movement to combat poverty and income inequality but that’s a subject for another post). But within the schools themselves the obsession with testing has severely limited what children experience in school and what they learn and thus limits their ability to function as full members of a democratic society.

In some of the schools I visit all subjects other than reading, math and test prep have been eliminated as the schools focus on test scores. I often see children staying in from recess “to catch up” or for “re-teaching.” Of course these are often the very same children who most need some time to play. My undergraduate teacher candidates tell me that in their schools even recess is being eliminated, as there is “not enough time.” What is taught in schools has become more focused on the kinds of answers that are on the tests, and less on flexible connected knowledge. It has been well documented (most notably by Jean Anyon and Jonathan Kozol) that these trends are far more pronounced in schools serving diverse populations, poor and minority populations.

So, although we do need to know how all of our students are doing, knowing this does not require annual testing or the current obsession with test scores. Rather, the real civil right we should be fighting to protect is the right of all children to a rich, high quality education that includes the arts, humanities, sciences social studies, literacy, math, PE and (yes) recess. Our underachieving children need such rich programs far more than they need more “drill an skill” and “test prep.” Of course such programs should be the standard for all schools, and the rights of all children to a rich high quality education should be our foremost concern. A continuation of the current obsession with testing simply won’t get us there.

It’s time for us to begin a new civil rights campaign that calls for a rich, high quality education for all children. If we could really achieve this it would be good for children, good for our democratic society and ultimately good for America.

I appreciate you reading this blog! If it is of interest to you please follow and/or re-post as I am working to build readership. I appreciate your comments as well.

Next Week – Still searching for a grain of sanity but I’m having some difficulty finding it; Why do people make such stupid decisions about education?  

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