Education Opportunity Network

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Education Policy Descends Into A Sad Proxy Battle

If you want to see how far off track the nation’s current education policies have gotten, just look at what is going on in Oregon.

As an Oregon news outlet recently reported, the Oregon House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would “inform parents twice a year of their rights to exempt children from state reading and math tests.”

This is a not a terribly surprising development given recent widespread concerns about the over-testing of children in our public schools. Nevertheless, supporters of the status quo in education policy see Oregon’s action as an enormous transgression – a violation of low-income children’s civil rights, no less – because the scores on the tests are an official record that there is an achievement gap among black and brown students and their white peers.

Never mind the fact that we’ve known about this achievement gap for 30 years, hardline supporters of the status quo insist testing is a civil right, despite ample evidence that testing mandates are doing very little good for children they were intended to help.

Meanwhile, as the policy battle over mandatory testing is waged across the nation, new evidence of a real civil rights concern is being completely ignored by federal leaders and the policy elite in Washington, DC.

We’re Sick Of Testing

Oregon lawmakers are not outliers in the shifting of American opinion on standardized testing.

Based on news accounts,” an editorial by two Miami University professors in Education Week recently observed, “parents opting their children out of testing is a national trend, with some districts reporting that more than 50 percent of their eligible students have missed one or more tests.”

Recent negotiations in the US Senate on new legislation that would rewrite federal education laws have focused to a great extent on remedying widespread over-testing imposed nationally. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself has stated his concerns about over testing of students. And his department has issued numerous waivers to federal education laws often due to misapplications and over-reliance on standardized testing in teacher evaluations and other programs.

Oregon is hardly alone in considering measures to make sure parents are aware of their rights regarding standardized testing. Rhode Island is considering such a bill. As Politico reports, Maine state lawmakers also recently revived an opt-out bill.

Further, the Oregon bill doesn’t ban the tests. It just provides an avenue to inform parents of their rights.

Testing Is A Civil Right?

Nevertheless, the action by the Oregon House prompted federal officials at the US Department of Education to fire off a warning that should the bill eventually become law, Oregon schools would “stand to lose $140 million a year or more in federal funding.”

A May 27 email and letter to the Oregon schools chief explain there is a “legal requirement” to impose the annual tests but in addition, and even more significantly, the tests are a “civil rights issue.”

Keep in mind, were the bill to become law and the fed make due on its warning, the funds that would be withheld are targeted principally for the most disadvantaged students – students whose welfare is indeed “ a civil rights issue.”

“Those funds go to very needy schools and children to pay for many things,” an advocate from an Oregon-based organization explains in another Oregon news outlet, “literacy programs, second half of full day kindergarten, other things that really help insure our kids are on the path to success.”

What’s A ‘Civil Right’?

In consideration of the federal government’s intervention in Oregon, education historian Diane Ravitch notes, “The only time in the past that the Feds made similar threats was in the 1960s, when districts refused to desegregate, pursuant to federal law and court orders. Who imagined that the day would come when the ED would threaten to cut off funding if a state allowed parents to refuse the tests?”

This is indeed an alarming development. And we now see that standardized testing – a policy whose impact on the civil rights of marginalized students is indirect (at best) – is being prioritized over things that have direct and verifiable impact on those students.

A Real Civil Rights Issue, If We Still Care

As my colleague Isaiah Poole recounts on the blogsite of the Campaign for America’s Future, a new report by the Education Law Center finds, in many states children who need financial support the most are actually getting the least. “Not only have states been generally slow to restore the cuts to public school funding that they made during the 2007-2008 economic downturn, but there are often extreme disparities between the per pupil spending in wealthy school districts and low-income districts.”

Poole quotes from the report, “Even with improvements in the economy, few states are translating that economic growth into greater investments in school funding … While total GDP has rebounded to 2008 levels or higher in all states except Nevada and Wyoming, 20 states invested fewer total dollars into the education system.”

The report features a “funding fairness report card” which, as a report in The Huffington Post notes, scores only two states “relatively well in all four fairness indicators: Massachusetts and New Jersey.”

The report prompted a “companion piece,” noted a report in The Washington Post, to observe, “School funding decisions are one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time.” But that statement, from Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund, has yet to wake up advocates who believe testing is the civil right issue of our time.

What Civil Rights Violations Look Like On The Ground

North Carolina-based education reporter Lindsay Wagner vividly captures what that withholding of financial resources looks like on the ground.

Writing for the left-leaning organization NC Policy Watch, Wagner reports North Carolina earned an F from the Law Center’s funding fairness report card, and it’s not a surprise given what the state is doing to its schools – especially the ones serving the most disadvantaged students.

“Moving the needle in a positive direction when it comes to school funding is not a trend that has been playing out in North Carolina,” Wagner explains and quotes a school official from one district who attests, ”We’ve lost 50 percent of our teacher assistants during the past several years … Eighty percent of our textbook funding is gone.”

“Students are lucky if they even have textbooks at all,” Wagner reports from another school district in the Tarheel state, quoting a teacher who says, “If we do have them, they are very outdated.”

“Very basic supplies and materials are hard to come by,” Wagner continues in her report from that district. “Paper, pencils, even desks for students to sit at are scarce. Teachers typically pay out of their pocket all year long to make sure their kids have the opportunity to learn.”

Doesn’t this seem like a civil right issue to you?

Our Sad Proxy Battle

Unfortunately, the standoff over standardized testing in Oregon is not an isolated event.

As members of Congress on Capital Hill struggle with revising federal education policy, testing mandates continue to be regarded as some sort of valiant stand for our most underserved students, while deep inequities in how states support those students continue to get ignored.

So what really matters in education policy continues to take a back seat to a sad and ineffectual proxy battle over testing – and our more disadvantaged students are worse off for it.

  • David Brayfield says:

    As Common Core coupled with Pearson’s testing is done by non transparent groups that are driven by billionaire’s foundations money, the real questions are not whether standardized testing is a valuable tool or a civil rights issue but this:

    Who is developing these standards and why? Further, what are their qualifications? Should this not be a publicly funded activity with little or no interference from Bill Gates or any other obscenely rich person or entity, with real education scholars working at the key positions?

    I am particulary troubled by Common Core’s screening test for ADHD, a condition that seems to cover any kid who doesn’t want to sit still and take orders and if “diagnosed” can be used to force children to take psychiatric drugs. This is beyond disgusting and I find it to be a positively Orwellian nightmare in the making.

    Childhood is not a “mental disorder” and give me the people who WILL NOT sit down and shut up to fight the battles ahead that will determine the fate of western civilization!

    June 11, 2015 at 7:02 pm
  • Scott A. Weir says:

    Saved me a lot of effort — I couldn’t agree more. In 2001 the NC Fair Testing Coalition secured some constructive adjustments to this state’s draconian testing laws, with broad support from the state school psychologists’ association and with the slogan, “Testing is NOT teaching.” Well over a decade later the tests STILL are not “standardized,” but almost entirely ad hoc.

    The following spring our victory was nullified and then some by No Child’s Behind Left with the support of leading “liberal” Democrats in Congress. We are now seeing the same effects from the same sources at the community college level where I teach (for only a short while longer, thank goodness).

    My mother taught primary grades in rural Alabama in the early 1930s. She told me a few stories, and taught me quite a bit about the “teaching-learning process” as we call it today. When she died in 1996, I found one of her notebooks that showed clearly that she knew by the second or third week of classes which students were getting it and which ones were not. So do I know, when I’m not so busy with bureaucratic busywork that I have no time to pay attention to my students.

    Unlike times past, when at least some self-styled “school reform” advocates actually advocated better public schools for all, for the past two decades and more most said advocates of “reform” including Bill Gates mean by that term “elimination,” by turning public schools and the public money that supports them over to private corporations. The claim is that those corporations will magically produce better education for all children for the same money with the banksters raking off 10-20 percent unearned “economic profit” over and above the “normal” return of about 7 percent of funds invested per year.

    And if you believe that, I have some beautiful ocean-front property in northwest Georgia that I am willing to sell you very cheap.

    June 12, 2015 at 1:17 am
  • micah6 says:

    Not to mention that states like Missouri are using standardized test averages to take away local control from duly elected school boards. It’s no accident that it has happened only to school districts with a majority of people of color, and in one case I know of, a district that state officials (using test scores) forced to accept a merger with a “failing” district, was then just a few years later also taken over and threatened with dissolution.

    People who consider standardized tests as a “civil rights issue” are not just mistaken, they are dead wrong. Research has shown that tests consisting of easily scored multiple choice questions do not measure much except the comfort of the children taking the test. The more privileged the child, the higher the score. Tell a classroom of disadvantaged children that they are taking a high stakes test and they will do much more poorly on it than if you tell them it’s just practice and they’ll do fine. But even if the testing or school environments were equal, those tests do not measure what we want them to. They do not measure student learning or teachers’ skills or school quality. They just measure what is easily scored.

    The “skills gap” is often more a measure of an “input gap” — not investing in minority children’s schools, teachers or health and safety and then telling them their “failing” schools are their fault for not doing better on these discriminatory tests.
    Oh, don’t get me started…
    Guess you already did.

    June 12, 2015 at 4:36 am
  • Richard Reed says:

    I taught in private schools for a number of years. My one room 12 grade classes with up to 20 children in rural settings were ungraded, either pass or fail. I used testing, not to carry a label with children, but to guide myself into knowing how I needed to change my approach with each child to match their learning needs. On those occasions when a student transferred to a “regular” school they were invariably advanced an extra grade. With as many as 12 different grades and 20 students I taught without the aid of assistants. Something is very wrong with our educational system today when even with teaching assistants some students fail or are left behind.

    June 18, 2015 at 3:17 am

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