Saturday, February 8, 2014


Fighting High Stakes Standardized Testing (HSST) is a Civil Rights Issue

Dr. Denisha Jones

The boycott of the MAP tests by Garfield High School teachers in Seattle, WA has further ignited the debate against high stakes standardized testing (HSST). Recently the Seattle King County NAACP has come out in favor of the boycott. In a press release, the president of local NAACP chapter acknowledged that the tests do not cover what is taught in the classroom and is not aligned with the state curriculum. Instead of accurately assessing what a child has learned, “…success in the MAP test may be more reflective of the educational and/or economic successes of the child’s parents.”
It is important that parents, teachers, and community members understand that the fight against HSST is an important civil rights issues. Designed with the intention of identifying and closing the achievement gap, theses tests have become a mechanism for punishing students of color and their teachers. The achievement gap is a major concern but an increase in HSST only exacerbates the problem and further marginalizes students of color while denying them a free an appropriate public education.
Assessment is an integral part of the teaching-learning cycle. Preparing future teachers requires spending a great deal of time teaching them how to design effective assessments that will inform their teaching practice. Assessment is not only learned in college but requires continued professional development and opportunities for planning and collaboration. Teachers are trained to use multiple types of assessment that capture what a student has learned in a variety of ways. And most of all they are taught that assessments are never to be used to punish students. If the results of an assessment show that a child has not learned a concept, the teacher should use that information to develop additional lessons that provide opportunities for the child to master the concept. In theory this is what good teaching and learning based on sound assessments should look like. But today too many public schools are using HSST to punish students which is unethical and detrimental to student achievement.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 under President Bush led to a massive increase in standardized testing. The intent of NCLB was to close the achievement gap by using standardized tests to highlight racial disparities in academic achievement. Schools were required to demonstrate proof of closing the gap through the release of standardized test scores. Those that failed to gain adequately yearly progress (AYP) would face sanctions from school takeover to school closure. As a result schools began testing students more and more in an effort to improve instruction. As the use of standardized tests continued to grow they became more and more attached with high stakes. When a single test score is used to deny a student promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school, they become high stakes standardized tests.
Monty Neil, director of Fair Test found racial disparities in the states that use HSST for grade promotion and graduation. States requiring an exit exam predominately serve students of color while those that do not primarily serve white students.
“Thus, there is clearly a racial dimension to the use of graduation exams, and youth of color, those who speak English as a second language or who have a disability or are from low-income families are disproportionately denied a diploma because of a test score” (p. 28).
His report found similar disparities when HSST are used for grade promotion. When we deny children the opportunity to graduate or be promoted to the next grade because of one test score, we are using assessment as punishment. What about the grades a student earns in their courses? If they can pass their courses why should they be denied a diploma because they cannot pass a single test? If grade inflation is a problem then the answer should be to bring in outside experts to independently evaluate students work and determine if the teacher is too lenient (or too harsh), not to punish students by denying them an education based on a single test score.
One of the major consequences of an increase in HSST is the growth of the school-to-prison pipeline. As students are subjected to grade retention and denied graduation they are pushed out of public schools and pushed into the criminal justice systems. The authors of a joint position paper that examined NCLB and the School-to-Prison-Pipeline found the use of HSST and zero-tolerance policies contributed greatly to this troubling phenomena (for more on the school-to-prison pipeline check out this article). Instead of closing the achievement gap, HSST has had the opposite effect and has become damaging to the academic achievement of students of color.
Differences in educational attainment between white students and students of color are a national concern. The achievement gap is real and if we are to ensure all students are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education we must work to make this gap a thing of the past. Some schools and communities have been successful at expanding educational success for all students. None of them have done it though HSST which tends to narrow the curriculum, encourage cheating, and force good teachers to leave the profession. Closing the gap requires dealing with the real challenges that students of color and low-income students bring to the classroom such as poverty and lack of resources. But today’s education reformers continue to focus their efforts on improving teacher quality instead of dealing with the inequities crippling many of our students. And their method for improving teacher quality is based on test scores.
One of the many reasons for the MAP boycott and the Chicago Teacher Union strike was the use of HSST in teacher evaluations. Currently there is a push to evaluate pre-service student teachers based on the test scores of the students they work with for 6-12 weeks! Instead of retreating from the failing effects of NCLB we are doubling down and pushing the testing mania even further. And in the end it is our children who will suffer while public education is undermined and ultimately destroyed. This fight is a civil rights issue and it is up to us to win the war and save public education.
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