Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Standardized Testing

More About the Murphy Amendment, in Which Democrats Want “Tougher Accountability”

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Emma Brown of the Washington Post has a good article about the Murphy amendment, which Democrats favored and Republicans opposed.


The chamber voted 54 to 43 against the amendment, which aimed to give the federal government more say in defining which schools are low-performing and require intervention.


Instead, the bill allows states to decide not only how to judge schools’ success, but which schools don’t measure up and what to do to improve them.


The proposed amendment’s lead sponsor, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), said that could return the country to the days when states and school districts could ignore achievement gaps and allow poor, minority and disabled children to languish.


“This law is an education reform law, but it has to be a civil rights law as well,” said Murphy, invoking the law’s original passage in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.


The measure was opposed by many Republicans who want to rein in the federal government’s influence over education, which they say ballooned under the Bush and Obama administrations.


“Instead of fixing No Child Left Behind, it keeps the worst parts of it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee.


Democratic lawmakers in both chambers are sure to continue pushing for stronger accountability provisions before sending the legislation to the White House. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the Obama administration would not support the legislation unless it strengthens the federal role in school accountability. But he stopped short of saying whether the president would veto it.


Why do Democrats believe that the U.S. Department of Education has the capacity or knowledge to identify “failing” schools or to intervene to improve them? Nothing in the past decade suggests that this is a realistic expectation.


Democrats have now almost completely bought into the assumption that more testing=more equity, when it is a well-established fact that standardized tests always have a disparate impact that disadvantages students and adults of color. For many decades, the same civil rights groups that now defend standardized tests for students have litigated to block the use of standardized tests as decisive measures, whether in school or in employment. But for reasons that are hard to discern, certain leading civil rights groups now insist that without testing every child every year, children of color will be overlooked and neglected. Of course, if standardized tests could meet the needs of children of color and children in poverty, these children would be in far better shape today than they are because they have been taking standardized tests every year since 2003, when NCLB was implemented. That is an entire generation of children. What are the results? Where are the benefits of the billions spent to test every child every year? How many children have lost access to courses in the arts, history, science, civics, geography, physical education, and foreign languages because they took time away from test preparation?


NAEP already documents the achievement gaps every other year for every state and for many urban districts by scientific sampling. No other nation tests every child every year. The cost of testing and the instructional time lost to test prep actually hurts the children it is supposed to help.


Why don’t the Democrats listen to other civil rights groups, such as the Journey for Justice Alliance, which opposes high-stakes testing. Is it because they don’t have lobbyists? Here is part of their open letter to the leaders of the Senate:


The Journey for Justice Alliance, an alliance of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, joins with the 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations signed on below, 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.


We respectfully disagree that the proliferation of high stakes assessments and top-down interventions are needed in order to improve our schools. We live in the communities where these schools exist. What, from our vantage point, happens because of these tests is not improvement. It’s destruction.


Black and Latino families want world class public schools for our children, just as white and affluent families do. We want quality and stability. We want a varied and rich curriculum in our schools. We don’t want them closed or privatized. We want to spend our days learning, creating and debating, not preparing for test after test.


In the Chicago Public Schools, for example, children in kindergarten through 8th grade are administered anywhere between 8 and 25 standardized tests per year. By the time they graduate from 8th grade, they have taken an average of 180 standardized tests! We are not opposed to state mandated testing as a component of a well-rounded system of evaluating student needs. But enough is enough.


We want balanced assessments, such as oral exams, portfolios, daily check-ins and teacher created assessment tools—all of which are used at the University of Chicago Lab School, where President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have sent their children to be educated. For us, civil rights are about access to schools all our children deserve. Are our children less worthy?


High stakes standardized tests have been proven to harm Black and Brown children, adults, schools and communities. Curriculum is narrowed. Their results purport to show that our children are failures. They also claim to show that our schools are failures, leading to closures or wholesale dismissal of staff. Children in low income communities lose important relationships with caring adults when this happens. Other good schools are destabilized as they receive hundreds of children from closed schools. Large proportions of Black teachers lose their jobs in this process, because it is Black teachers who are often drawn to commit their skills and energies to Black children. Standardized testing, whether intentionally or not, has negatively impacted the Black middle class, because they are the teachers, lunchroom workers, teacher aides, counselors, security staff and custodians who are fired when schools close.


Standardized tests are used as the reason why voting rights are removed from Black and Brown voters—a civil right every bit as important as education. Our schools and school districts are regularly judged to be failures—and then stripped of local control through the appointment of state takeover authorities that eliminate democratic process and our local voice—and have yet so far largely failed to actually improve the quality of education our children receive.


Throughout the course of the debate on the reauthorization of ESEA, way too much attention has focused on testing and sanctions, and not on the much more critical solutions to educational inequality.

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