Is Test-Based Accountability a Civil Rights Issue?

I recently wrote “The Standardization Trap” where I talked about standardized tests in how they adversely influence instruction.  One of my main arguments was against the notion of tests being used as the primary measure of achievement.  In that students need access to literacies beyond those that are captured by standardized tests, centering them as the central measurement ultimately influences how teachers teach… resulting in drill, practice and memorization.

It’s a slippery slope when I publically challenge tests (in their construction and their utility) because others, equally (if not more) concerned with tests make assumptions about my views on other test-related issues.  For many, standardized tests become the evil conduit of accountability… accountability that generates consequences… negative ones. While I understand the concerns surrounding negatively driven consequences, in the name of accountability, I also understand and appreciate the theoretical focus on all children (not leaving even ONE behind), and the commitment to protect and promote the achievement of those who actually have historically been left behind!

So here is the dance.  Trying to focus and commit to the achievement of all children, in practice and not just in theory, while having a system to do so effectively and responsibly.  The question then comes to mind: Are tests effective devices for measuring the achievement of all children? And, without some form of measurement (effective or not), how then do we ensure (i.e. hold ourselves accountable to) the application of No Child Behind?”

Essentially, these are questions facing our nation’s leaders as they work to try to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Under this act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965 (in an attempt to fight poverty), federal resources were made available to state and district initiatives to improve the education of deprived children.  A significant portion of this act, Title I, was later reauthorized and signed into law as No Child Left Behind (2001). Through this revision, a closer scrutiny was placed on student subgroups (e.g. Gender, race, class, and special needs) and their performance.

Earlier this month, the Senate voted to approve the Every Child Achieves act, the latest iteration of trying to ensure the quality of education for all children from the federal level. In light of last minute amendments, the final version maintains NCLB’s position to disclose student performance and expose gaps by way of standardized tests.  But, it restores state level power to determine how these gaps will be closed.

In short, it defines the gap via tests but it does not mandate how to resolve the gaps. And, it does not assign negative consequences for lack of progress or achievement towards this aim.

Some cry that recognizing the gap but failing to close it is problematic.  For them, the lack of federal policing allows the nation to maintain its history of educational inequities… providing no protection for the rigorous achievement of disadvantaged children.  This cry is a cry for accountability, i.e. for consequences, in order to put teeth in the rhetoric of every child achieves.

Argyris and Schon, in Theory in Practice, make a strong case that educators (like other professionals) have espoused theories that do not always translate to theories in practice.  Such is the case with ECAA, which is why there are many who are civil rights activists who rightfully oppose its current structure.  Because it is in its current form, ideal thinking and good intentions are only espoused with no system to ensure actual practice at the state level.  In other words, there is no real protection that historically underserved children will actually not be left behind.

In terms of policy, I absolutely think we need to ensure that states will truly promote and protect the achievement of every child. But, until we can really challenge our thinking as relating to the scope of achievement and move into the 21st century in terms of what literacies are necessary for successful learning, living and leading (Dye, In Progress) in today’s democracy and economy, I am not sure if we are really ready for a negative, consequence-based, accountability process.  This punitive mentality coupled with achievement grounded in standardized tests has been a recipe for disaster. It has caused well intended educators to teach to the test, to treat students as banking repositories, to treat them as objects… rendering them powerless… with no means to develop as drivers (not just survivors) in the 21st century.

Until we remove standardized tests as the central measure of achievement, we must (unfortunately speaking) choose the lessor of two evils and leave the doors open for states to get it right.  Yes, promoting espoused thinking with no method to ensure that it truly becomes thinking in practice is dangerous. But to continue to mandate a learning process that is governed by 20th century (possibly 19th century) paradigms will continue to oppress disadvantaged communities and their children.

We must stop putting citizens into the world with the shine of achievement who have no real literacies to thrive.  Now seriously, where is the civil right in that?

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