Testing as a Civil Rights Strategy is Not about Achievement

As a first year school director, one of my teachers gave me some interesting feedback. He said, “Dye, you don’t do it like white people.” I waited for him to explain because I wanted to know if the knot that had formed in my stomach was warranted or not.

I was ok with being critiqued on the school’s formation, on our curriculum, or even our approach to student/parent relations. The first year or two was a world wind of organizational development that honestly warranted tough feedback! So the knot in my stomach wasn’t the result of being too sensitive to criticism.  Instead, it was in being valued (or not) within a white frame. Inside of a school committed to diversity and empowerment, my worth as the school’s founder/director was being reduced to how well I acted like white people.

It is this reduction of worth, packaged inside of a white is right psychology, in which I reject the premise of testing as a civil rights strategy.  The design features of tests (some good and some not-so-good) prohibit high-stakes testing from truly being a civil rights strategy for achievement. Instead, these features make testing a civil rights strategy for worth.

Last week I wrote in favor of the Senate’s decision to abstain from federally enforced accountability at the state-level (as proposed through the Every Child Achieve Act).  One of my readers questioned my position.  You see, I had spent a great portion of the piece talking about the need for accountability.  So when at the end of the piece I advocated for no accountability, they thought I had made a mistake.  They believed my true position was that tests aren’t perfect but they do provide some support in the mission of getting every child to achieve.  In that I do support this mission, have dedicated my career to it in fact, I must take an uncompromised stand against test-based accountability.  It is my conviction that quality and equality aren’t grounded in the white is right way of thinking that currently undergirds some of the arguments for test-based accountability as a civil rights strategy.

It is this distinction (the distinction that quality education should not be limited to an entrenched white is right paradigm) that I believe a reconstituted accountability system is in order.  And, until we can figure it out at the federal level, we must leave room for the states to get it right.

I understand the dangers of this thinking where we sit back and wait for the states to determine how they are going to advance the education for EVERY child.  First, delayed justice severely puts us at risk for no justice at all.  Second, history does not paint a picture for hope—where we can truly believe that all states will take on a mantle for justice… for equity… for quality education.

But, it is more dangerous to federally mandate achievement (with punitive consequences) when achievement is about reducing the gap in performance on standardized tests.  Quality education is not about getting socioeconomically disadvantaged learners to test comparatively to their affluent white counterparts.  It is about building within them a skill-set so they can walk into the 21st century fully equipped to thrive.

This pursuit for 21st century readiness is not the premise of test-based accountability.  Instead, test-based accountability appears to be more about showing that students of color, students of low-income, and students of special needs can perform just as well as affluent white students.

There appears to be a need to prove that some subgroups are not just good but instead, that they are just as good… reducing goodness to a psychology that lingers from pervasive attitudes and policies where white has been historically treated as right.  And as I have said, this is dangerous!  We cannot afford to trap students inside of a system that regards their performance based on the performance of someone else.

Please join me over the next few weeks as I try to make a case that test-based accountability is not a civil rights strategy for progress.  It just may be one (ineffective as it may sound) for worth.


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