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Why big civil rights groups think standardized testing is good for kids

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Civil rights groups are starting to split on one of the most controversial policies in education: standardized testing.

National civil rights groups have stood by standardized testing in recent years, arguing it is a way to ensure that disadvantaged students aren't being neglected.

But other, mostly smaller civil rights groups are now questioning that policy, arguing that standardized tests have actually harmed the students they were intended to help. Schools have focused too much on teaching to the test, particularly for weaker students, instead of offering a wide curriculum, they argue.

The debate is getting more intense as Congress wrangles with the future of No Child Left Behind, the landmark law that's become nearly synonymous with standardized testing.

The Senate is expected to vote today in favor of a bill that preserves the requirement that students take annual standardized tests. But national civil rights groups don't think that's enough, saying the measure wouldn't ensure that schools focus on disadvantaged students if they're not succeeding. They don't want only tests, but tests with consequences for schools if they're not succeeding.

"[The bill] throws students of color, students with disabilities, and young women under the bus," said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. "Senators who vote against the civil and human rights of these students will be undoing the 50 years of progress we’ve made since this law first passed."

Most congressional Democrats seem to agree. But growing dissent from smaller groups, which want to end the influence of standardized tests in education, shows how the reputation of No Child Left Behind went from being about bridging inequality to testing.

No Child Left Behind wasn't supposed to be just about testing

Students in France take a standardized test.

Agence France-Presse

The ultimate goal of No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, was to highlight and then close historic achievement gaps.

The law required states to test all students annually in third grade through eighth grade and then once in high school. States had to measure whether schools that got federal money for serving low-income students were making "adequate yearly progress" toward the law's ultimate goal: that every student in America would be able to read and do math proficiently by mid-2014.

But it wasn't just entire schools that had to be making progress. "Subgroups" of students within the school, such as black and Hispanic students, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students learning English, also had to gradually improve their test scores. Even if a school's overall test scores were going up, that school could miss the annual progress targets if their disadvantaged students weren't improving.

This was a big change. Before No Child Left Behind was passed, some states didn't even release information on test scores for poor students, black and Hispanic students, or students with disabilities. The law highlighted those achievement gaps and tried to force states to correct them, mandating a series of interventions and eventually penalties for schools that didn't make progress.

Minnesota, for example, was (and still is) often praised for its excellent schools. But its overall good scores on standardized tests were obscuring a huge gap between black and white students, the second-worst such disparity in the nation.

"If we don’t have that information that’s generated by tests, we can’t work to make schools and systems more responsive to the needs of low-income kids and kids of color," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy for Education Trust, a group that strongly supports standardized testing as a civil rights issue.

Why national civil rights groups support testing

To civil rights groups, standardized tests are an important tool for pointing out — and hopefully fixing — those racial differences in achievement. No Child Left Behind helped reveal how black and Latino students, or students with disabilities, were performing on average, relative to the average performance of white students — and, perhaps more importantly, tried to require states to fix it.

Standardized tests "are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes, even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused," a coalition of 12 national civil rights groups wrote in a May letter. "These data are used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners."

They concluded: "We cannot fix what we cannot measure."

The problem with the Senate bill, they say, is that it doesn't specify that states have to intervene if schools, or subgroups of students, are performing poorly on standardized tests. They fear that without such a requirement, states will once again ignore the persistent racial and economic achievement gaps.

But a backlash against standardized testing has spread to some civil rights groups too

William J. Barber speaks at a North Carolina Moral Mondays rally.

Alicia Funderburk/Getty Images Entertainment

Research suggests that in response to the high-stakes standardized tests in No Child Left Behind, school districts narrowed their curriculums to focus more strongly on reading and math, the most-tested subjects. And those effects were strongest at low-performing schools that tend to enroll a disproportionate number of poor and minority students.

So some civil rights activists argue that despite its good intentions, the law actually harmed the students it was meant to help.

"We don’t send our kids to school to become skilled test takers," William J. Barber, II, president of North Carolina's NAACP and a leader in the state's Moral Mondays movement, wrote in an op-ed in the Hill. "We pay our taxes and send our kids to public schools because we need future corporate CEOs, cardiologists and aerodynamic engineers, university presidents and school principals, urban planners and architects. Our sons and daughters can’t reach these heights when accountability in our education system hinges on standardized test scores, not cultivating intellectual opportunity."

In a letter to Senate leaders, more than 200 community organizations, nonprofits, and unions echoed that message, urging them to get rid of required standardized tests.

Many of the groups signing that letter have links to teachers unions, which have their own motives for opposing standardized testing: Scores are increasingly used in decisions about teachers' hiring, firing, and promotions. But the letter was also signed by three state chapters of the NAACP, as well as smaller community-based organizations, not affiliated with unions, that promote racial justice.

The disagreement highlights the difficulty of making the case for standardized tests to any skeptical group — whether it's the NAACP or white, suburban parents in New Jersey who are opting their children out of the annual ritual. Given a choice, few students would choose to spend several hours taking a standardized test, generally not the most pleasant experience.

And while some parents appreciate knowing how their children compare with others in their state on reading and math, the tests' ultimate purpose is to show how broad groups are performing relative to each other. That can make testing a hard sell for individual kids. But it's why groups concerned about the success of historically disadvantaged students say it's so important.