Civil Rights Advocates vs. Teacher Advocates: A Destructive and Unnecessary Conflict

Cross-posted at Education Week

In several blogs that preceded this one, I have made the case that mandated annual testing of all students in the United States, when coupled with an accountability regime in which the data produced by those tests is used to make important decisions about the employment of teachers, is a counterproductive reform strategy for all students, but has the most serious negative consequences for low-income and minority students. In my final blog in this series, I will address what I take to be a serious by-product of these accountability policies: the corrosive conflict between some civil rights advocates who view the opposition from many teachers and their unions to annual testing as a racist act and some teachers who, in reaction to the use of standardized tests to fire teachers whose students do not perform well, are calling for the abolition or suspension of standardized testing. This conflict between natural allies is destructive and unnecessary.

Let’s consider first the position of the civil rights advocates who hold the views I just described. They argue, first, that testing all students and then releasing the scores for minority and low-income students separately makes it possible for the first time for everyone to see that, even though average student performance in a school or district may be acceptable or even superior, most low-income and minority students have performed far below the level of the average student.

It is essential, they argue, that this hard-won feature of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) be preserved, because, if schools, districts and states are allowed to conceal the performance of disadvantaged students behind the performance of the average student, many will do so. I agree.

They further argue that this kind of accountability will be greatly weakened if students are not tested annually, as required by NCLB. But, as I have argued elsewhere, there is no evidence for this proposition. The performance of low-income and minority students at the high school level has not improved over the entire 15-year life of NCLB. The rate of improvement at the elementary and secondary levels over the same period has been slower than it was before NCLB became the law of the land. It was even faster in the 1960s.

Not only is there no evidence that annual testing improves achievement of low-income and minority children, but there is evidence that it suppresses their achievement by creating incentives for teachers to focus on kids whose performance is just below the pass points and ignoring those with the lowest performance, by narrowing the curriculum for low-income and minority students more than for majority students and by creating an environment in which low-income and minority students, more than other students are subjected to a deadening endless round of mindless drill and practice and basic skills testing through the entire school year.

Now let’s look at the world of test-based accountability through the lens of many teachers. When NCLB was passed, the results of the tests the legislation required the states to administer were used to hold schools accountable. But when the Obama administration came into office in the midst of the Great Recession, it created the Race to the Top program that, among other things, effectively changed the form of accountability administered by the United States government. Under the Obama administration, teachers, not just schools, were to be held accountable, based on the scores of their students on the standardized tests required by law.

Many of the nation’s most distinguished researchers pointed out that the methods available to connect an individual teacher with the performance of her students were deeply flawed. Students’ performance is greatly influenced by many factors over which teachers have no direct control, factors that vary greatly from school to school, from class to class within a school, and even for the same teacher from year to year. The predictable result was that a given teacher might be declared a great teacher one year and a poor one the next. But the federal government was not deterred. It insisted that the states implement systems for tying very important decisions about individual teachers to their students’ performance on standardized tests. It even insisted on doing this for teachers whose students did not take standardized tests! Teachers widely admired by their students, parents and their fellow teachers were fired as a result. Many cases were widely publicized. Researchers found that, “…value-added measures of school effectiveness distort incentives and are likely to discourage good teachers and administrators from working in schools serving concentrations of disadvantaged students.” It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that teachers in many parts of the country turned against both standardized tests and the use of those tests as an important tool for teacher evaluation and personnel decisions.

Civil rights advocates want to get as many great teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students as possible. They do not want schools serving disadvantaged students to have a very narrow curriculum while more advantaged students in other schools get a much richer one. They do not want a regime in which teachers of disadvantaged students have strong incentives to attend to the needs of kids just below the pass points while virtually ignoring the needs of those who are performing at lower levels. So it should be the case that civil rights advocates want a system in which the schools are required to use standardized tests to assess student progress at reasonable intervals as they progress through the grades, but it is not very important to them to have those tests administered every year.

AnnualTestingInfographicWhy would it be? It is the requirement for annual testing, combined with the way the scores are used to punish teachers, that narrows the curriculum, focuses teachers’ attention on the student just below the cut scores at the expense of those who need them even more and provides good and great teachers with an incentive to avoid schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

This is the essence of my point. The administration’s goal of using student test scores to punish teachers cannot be achieved without annual testing, because, without annual testing, it is not possible to connect the performance of the teacher to the performance of a particular group of students. Civil rights groups and teachers should be on the same side of this fight. Teachers are not opposed to the civil rights of their students. To suggest that they are is really outrageous. What they are opposed to is a system that is patently unfair to teachers and creates conditions that make good teachers want to give up teaching.

My point is that annual testing is no better for low-income and minority students than it is for teachers. It is bad for both.

Just as there are people in the civil rights community who think teachers are racists because they oppose annual testing, there are teachers who are so disgusted and angry about the use of test-based accountability systems to punish teachers that they want to abolish standardized testing or call a moratorium on it. Both, in my view, are wrong.

The schools the teachers teach in are public schools funded by the taxpayers, and the public has a right to know how well the students are learning what they are supposed to learn. There will and should be accountability and there will be testing. The question is what kind of accountability. I have proposed a system the country could afford that would provide for much higher quality tests while at the same time providing the data needed to make sure that the public knows how its schools and each protected group of students within the schools are doing as they progress through school. It would not require year-by-year testing. In some years every student would be tested; in others, only some students would be sampled and students in protected groups would be over-sampled.

Although there are teachers who have called for an end to standardized testing, their unions have not. Over the years, the teachers and their unions have been strong advocates of the civil rights of minority groups in the United States. And civil rights groups have often made common cause with the teachers. As far as I can see, the interests of both are identical in this matter. It is my earnest hope that others can see this as well.