WASHINGTON — Tameka Jones’ daughter graduated from St. Paul’s Central Senior High last year and went to Prairie View University in Texas — and both mother and daughter worry she might have underestimated college’s difficulty.
“I don’t know if she’s at the same level as the other students,” Tameka Jones said Wednesday. “Her first semester wasn’t that great, and I think that she had a false sense that she was on the ball because of her schooling in Minnesota. Now that she’s somewhere else, she’s like, wait, hold up, I didn’t know all of the things that I needed to know to be here at this time.”
As congressional efforts to reform the bruised and beaten No Child Left Behind law began in earnest on Wednesday, Jones and a group of parents and educators from Minnesota were in Washington to ask lawmakers to preserve a key component of the law: the standardized testing designed to give educators, parents and lawmakers more insight into the strengths and weaknesses of America’s schools.
For the group, black women with children in Minneapolis or St. Paul schools, educators in training or alumni themselves, testing is tantamount to a civil rights issue: the results of the tests give parents and administrators the chance to compare student progress against school districts around America, and provide a goldmine of information about the achievement gap that has consumed inner-city schools and minority students.
Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said maintaining a testing requirement is likely to be part of his panel’s NCLB reform package, and the Obama administration has said it hopes for the same. The issue is still up in the air in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers held a hearing on testing Wednesday.
“We want to be sure to be kept aware of how our children are doing in schools,” Khulia Pringle, a teacher-in-training, said. “Without that data, there is no way for us to know how our kids are doing individually, how they’re doing compared to their peers, how they’re doing nationally, how teachers are doing. So it’s critical.”
Shining a light on the achievement gap
Under NCLB, school districts are required to test their students on math and reading annually between third and eighth grade and once on each subject in high school. NCLB doesn’t mandate one national benchmark by which to judge student progress — states are given the power to do that. But when the federal government began issuing states waivers from the law’s penalties in 2012, it said states needed to show “college and career readiness” for their students, and their testing schemes must align with that goal. States still determine what that means, but the federal government can review their decisions.
The results of the testing, which are made public, have helped illuminate the performance gap between suburban schools and those in inner cities, and between whites and students of color — an area of particular concern for Minnesota.
Jones, Pringle and others came to Washington Wednesday with the Minnesota branch of a group called Students for Education Reform to talk to members about the importance of testing standards for their kids and their communities.
Latasha Gandy, the group’s managing director in Minnesota, said test results are a tool parents can use to identify schools that are the best fit for their children.
“Before this was available to me, I would have sent my kid to the normal neighborhood school, the school bus stopped at the stop on the corner and they would have went there,” she said. “And I would have thought they were getting everything they deserved, like I did for so many years. But the test makes me understand how my child can do there.”
Zina Fizer, a parent of a student from St. Louis Park High, said the law’s national standards give parents and policy makers a way to compare where students and schools are relative to their peers, not just within a district but nationwide.
“I’ve always appreciated the standardized testing because it let me know where my child was,” she said. “I was able to determine how he ranged and rated all across the nation. If that part goes away, then that makes the parent ignorant of where their child is, and then you can’t intervene if you don’t know.”
Over-testing a complaint
NCLB testing has been controversial for any number of reasons: before the waivers, tests were deemed to be a high-stakes game with funding on the line. Some teachers groups have complained about over-testing (an argument advocates say is misplaced: NCLB testing mandates haven’t changed, though states have added regimens of their own on top of them), and some parent groups have begun leading movements to have their children opt out of the tests.
That’s where, for these parents, the idea of testing as a civil right comes into play. Chris Stewart, the director of outreach for the group Education Post, argued that testing, as a tool for assessing large-scale student progress, is not a new concept, but only became controversial when it started exposing a racial disparity in education. Fizer said some people would rather ignore data showing underperforming schools than try to change the status quo.
“[Testing] shows that there is gap, it shows that there isn’t equity as we said there was,” she said.
“You get rid of the tests, you get rid of the evidence,” Stewart said.
Kline: Keep testing
Senate Republicans held a hearing on testing on Wednesday after releasing a draft NCLB reform bill last week. The draft was thorough, but the committee chairman, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, left two possible options for testing: maintaining the annual test mandate or turning it over to states to overhaul as they please.
Kline said his committee’s version of NCLB reform will include an annual testing requirement, but he wants to remove the penalties that forced states to adopt proficiency standards. He equated the testing question to the debate over Common Core, the controversial standardized education benchmarks many states have adopted to win an NCLB waiver (Minnesota is not a Common Core state). He said states should be allowed to coordinate their education standards, “but it is entirely wrong for the federal government to try to manage that.”
Even if there isn’t a national standard, Kline said he recognized the importance of standardized tests in assessing states’ education progress and in quantifying the achievement gap.
“I do think it’s important that there be testing,” he said. “I think it’s important that you can get enough data so that you can disaggregate it, that is, you can peel it apart to make sure that you’re not leaving behind certain groups.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry