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Groups Say Democratic Platform Would Reverse Key Obama Testing Policies

By Alyson Klein — July 12, 2016 4 min read
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Parents should have a right to opt their children out of standardized tests, without penalties for their schools, according to excerpts from a revamped version of the Democratic Party platform released by the American Federation of Teachers.

What’s more, test scores shouldn’t be used to “falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English-language learners as failing,” determine which schools are closed, or

defunded, or in teacher and principal evaluations.

That portion of the platform can be seen as an almost total rejection of the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda, at least for the first six years of the administration. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made dramatic school improvement strategies (based largely on test scores) and test-based teacher evaluations a cornerstone of his K-12 agenda, both through the Race to the Top grant competition and, later, waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

And it goes even further than the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law replacing NCLB. Unlike the Obama administration’s policies, ESSA doesn’t require states to gauge teacher performance using test scores, but it allows states and districts to continue the practice if they want. If Democratic policymakers take the platform to heart, they’ll reject the performance reviews.

The platform also makes it clear that while Democrats support “high quality charters,” they don’t think that charters should replace public schools. And Democrats want beefed-up accountability and transparency for charters. They also want to see charters serve English-learners and students in special education, something they don’t do often enough, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Other key points in the revamped platform, according to AFT?

  • Democrats want to make sure that students of color aren’t subject to harsher forms of discipline than their peers. And they want schools to embrace “restorative justice” practices, which essentially allow students to address their offense directly and right the wrong.
  • Democrats like the idea of “community schools,” which pair education with wraparound services, like early-childhood education and the arts. That’s in line with the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhood program.
  • Democrats believe teachers should be given professional development and supports, not “punitive accountability.”

The AFT is really happy with the amended platform. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, said it represents a “refreshing sea change” from past policies.

“This platform makes it clear that Democrats are committed to ending the failed era of test-and-sanction, and are ready to refocus on strategies that will help each and every child succeed, from early childhood through college and career,” she said.

But Democrats for Education Reform, a non-profit that has supported candidates who are fans of policies like expanding charter schools and test-based teacher evaluation, is not at all happy. Shavar Jeffries, DFER’s president, said the platform was “hijacked at the last minute.”

“This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Jeffries said in a statement. “The platform stands in stark contrast to the positions of a broad coalition of civil rights groups, which have made clear that those encouraging testing opt-outs are harming the prospects of low-income and minority children and that having clear academic performance benchmarks tied to school turnaround efforts is necessary to promote a more equitable education system.” (UPDATE: DFER has posted a transcript of the platform debate, and an analysis here.)

The new language is a marked departure from the original draft platform released earlier this summer, which Andrew wrote about here. That proposal was less specific on policy, embracing ideas nearly every Democrat could get behind, like ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education, and ending the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

And it’s an even bigger departure from the 2012 platform which called for “carefully crafted” evaluation systems, and had big praise for the Obama administration’s role in urging states to adopt the Common Core standards. That ultimately generated big political blowback for the Common Core. (Incidentally, the words “Common Core” aren’t in the draft platform or any of the excerpts of amendments that have been released.)

How much do platforms even matter? Candidates aren’t bound to them, so the platform shouldn’t be taken as a point-by-point blueprint for exactly what the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, would do as president, or for what any other Democrat would do in office. But they are an important symbol of where the party stands on key issues, and advocates can use them to point out differences between a particular candidate and their party’s official position.

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