Assessment Commentary

Standards, Tests, and Civil Rights

By William L. Taylor — November 15, 2000 9 min read

William L. Taylor served on Thurgood Marshall’s staff at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In the 1960s, he served as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He founded and directed the Center for National Policy Review, is currently vice chairman of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights, and is the vice-chair of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. He also served as counsel to a group of leading educators and advocates in the drafting of comprehensive reforms to the federal Title I program.

Such traditional civil rights enforcement remains an important part of the struggle to ensure that all Americans receive their birthright of a quality education. But ending overt discrimination will not have a sufficient effect on student learning unless we also address less blatant ways in which schooling in America continues to limit opportunity for disadvantaged students.

Historically, fighting for civil rights in education has meant court battles to ensure that minority students would have access to the better offerings of desegregated schools.

Past attempts at improving the quality of education have failed because, in the absence of standards and accountability, prejudice and low expectations could invisibly undermine minority achievement. For too many years, minority students have been quietly tracked out of high-level and college-preparatory courses, while the academic rigor of the courses they do attend has been watered down.

Congress recognized these problems six years ago when it helped launch the standards movement as part of its reauthorization of Title I, the $8 billion federal program of aid to disadvantaged students. Based on a crucial finding that all students can learn and master challenging material, Congress demanded that states set high standards, devise new systems for assessing student performance, and hold state and local officials accountable for the results. This was an almost-revolutionary change in the law; previously, money kept flowing regardless of effectiveness. The growing state standards movement built on this foundation recognizes the need for uniform measures of student progress to ensure that education officials stop excusing inferior education for the very children who need high-quality schooling the most.

Today, new forms of accountability and assessment are the best tools we have to ensure quality education for all children. When schools and districts are held accountable for the achievement of all students, the means are at hand to force them to improve the quality of schooling provided for previously neglected students. Standards and accountability expose the sham that passes for education in many heavily minority schools and provide measurements and pressure to prod schools to target resources where they are needed most.

There is strong evidence that these accountability reforms are producing positive results for minority students. In states like Maryland and Kentucky, major elements of statewide reform have led to significant gains in student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Texas reports results separately for poor children and racial minorities—encouraging schools to target these needy groups. As a result, 35 schools in San Antonio have raised themselves out of the category of “low performing,” with African- American and Latino students improving at a faster rate than whites.

Despite the potential of standards to improve schools for minorities, some supporters of civil rights argue against using standardized assessments to determine whether standards are being met. They fear that, inevitably, tests will be used not just to hold principals and teachers accountable but to impose high stakes on students, and that the high failure rate of minority students on a high school exit test would prevent many from graduating.

Despite the potential of standards to improve schools for minorities, some supporters of civil rights argue against using standardized assessments to determine whether standards are being met.

This confuses the symbol of the diploma with the level of education it represents. It misses the central point that the real high stakes are imposed not by a test, but by educational neglect. Students who receive a bad education are penalized whether or not they obtain a diploma. Giving them an exit exam early enough in their schooling and following it by a real remedial effort may result in both a diploma and a better education.

Opponents also argue that it is not fair to hold students or educators responsible for the performance of disadvantaged students when their schools lack sufficient resources to help them. But even in the absence of opportunity-to-learn legislation, enough schools have made progress for us to know that students and teachers and schools can succeed even without the resources that others have. This is the lesson of Memphis, Tenn., Philadelphia, San Antonio, and other success stories throughout the nation.

If in our zeal to protect students, we wage war on standards and standardized tests, then we continue the old regime of low expectations that has plagued poor and minority children for so many years. It also would abandon the federal responsibility for equality of opportunity and substitute one type of two-tiered system for another. And make no mistake: Such a dual system has racial implications. It is no accident that the districts most tolerant of lower standards are those with the most children of color.

The high failure rates of minority children on high-stakes assessments reveal the tragedy of a system that educates some of its children to lower expectations. In many of our nation’s largest cities, where children attend school in conditions of concentrated poverty, fewer than a third finish high school. Schools in these cities program students for failure early on with inadequate resources, poor teachers, and officials who simply do not accept the idea that all children can learn at high levels. By revealing these failures of the system, testing takes the first step to fixing them.

Instead of opposing the measuring rod, advocates for minorities should use the tests as a lever to demand that districts align their curricula with standards, increase resources, and deploy the best teachers at the schools that need them the most.

Similarly, federal and state governments must be willing to use their power to focus on the goal of high achievement and do more to equalize resources. The U.S. Department of Education should be asking every state to specify how it is carrying out Title I’s mandate to help local districts achieve the capacity to carry out their educational responsibilities. If it did, state officials would have to upgrade curriculum and resources in schools and districts now shortchanged. That is far preferable to simply suspending accountability until equity is achieved. Instead, the demand for accountability will help drive improvements in equity.

Of course, all of this will work only if the tests are fair, nondiscriminatory, and representative of what teachers cover in class, as called for by the joint standards issued by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. In cases where students test poorly on material they were never taught or taught only poorly, the school, not the students, should be held accountable. Unfortunately, many states and the federal government are ignoring safeguards designed to protect students in these circumstances.

The U.S. Department of Education should be asking every state to specify how it is carrying out Title I’s mandate to help local districts achieve the capacity to carry out their educational responsibilities.

Title I requires that the assessments adopted by states measure only what is taught in the curriculum and calls for evidence that students have had multiple opportunities to succeed. The Deborah P. decision of the 1970s reinforces the due-process and equal-protection principles that may apply when a high school diploma is denied on the basis of a failure to master material the student has never had an opportunity to learn. Federal officials must insist that these opportunities are provided, both in the form of retesting and in resources that give students an opportunity to succeed.

It is true that many tests being used today are not aligned to standards and do not serve as good thermometers that measure the educational health of the school district. But in the general hubbub over testing, the differences between good and bad standardized tests are being lost. Some school districts, like Chicago, are still using old norm-referenced, fill-in-the-bubble tests that tell us little about what students are learning. Yet, new assessments exist, including those developed by Lauren B. Resnick and the New Standards project, that are more effective measures of higher standards and educational needs. Taking a blunderbuss to all testing would forfeit the opportunity to use good tests for diagnostic purposes, and as one means to improve instruction.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education currently has no plans to call upon states to verify that these tests are of high quality and do not include questions outside the curriculum taught in schools. In taking this stance, the department is shirking its statutory duty; it ought to disapprove assessments if states cannot show that local districts have aligned their curricula to these assessments to give students a fair shot at passing.

The real “high stakes” are not a test that determines high school graduation, but whether the student leaves school prepared for life. Students who do not achieve at the levels required for graduation will suffer for it as workers and citizens, whether they receive a diploma or not. High stakes are imposed not so much by promotion and graduation policies, but by the educational neglect that allows children to fail in the first place. The remedies are to be found in steps to prevent educational failure: preschool programs and all-day kindergartens, early-grade reading programs, small class sizes, Title I programs and resources, summer school, extended learning time, good teaching, and more professional development. And the federal government needs to use its power to ensure that standards are high, assessments are fair, and students receive the curriculum and resources they need to achieve.

Ultimately, the battle over standards and accountability is a continuation of the civil rights struggle. If the U.S. Supreme Court was correct nearly 50 years ago in expressing doubts that “a child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if ... denied the opportunity of education,” then in today’s postindustrial, information-age society, all doubt has been removed. To obtain success in the 21st century, students need a better education that begins with high expectations and standards for all.

If we follow that road by providing the good teaching and resources needed to reach the goal and by using good tests to hold schools accountable for results, the standards movement could be the most important vehicle for the educational progress of minority and poor students since Brown v. Board of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Standards, Tests, And Civil Rights


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