Note to NEA and PTA: Ending Annual Testing Won’t Magically Create Equity for Children

The presidents of the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association want you to know No Child Left Behind has failed us. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the former, and Otha Thornton, president of the latter, say the law has over-emphasized standardized testing rather than ensuring equal opportunity. They propose a new accountability dashboard that measures more than is required by NCLB. Their data scheme would track the number of students in Advanced Placement courses, the number of students with “certified, experienced teachers,” the demographics of students who have “access to arts and athletic programs,” and which middle school students are on STEM tracks for advanced high school coursework (notice these are all inputs with no outcomes). “You can measure all that,” they say. I agree with them. Sign me up. Still, it feels like something is off. They skillfully fuse something true with a non sequitur. The truth is we all need to focus more on educational equity. But it doesn’t follow to say test-based accountability falls short of creating equal opportunity. Annual educational testing is only one of many ways we monitor how children are thriving. Pretending testing is the sum total of anyone’s agenda is a distortion and diversion. If we want real change for kids we must stop playing word games. The NEA seems intent on mastering the art of emotive language designed to spook parents, marginalize all opponents and shield members from any measurement of performance. We must be vigilant about calling them out for their trope. Here’s a good example from their piece:
Real equal opportunity, of course, isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. It means providing every child whatever he or she needs to learn, whether it’s tutoring and mentoring, counseling or other services. If a student comes to school hungry or sick, can we really say that she has an opportunity to learn? Of course not—and we must acknowledge this by seeing each student as a whole human being with individual needs.
This sounds amazing. Who doesn’t want to give a child “whatever he or she needs?” But isn’t it telling that as one of America’s leading educators Ms. Eskelsen Garcia would pen an aspirational missive with prescriptions for education that ignores the efficacy of classroom teaching? If you ask the question, “What can America’s 3 million teachers do better everyday in classrooms to improve education?” you’ll almost never find the answer in anything written by their union leaders. One claim they make I take seriously. They say “misuse of test scores has had unintended negative consequences, especially for students at high-poverty schools.” Our expectation that schools get all students to the minimal standard of proficiency means school leaders have been forced to “cut back on history, art, music and physical education.” I’m waiting for the evidence that testing has done this. Until I get it I’ll assume the more rational culprit—local decision making that cuts programs when there are budget shortfalls. While I can agree with much that Eskelsen Garcia and Thornton have written, there are notable problems with their argument. First, if one annual test is too much for schools, how will the public get objective information about how students are growing from year-to-year? Prior to annual testing across states there was a lot of gaming with standards, and poor children and children of color fell behind. It isn’t enough to claim testing is bad without acknowledging the valid reasons testing exists. Saying “trust us” isn’t good enough. Second, how can we ignore the enormous importance of classroom teaching? Multiple studies say it is the number one in-school contributor to student achievement. Sure, out-of-classroom factors are important, and many good people in public and nonprofit sectors are working daily to address the many needs of children, but when teachers seem so disinterested in explaining their role in improving education—instead, pointing to everyone else—how can the public be faulted for supporting high-level mandates for the management of education? Finally, if this is truly about equal opportunity, I find it astonishing that Eskelsen Garcia and Thornton—two leaders of color—have written an entire piece that ignores these issues: the importance of attracting more diverse teachers, improving cultural competency, addressing the overuse of suspensions, the overidentification of black students for special education, and the white flight of teachers from the neediest schools? It also confounds any reasonable understanding of their connection to our communities that they trade away the rights of parents to know how our kids are doing year-to-year for the cheap goal of ensuring job protections for a nation of teachers that have not always done well by us. The fact that their piece focuses exclusively on issues that reduce accountability for teachers and increase personnel—thus bring more members to teachers unions—makes me doubt their motives. Over the past 15 years high school graduation rates are at the highest rate ever, dropout rates are at their lowest (with kids of color being the biggest winners), and college graduation is up. Why turn back the clock? For them, this all appears to be business. As a parent with kids of color in the public education system, it’s personal for me.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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