Number 24 - January 9, 2003
Black and Latino parents are
demanding better schools and fewer tests
By Eric C. Wat
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article was first published by RaceWire,
Davis, a senior at Bell High School, lives in the city of Cudahy, part
of the southeastern part of Los Angeles that has one of the densest
concentrations of Latino working poor west of the Mississippi. Last
year, after some class discussion about the inherent unfairness of a
standardized test called Stanford Achievement Test-Ninth Edition (SAT-9),
Davis and a group of students at Bell got their parents to waive the
test for them. Why cooperate with a system that dooms students to failure?
Although it is their right to choose not to participate in the high-stakes
test, school administrators do not like to see students opt out, because
a large number of waivers would compromise the school’s standing in
a statewide "accountability system" based solely on test scores.
made a big deal of it," Davis says. "They kept asking why
we wanted to waive the test. We told them, ‘it’s because our parents
want us to,’ but they just kept asking us. I was so tired of it. So
finally, I said, ‘fine. I’ll take your test. Just leave me alone.’"
isn’t the only student facing a Catch-22. In 1999, California’s Governor
Gray Davis and the state legislature hastily put together a "school
accountability system" assigning each school an Academic Performance
Index score. For the past three years, a school’s score has been solely
determined by its students’ performance on the SAT-9. SAT-9, critics
claim, unfairly pits California students against a national norm that
is heavily based on white, middle-class students who attend schools
with a lot more resources than many students in California’s urban centers.
SAT-9 is also used as a "high-stakes" test, a test whose purpose
is more than assessing student performance and carries significant consequences
for the school. In California, $700 million of state money is
doled out as financial rewards to schools with high API score or with
significant improvement on the score from the previous year. Here’s
the Catch-22: schools cannot get resources unless they can demonstrate
high performance, but they cannot demonstrate high performance without
Davis, along with some of her classmates, did not take the test lying
down. They joined Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), a volunteer-driven
coalition of students, parents, and teachers in Los Angeles. CEJ was
formed out of the struggle against Proposition 227, a 1998 California
ballot initiative that ended bilingual education in the state. With
the passage of 227, CEJ members, mostly teachers at the time, understood
that the attack on public education and students of color had only just
begun. They decided to regroup, and this time to enlist the support
of students and parents.
2001, CEJ successfully lobbied the Los Angeles Unified School District
to inform parents of an existing state law that lets them waive their
children out of testing. Under more CEJ pressure, the district reaffirmed
in writing the right of teachers and students to speak openly on school
grounds about the waivers, without the harassment and pressure that
students like Davis had suffered. In May, CEJ leaders pushed forward
a school board motion that would require the school district to set
up a task force researching alternatives to SAT-9, even though the test
is mandated by the state.
new to the organization, Davis quickly became a veteran during the campaign.
On the day of the May school board meeting, she was one of two student
representatives who spoke on behalf of CEJ to advocate for the motion.
our motion came up, one of the school board members said, ‘We can’t
change the law.’ I remember Genethia Hayes telling him, ‘If Martin Luther
King didn’t fight against injustices, we would not be here today.’ That
was great. That was inspiring."
the end of the day, Davis made her speech with 300 CEJ members behind
her, and the motion passed 4-1.
first, people would say, ‘You’re doing this just because you don’t want
to take the test.’ Even some of my friends were saying that," Davis
recalls. Many were eventually convinced by CEJ members’ conviction that
the use of high-stakes testing to demand academic excellence, without
providing adequate resources, was unfair. To Davis, it would have been
easier just to take the test, like she had the previous year. Instead,
she stood up to the pressure and helped win a key battle for real improvements
in her school.
members have to remind the public over and over again that they are
not against testing, per se. Rather, they are against high-stakes testing,
the practice of using standardized tests to penalize students and schools
that need resources the most.
testing does not answer the question of what it takes to provide our
children an enriched education. That’s the conversation CEJ is forcing
on the table," says Bill Gallegos, a parent leader and a seasoned
organizer on educational justice issues.
we are focusing on high-stakes testing, it’s because it is a means to
spark a larger conversation. When Martin Luther King did sit-ins at
lunch counters, it was not just about being able to patronize the lunch
counters. It was about social equality."
testing is just one of CEJ’s many lunch counters. They are also fighting
for reduced class size, bilingual education and an anti-racist curriculum.
These struggles are different means to a broader agenda: equitable distribution
of resources to communities of color. But, because tests are far cheaper
than proven reforms, such as raising teacher quality or reducing class
sizes, it will be a tough fight.
to Take a Test
what about all those principals and teachers who say that they have
risen to the state’s challenge, and that students are learning better
because their scores have improved in the last few years?
funny," Gallegos says. "I asked some teachers who teach in
those improving schools the same question. They’d tell me, ‘All we do
is teach to the test.’ This is the analogy I like to use. If you apply
for law schools, there are all these testing companies that claim they
can help you increase your LSAT scores. They might be very effective
in increasing your scores. But ultimately, do you gain any knowledge?
No. They just teach you how to take the test."
SAT-9 is based on a national standard, it is grossly out of sync with
the California curriculum. Students are being tested on materials that
they have not learned. Since its implementation, some teachers have
felt compelled to start "teaching to the test," which translates
into a narrower curriculum. For example, subjects like history get the
short shrift because it is not a focus of SAT-9.
it gets even more absurd. Last year, Davis was in an honors Mathematical
Analysis class. At the beginning of the "test window"—the
months immediately preceding the administering of SAT-9—her math teacher
passed out a packet that was supposed to review the materials covered
by the class. Instead, it was a thinly veiled study guide for that year’s
SAT-9. Despite the fact that Davis was in an advanced math class, the
packet contained questions on Algebra and Geometry.
learned that last year and the year before," she says. "All
of a sudden, we had to stop the class and switch gears. It didn’t make
sense to me why we were reviewing it in that class."
Davis’ school, one can tell when the SAT-9 is coming. The atmosphere
changes dramatically during the "test window." The school
gives out $1,000 scholarships for those top students who perform well
on the test. "It [the reward] felt like they were pushing the lottery,"
Davis says. "And if you walk through my school during those months,
you would see all these SAT-9 posters on the wall. This is not the point
because we are a low-performing school, we have to start shifting resources
from other programs. Our drama program is being cut," Davis, a
theater buff, says regrettably.
testing is a national movement and has been for over two decades now.
But the mantra of "accountability" has intensified in the
past several years. The recent onslaught is sparked by two major currents.
The first is economic: amidst reports that American corporations are
losing their competitive edge against their international counterparts,
corporations are demanding a more pliable supply of domestic labor.
Corporations are some of the strongest supporters of national testing.
"Elite decision makers often consider masses of people who fail
to meet their own legitimate expectations a potential threat. Thus,
reducing expectations when the economy needs more hamburger flippers
and janitors than high-tech whizzes should make perfect sense to those
at the top," writes Dennis Fox, an activist against high stakes
testing in Massachusetts. If high-stakes tests can keep resources from
flowing to low-performing schools, students in these schools will be
much more likely to be forced into the low-wage workforce.
second major force is political. For politicians, testing is a quick
fix. It’s easier to measure a score than to foster and monitor real
learning with good teachers and adequate resources. In some states,
high-stakes testing also feeds the voucher movement. In Florida, for
example, parents can receive $1,500 in public money for private school
tuition if their child’s public school performs below standards.
API ranking system is partly based on a 1998 report that recommended
an accountability system that should be studied for five years before
full implementation. In 1999, not long after Gov. Davis took office,
it took him and the legislature only three months to roll out the Public
Schools Accountability Act. According to a recent Orange County Register
investigation, the API ranking system is riddled with sampling errors
that lead to "an average 20-point margin of error in the score—a
startling swing in a system where a single point can be the difference
in receiving thousands of extra dollars to upgrade computers, buy library
books, or hire tutors." Experts who designed the system knew about
the potential for error. Yet, caught up in the politics, neither experts
nor politicians disclosed the system’s imperfection. Instead, it became
George W. Bush, who as a presidential candidate had run on his education
record as Texas’s governor, signed into law the "No Child Left
Behind" Act earlier this year. With bipartisan support in Congress—one
of the bill’s co-sponsors is Senator Ted Kennedy—the legislation mandates
annual "academic assessments" of students from third
to eighth grades in all states. Like the API ranking system, financial
rewards are tied to high performance. Yet, again, the demand for excellence
is not matched by the supply of resources. The new law appropriates
about $400 million a year for six years for states to develop new tests.
But Time magazine reports that full implementation can run up
to $7 billion. In these economic hard times, it’s difficult to
tell the carrots from the sticks. Earlier this year, Vermont, for example,
considered not taking federal money because it might ultimately cost
the state a lot more to abide by the obligations that come with No Child
Left Behind dollars. Other states are not as bold—yet. However, it will
be a challenge for state governments to develop an assessment system
while public education funding is already on the chopping block for
many of them.
is rare for an educational justice organization to have an equal and
meaningful representation of teachers, students, and parents in both
membership and leadership. In the white, middle-class dominated national
scene of anti-testing organizations, CEJ is also unique for being led
by people of color.
Martin is a black single father in South Los Angeles and a CEJ organizer.
More than a quarter century ago, he attended Washington Prep High School,
where his 16-year-old daughter Karissa is now a junior. "I witnessed
firsthand the disparity between schools with resources and those without.
CEJ is confronting the same inequality I experienced 25 years ago as
a high school student. I was not surprised, but I was appalled. Our
children are still being treated like second-class citizens. This takes
me back to the civil rights era."
self-described "silent activist" before CEJ, Martin was introduced
to the organization through his daughter. Out of curiosity, and feeling
a parental sense of responsibility, he accompanied her to a CEJ meeting
last May to find out what his daughter had been spending so much time
on. At the meeting, members were planning a demonstration at Washington
High. Martin also learned about other issues that CEJ had been working
on: overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, shortages of books, dilapidated
school conditions, etc. The laundry list sounded all too familiar. Martin
was impressed by how well the students and teachers were working together,
and his intention to remain just an observer did not last long.
really wanted my input," he says. "I didn’t think I was ready
or knowledgeable about the issues. But they were really eager to hear
what I had to say. So, I started giving my opinions. And the more I
talked, the more ideas I came up with."
an organization with a diverse base that is predominantly people of
color, CEJ also makes a point of addressing issues of race head on.
had to have a long conversation just on why we need to translate our
meetings," Gallegos remembers. "If translations are going
to make the meetings longer, parents need to understand why and not
resent each other."
was the response?
did some education on the history of people of color," says Gallegos.
"In the end, an African American parent stood up and said, ‘What
was the first thing they took from us when we came over as slaves? Language.
We of all people should understand that.’ It made sense to him that
the Latino parents should be able to participate fully, and in their
own native tongue."
groups like CEJ are consciously engaging immigrants in their children’s
education, testing mandates in the new federal law further disenfranchise
these communities. While states must develop accommodations for other
languages "to the extent practicable," the law mandates that
all reading tests must be taken in English.
in many parts of the country where the dominant voices against testing
have not come from communities of color, CEJ is one example of how parents,
teachers, students, and organizers are working to shift the debate from
the question of how students are scoring on tests, to what are the unmet
needs of children of color that the tests and the schools do not address.