High Stakes:
Black and Latino parents are demanding better schools and fewer tests
By Eric C. Wat




This article was first published by RaceWire, ColorLines magazine

Cynthia 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.

"They 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.'"

Davis 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 additional resources.

But 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.

In 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.

Although 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.

"When 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."

At the end of the day, Davis made her speech with 300 CEJ members behind her, and the motion passed 4-1.

"At 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.

CEJ 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.

"High-stakes 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.

"If 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."

High-stakes 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.

How to Take a Test

So, 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?

"It's 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."

Since 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.

Sometimes, 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.

"We 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."

In 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 of education.

"And 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.

Political Forces

High-stakes 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.

The 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.

California's 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 law.

Nationally, 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.

Who's Against Testing?

It 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.

Dale 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."

A 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.

"They 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."

As an organization with a diverse base that is predominantly people of color, CEJ also makes a point of addressing issues of race head on.

"We 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."

What was the response?

"We 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."

While 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.

Unlike 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.


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Issue Number 24
January 9, 2003



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Other commentaries in this issue:

No Draft, No Peace - Rangel and Conyers are right

The buying of Rev. Dr. Greedygut... More Confederates in GOP closet... It’s a bitch being rich

GOP says Democrats fund loafers... Democrats charge game is rigged... Pacifica station looking for a GM

Commentaries in Issue 23 January 2, 2003:

De-funding the Right Rev. Dr. Greedygut: Faith-based bribery's sleazy constituency

Reports from the war on Milwaukee's poor... Bling bling politics for the young... The drug money trail, past and present

Bush plans more gifts for rich... Rangel raises draft issue... Brazil-Venezuela solidarity

A Lott Missing: Rituals of Purification and Deep Racism Denial, By Paul L. Street

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.