It's tempting to wonder what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say about the growing national movement against high-stakes testing, as we celebrate his lifelong work for equality. King's vision of racial justice was broad and deep. We know from his writings that he valued equal educational opportunity as part of a broader struggle for equality. But what would he think about the way testing has been held up as the key to educational equity? What would he say about the way high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, said to fuel cheating and the school-to-prison pipeline? It's hard to picture him on the sidelines.
King's "I have a dream" speech is well known, but he also spoke eloquently about education. In a 1947 Morehouse student newspaper article, he said, "The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society."
The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law set a goal of equal educational outcomes. It imposed an arbitrary mechanism based on the "efficiency" of standardized tests, leaving schools awash in testing. Yet our research concludes it has not only failed to produce equality but has caused disproportionate damage to educational quality for young people of color, especially those from low-income families.
If Rev. King were with us, he would surely see that schools in poor communities remain both severely segregated and underfunded. This affects class size, access to science labs, books, art and music. It also affects teachers and principals, many of whom quickly burn out and leave a challenging school or the profession itself.
Facing test-driven accountability, many schools have narrowed curriculum by reducing or dropping untested subjects such as social studies, science, art, music and gym. NCLB has promoted teaching to multiple-choice state tests instead of teaching students "to think intensively and to think critically," as Rev. King put it. As with other failures of educational opportunity, the impact has been greatest in schools that serve low-income youth, particularly students of color.
What's more, there's been a national epidemic of cheating. These include allegations that in the D.C. schools, under extreme pressure by Chancellor Michelle Rhee to improve results, teachers erased wrong answers on tests. These charges were recently aired by John Merrow on PBS's Frontline. After the show, Merrow wrote in his blog, Taking Note, "If adults change answers, then the weaknesses are not discovered or remediated. If you believe, as I do, that education is a civil right, then those cheaters are denying children a basic civil right."
A relentless focus on test scores and the draping of the civil rights mantle over test-prep and "no excuses" schooling has obscured the real needs of poor children. This leaves political leaders and citizens off the hook for addressing the underlying issues of poverty and growing inequality. Would King, who died while fighting for low-paid unionized workers, join those who diminish poverty's influence on learning? Or would he continue to say, as he did in 1967,
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.... We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.
And what of the school-to-prison pipeline? The NCLB era's focus on tests and the fear that "some students" will bring down scores has contributed to stressful, often hostile school environments. This triggers student behaviors that schools use to justify "zero tolerance" and other oppressive measures. Indeed, some schools have removed low-scoring students prior to test-taking time in order to "improve" their outcomes. An El Paso superintendent has been sentenced to prison and must pay restitution for doing just that.
The damage from high-stakes testing has compounded social inequities caused by poverty and racial injustice. It is hard to see how Dr. King could have accepted turning schools serving low-income youth into test-preparation programs. Though this would have weighed heavily on Dr. King, he probably would have been heartened by parent and student groups coming together to work for change. Civil rights groups like the Advancement Project and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, parent organizations like Communities for Excellent Public Schools and Parents Across America as well as youth organizing groups in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and beyond are working together to expose the negative consequences of high-stakes testing and promote alternatives that work.