Standardized tests can help combat inequity

Opinion by Robert C. Bobb in the Washington Post

09/14/15

 Robert C. Bobb is a former D.C. city administrator, former president of the D.C. Board of Education and D.C. State Board of Education, and the former emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools.

Disparities in educational achievement between low-income minority students and their more affluent peers loom large, despite years of work to close the gap. Some point to this as a reason we should back away from accountability-driven endeavors such as stronger state standards and aligned assessments. In fact, it should motivate us only to redouble those efforts and push boldly forward.

Civil rights leaders and testing opponents have been locked in a fight over this issue . Testing critics say the lack of significant improvement among economically disadvantaged minority students — despite years of standardized testing — proves that tests do little to close the achievement gap and in fact only exacerbate inequity. Civil rights advocates, in turn, argue that the tests provide data essential to understanding the magnitude of the gap in student performance and highlighting the need to fix it.

Four years ago, we were on the right track. That was when a bipartisan group of governors embraced a set of universal educational ideals that became known as the Common Core State Standards. They worked to focus on the bedrock skills and knowledge all students need to succeed in school and after regardless of their individual circumstance or the career path they chose to pursue. Developed with heavy input from educators, the standards emphasize critical thinking, reading and math skills. They also measure students’ readiness for success in education and the workplace beyond high school.

Many civil rights organizations — the NAACP, the National Urban League, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza, for example — are right to be concerned about how the absence of uniform standards and a rigorous assessment regimen could affect the most vulnerable populations, including those they serve. 

 

“We cannot fix what we cannot measure. And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools,” those and other groups said in a recent statement

Various people have offered counterarguments. Scholars such as Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, have thrown unrelated elements into the debate. The Post paraphrased Orfield this year: “Tests don’t address the social problems that poor children bring to school or the fact that many start kindergarten already lagging behind more affluent children.” 

He’s right! But tests aren’t meant to be a panacea for all that ails. Still, they can — and do — help diagnose how far behind those children Orfield worries about might be, and they often aid in the development of an appropriate prescription for improving their potential success.

Immutable national standards and a uniform testing regimen are critical. 

Instead of ditching assessments, we should be discussing their quality. I believe the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), rolled out for the first time this spring in the District and 11 states, represents a radical shift from the standardized testing paradigm of the past. 

Unlike previous tests, PARCC assesses skills most important to 21st-century success, such as clear communication, critical thinking and problem solving. It provides parents and teachers meaningful feedback about students’ performance, crucial to building each child’s strengths and addressing specific areas of academic challenges. This spring more than 5 million students, including thousands from the District, completed the PARCC assessment for the first time, and we will soon have the benefit of the better information it provides.

PARCC’s chief executive , Laura Slover, is correct when she asserts that “Quality, statewide education assessments are the guarantor of high standards. Without assessments, the standards are not always applied, and the disadvantaged are often the ones left behind.” 

 

The magnitude of the inequity in the U.S. public education system demands we do everything we can to address it. There is no silver bullet. We must not abandon PARCC tests but instead allow them to prove their worth as a valid and promising tool for tackling inequity. 

The failure to set solid standards and conduct regular quality assessments, particularly after there has been a diagnosis of a problem, is akin to educational malpractice.

 

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