Is the Illusion of Equity a Civil Right?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently gave an interview in which he stated that the federal government “would have an obligation to step in” if states fail to crack down on the parents like me who make the choice opt their children out of standardized tests. He argued that “folks in the civil rights community” want their kids to be assessed. Some took this comment as offensive, assuming that Mr. Duncan was inferring that white people like me who opt their kids out of standardized testing are racist because standardized testing data is valuable for uncovering educational inequity between white and non-white students.

Not surprisingly, since Mr. Duncan is a politician, his interview was quickly followed by a statement from 12 civil rights groups that voiced their opposition to the opt out movement. This statement, which was signed by organizations of great importance such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, seemed to lend credence to Mr. SENATE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE HEARING ON THE IMPACTS OF SEQUESTRATIONDuncan’s claim that opting out of standardized tests is an act of opposition to the civil rights movement.

I took a while to think about this issue, principally because I know that my privilege affords me the opportunity to opt my children out of standardized tests without much fear of personal consequence. I wrote about that privilege in my personal opt out manifesto, which spanned the first 20 days of PARCC testing in Arkansas. Reason #20 for opting out centered on the fact that we can opt out and therefore we do opt out for all of the children who suffer from the detrimental effects that our national fetish with testing have wrought.

I don’t take offense from Mr. Duncan’s remarks because it is difficult to be offended when the affront originates from a place of well-meaning ignorance. I do believe that Secretary Duncan has just intentions when he argues for standardization of educational outcomes through the Common Core State Standards or accountability through high stakes testing. For those who aren’t trained educators, such as the Secretary of Education, the philosophical ideals of “equal” and “equitable” might appear to be the same.

It also didn’t take long for those experts who know far more about equity to weigh in with powerful critiques of the opt out statement.  I’m more impressed with evidence than rhetoric, which is why I found Wayne Au’s piece in the Washington Post to be particularly convincing. I would suggest that you read these critiques because they do a far better job of demonstrating how standardized testing has been far more damaging than helpful to people of color in the United States. The bottom line is that “equal” and “accountable” sound great in a political speech or interview, but in reality they lead to resegregation and the disproportionate denigration of educational experiences for children who are not white.

That’s primarily why I do take significant issue with the manner in which “folks in the civil rights movement” are used as a political chit to promote educational policies that really are not in their best interest. I was even more disappointed to find out that 7 of the 12 have been well-funded by the Gates foundation – one of the top grease providers to the wheels of CCSS and its attendant testing regime.

We need to think about how children are being used to further a political agenda that is harmful to their educational and overall well-being. Are we using data to turn students into “objects rather than subjects” by focusing on the numbers they generate rather than their actual lived experiences? Should those who use children as political leverage be held accountable for the negative consequences that result?

Besides, the argument that we need standardized testing in order to uncover the “achievement gap” doesn’t hold water.  We know that educational inequity in the form of an “opportunity gap” exists between white and non-white students.  It has been documented in any number of books by authors such as Jonathan Kozol, Paul Gorski, Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and many others.  They demonstrate how we should be focusing on the disparities that manifest themselves in the “achievement gap” in test scores that Duncan and others hold up as a cause rather than an effect of childhood poverty.  The “achievement gap” is quite misleading because contrary to popular belief, the test score gap between white and non-white students has been closing over the past forty years, yet the opportunity gap between students of different socio-economic statuses remains stubbornly fixed.  What happens if we succeed in closing that gap?  Are we going to be satisfied with the appearance of equality if the conditions that underlie them are anything but?  Will we wait until we have the facade of equity before we look critically at whether the ends justified the means?

Mr. Duncan has no legal authority to “step in” and compel my children or anybody’s children to take his tests. However, he does have the ability to punish states if they don’t “crack down” on parents like me who practice civil disobedience in order to protest the harmful and arguably racist standardized testing regime in this country.   He’s already done his part to compel states to adopt CCSS and teacher accountability systems based on standardized test scores by using Race To The Top money and No Child Left Behind waivers as a powerful carrot/stick combination.  But the backlash has begun in states around the country as state legislatures have woken up to the reality of what they signed on for back in 2010 when they were desperate for federal money.  Pushing states to crack down on their citizens is a path of political danger.  Frankly, a part of me hopes that is exactly what Mr. Duncan does, though his energies might be better spent worrying less about the appearance of equity and critically appraising his well-meaning but unintentionally harmful policies.