At the Civil Rights Summit celebrating the Civil Rights Act’s 50th birthday, everyone agreed that equal opportunity to education was a civil right. If that’s true, then who are today’s Freedom Riders and who is standing in the schoolhouse door? Education reformers see themselves as modern-day civil rights heroes, but the real continuation of non-violent protest can be found in the parents and students in the grassroots opt out movement that is refusing to take standardized tests.
In this fight, the power is almost all on the side of those who assume you can make a pig heavier by weighing it a lot, to put it in terms LBJ would have liked. And without any sense of shame or embarrassment, those who created this testing culture see themselves as his descendants.
“On the issue of education, we’re dealing with the meaning of America, and the extent of its promise, and in this cause the passion and energy of Lyndon Baines Johnson still guides us forward,” said George W. Bush in his speech at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Bush started it with No Child Left Behind, but Barack Obama’s Race to the Top is no better. Education Sec. Arne Duncan called Common Core “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.”
One of the problems with this policy discussion is that the pro-testing crowd can’t understand how anyone could be against using tests to measure learning.
“It’s hard to imagine anything so basic could be so controversial,” said Bush. “I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning, and for the sake of America’s children, that is something we cannot allow.”
Public education advocates don’t oppose high-stakes testing because they want to go back to the way things were in the ’70s. They’re against over-testing because it’s not working. Under No Child Left Behind, our students have lost ground to the rest of the world.
Even Sandy Kress, the architect of No Child Left Behind who now lobbies for Pearson, thinks there’s a problem.
“You’ve got drilling and benchmark testing every six weeks,” Kress said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of overtesting in a lot of places. It’s just awful, and it draws really negative reactions from parents, teachers and communities. Tests weren’t intended to be treated that way.”
But the answer from the pro-testing crowd is always “standardized testing now, standardized testing tomorrow, standardized testing forever.” To folks like Bush, Duncan, and Kress, there is nothing wrong with testing that cannot be solved with “better and more rigorous standardized tests.” The problem with testing is never the tests.
That’s why a surprising number of parents and students have chosen non-violent resistance as a last resort. If you want to find the people integrating lunch counters these days, check out the folks refusing to take the tests, or “opting out” as a form of protest.
Opting out is in. In New York State, at least 33,000 students skipped the Common Core tests in protest. In Seattle, 600 high school students opted out a year after their teachers refused to administer en masse. Some schools in California have seen nearly 90% of students opt out.
No one should compare students opting out of standardized tests to students risking their lives on the Freedom Rides, but it’s definitely non-violent protest. Parents who decide to opt their children out face pressure and threats from school administrators. Some schools forbid students who opted out from reading during the tests, forcing them to sit silently and stare at walls for four hours.
A Denver high school kept a student from returning to class after skipping the morning tests. In Utah, a teacher was fired for letting students know they had the right to opt out. In New York, a 13-year-old was suspended for telling her classmates the same thing.
The opt out movement is part of the Education Spring revolt taking place nationwide against the testing culture. In another 50 years, we might hold another summit to honor this new civil rights movement. But if that happens, the heroes we celebrate then probably won’t be the ones who are creating the problem now.
© Copyright 2014 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.