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Just When NJ Students Are Making Progress, Some Folks Want to Slow Them Down

A quick look at the past decade demonstrates that kids who aren’t tested are kids who don’t count

kati haycock
Kati Haycock

This month, intense conversations about testing are underway in both Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. While each is being stoked by a relentless attack on testing from teachers unions, those conversations otherwise couldn’t be more different.

Why? Because in Washington, those of us in the civil rights and disabilities communities know from long experience that children who are not tested don’t count. So we are standing united with others -- including the two major national business organizations -- in support of annual testing of every child.

Nobody has to tell us that standardized tests can be misused. We know that. Many of our coalition partners have fought in courts all over the country against such misuse.

Nobody has to tell us, either, that many state tests have focused primarily on low-level skills and that many schools spend countless hours drilling kids for those fill-in-the-bubble tests. That’s why we have worked so hard in support of the much more rigorous Common Core State Standards, and applaud the new assessments that require our children to do more than fill in a bubble.

Yes, the results from this first round of Common Core-aligned testing will be sobering. But to toss these assessments aside just when they promise, finally, to give parents and teachers honest information on how well their children are prepared for college and careers, seems just crazy.

We get why parents and teachers are sometimes frustrated by the number of tests that schools are giving. Over the years, many school districts piled on lots of extra tests -- many of them not so good --for a variety of purposes. The answer to that problem, though, is not to throw out the best tests we have ever had -- the new Common Core Tests like PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced -- but to demand that school districts stop requiring excessive numbers of other, lower-quality assessments.

We also understand why some parents are tempted just to opt their children out of the assessments. But all of our experience tells us that is a dangerous road to travel, for kids who aren’t tested simply don’t matter to schools nearly as much as those who are.

For many years, black and Latino children -- along with children who have disabilities and English learners -- were frequently excluded when schools administered standardized tests, mostly for fear that they would bring down school averages. Instead of working to improve the achievement of these children, they were just “disappeared”: sent down to the gym, encouraged to stay home, or otherwise kept away from the rooms where the tests were being administered. Not surprisingly, their achievement languished.

That changed when the federal government told schools they could no longer do that. At least 95 percent of all groups of children had to be assessed every year, and the achievement of all groups of children mattered in school-accountability systems. Since that time, not surprisingly, achievement among black and Latino children has increased faster than at any time since 1980. And children whose disabilities many thought would prevent them from learning much are achieving at higher levels than ever before.

New Jersey’s data tell much the same story. In the 10 years since all children had to be tested and all schools were accountable for improving the achievement of all groups of children, performance on national assessments among the state’s eighth-graders has improved in both reading and math. In mathematics, improvements among the state’s white eighth-graders have been healthy -- up 12 points, or more than a year’s worth of learning. But even these gains are dwarfed by the 21-point gains among the state’s black and Latino eighth-graders. In fact, Latino eighth-graders in New Jersey now perform higher than Latinos anywhere else in the country. The state’s black students rank second, just behind Massachusetts.

Yes, we still have a long way to go in New Jersey and nationally -- before all of our children are on the path to be ready for college and careers after high school. Yet just when we are finally making progress, some folks want to give all this up?

Kati Haycock is one of the nation’s leading advocates in the field of education. She currently serves as president of The Education Trust

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