Connecticut, NCLB, and the state NAACP: where symbolic politics don’t get you far

Some around the blogosophere and newspaper editorial rooms have been crowing about the Connecticut NAACP Chapter’s intervention in the Connecticut v. Spellings lawsuit this year. This is proof that NCLB is on the side of kids and the American way! seems to be the cry.

Well, sort of. Attorney William Taylor’s testimony at the May 9, 2006, meeting of the NCLB Commission highlighted one concrete problem—Connecticut’s request to have much lower participation of students with disabilities and English-language learners in annual assessments—and a whole bunch of “we distrust the bastards” language. I understand the distrust—Connecticut is a collection of towns with disproportionate numbers of them being either very poor or very wealthy, and guess who controls state politics?—but I think Taylor’s rhetorical argument on mandates (that the federal constitution is an unfunded mandate) is insufficient to respond to CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s focus on specific statutory language. The state Commissioner of Education Betty Sternberg is also clever in referring to the practical problems of the mushrooming test requirements, something I suspect a court will have a hard time ignoring. Essentially, Connecticut is saying that they insist on a certain quality of test, and Spellings’s refusal to grant a waiver violates the federal statutory language.
But that’s not all…

It turns out that the national NAACP is a signatory on a 2004 joint statement about the changes needed to NCLB, one of which is precisely Connecticut’s main request to allow testing in every other grade (rather than every grade 3-8) so the state can use high-quality tests.

The arguments about testing in special education and for students whose first language is not English is much harder. Connecticut’s legal complaint not only asks for the court to require that Spellings grant a waiver for every-other-year state-level testing but also (in a roundabout way) that Spellings grant the requested waivers to allow testing of students with disabilities at their instructional level and to wait until someone whose first language is not English to have been in Connecticut schools for three years before participating in state-level testing. On the one hand, my impression of the literature is that it is true that appropriate testing is more accurate when it is on a student’s instructional level, but who determines that can also set lower expectations than appropriate for a student with disabilities. (E.g., a student in 9th grade whose reading is at a 6th-grade level might still be put at a 4th-grade instructional level. Bad move.) And there is no easy solution for testing with summative purposes with students who are learning English. Waiting three years is not a great idea, and I don’t think any court looking at the substance of this will want to get involved in those issues.

Right now, I think the parties are waiting for a judge to decide on the U.S. DOE’s motion for a summary dismissal. My best prediction: no dismissal, and eventually the court will agree with Connecticut on the every-other-year testing (on the unfunded-mandates issue) and boot the other issues back to the U.S. DOE, but without much direction.

But the symbolic politics get weird. Many NCLB opponents cheered the state’s lawsuit because they dislike NCLB’s testing mandates (and on that, they agree with the state’s position) but have ignored the fact that Connecticut is raising no legal challenges to NCLB’s mandate of high-stakes testing (whoops). The Connecticut NAACP is intervening largely because its members distrust the state DOE (right attitude) but without a clear legal argument that they’ve articulated (poor tactics). And Andrew Rotherham is cheering the state NAACP for keeping the feet to the fire of the state (right attitude) without acknowledging that the state is trying to keep the quality of tests high, something Rotherham has written about and his colleague Thomas Toch wrote about in the Margins of Error report.

There is no grand lesson here, except that the symbolic politics of education reform don’t always pay attention to the details. But I expect you knew that, anyway.

Update: Andrew Rotherham responded the same day, but my Bloglines subscription didn’t show it to me until yesterday. Go read his response, especially since he noted my jailtime in Philadelphia.

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