Overdone test preparation threatens the civil rights of students

Today is the 84th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he and other civil-rights leaders fought for equal schooling in the decades after World War 2, they never would have imagined the level of test preparation we see today, test preparation falsely justified in the name of civil rights. In the name of equal educational opportunity, Congress and former President George W. Bush created the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and in the past decade and more, school districts across the country have purchased test-prep booklets, mandated that teachers spend hours on narrowly-focused test preparation, and restricted access to the broader curriculum. Instead of supplementing the school day, test preparation has supplanted the general curriculum.

It is time we recognize that both the concrete resources and the time devoted to test preparation threaten the civil rights of students. When schools with low academic achievement receive test-prep booklets, the cost of those purchases is stolen from instructional materials for the general curriculum. When children with low academic performance find their classroom time occupied by activities that mirror multiple-choice test formats, that is a denial of access to a broad curriculum. When teachers, aides, school counselors, and others spend hours in early spring drilling students on test-taking techniques, that is time that children are not reading, are not learning about math and science and history, and are not experiencing or creating art or music.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has done nothing to stop the annual spring flood of test preparation. Repeatedly, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have given lip service to the dangers of “teaching to the test,” but I have seen the Administration take no specific steps to stop test prep where it endangers the education of the students most vulnerable to its effects. In this week, leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, it is time for the Administration to step beyond uttering parent-pleasing phrases.

Today I have created a petition on the White House website, which by current Administration statements will draw an official response if it receives 25,000 signatures in the next 30 days. If you agree with me that anything more than minimal test preparation is a risky practice for young children, please read and sign the petition:

We petition the Obama Administration to recognize that test preparation can violate the civil rights of students.

President Obama has said he opposes teaching to the test. Test preparation interrupting the curriculum has no value beyond the test. Disadvantaged children are especially vulnerable to such test prep; these children are disproportionately affected by teaching to the test. The President should affirm the following:

1) Diversion of resources for short-term test score increases can materially violate students’ civil rights.

2) Student and personnel assignments for short-term score increases can violate students’ civil rights.

3) School employees are protected from retaliation when they complain about test prep’s disproportionate impact on students.

4) The Office of Civil Rights has the President’s support to address complaints of disproportionate test prep as civil rights violations.

To sign the petition (and to draft your own petition), you need to register first at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/register and then you can sign the January 15 petition on the threat that test preparation poses to the civil rights of students at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/recognize-test-preparation-can-violate-civil-rights-students/WrVrkGl9.

I have drafted this petition because I have waited four years for the Obama Administration to act, and I am tired of waiting. In Florida and across the country, there are hundreds of thousands of children enrolled in districts that confuse test preparation with good instruction. The children who most need better instruction are instead the targets of more test preparation or a haphazard mix of some good instruction and far too much test prep. Teachers and principals feel pressured to purchase and use test-prep materials, and advocates of high-stakes testing have been largely deaf to our concerns as parents.

If you are a parent, how can you tell that your child is being subject to inappropriate test preparation?

  • If your child is required to attend intensive test-preparation as part of the school day, as opposed to offering preparation after the end of the day or during weekends, you should be worried about what your child is missing.
  • If something that looks like test prep is happening in the six weeks before testing, and then those activities disappear after the tests, it is narrow test-prep.
  • If booklets come home as “homework” where all the activities mirror the test formats in your state, it is narrow test-prep.
  • If your child asks why art and music and history and science have disappeared in the last few weeks, your child’s education is being affected by narrow test-prep.
  • If your child is subject to extensive test preparation in a grade where there are no or low stakes for students (i.e., tests are not used as a promotion gateway or a graduation requirement), it is test-prep in the school district’s interest, not your child’s.
  • If your child complains about test preparation, your child is probably right.

Who is at fault? I blame both policymakers and school boards for this situation. I blame policymakers for not owning the problem of test preparation, and I blame school boards for caving in to high-stakes pressure with short-term, tactical moves that improve test scores but interrupt students’ access to the curriculum. School boards should resist these pressures, confident that good instruction is the most ethical response to accountability. State legislators need to own test prep as a problem, or they deserve blame. And President Obama and Secretary Duncan should be leading the charge against test preparation by declaring it a potential threat to civil rights rather than paying only lip service to parents’ and educators’ concerns.