On a Monday morning in March, several hundred Albuquerque (New Mexico) High School students walked out of their first period classes and onto the grounds in front of school. Despite warnings from school leaders that they could lose the chance to walk in graduation ceremonies by participating in the protest, students chanted slogans and held up handmade signs with messages like, “We are not defined by test scores” and “We have a say in our education.”
They were protesting new state tests aligned to the Common Core academic standards. “This test is infringing on our rights,” says Maya Quinones, a senior and one of the protest organizers. Most of the students at Albuquerque High School are Hispanic and come from low-income families.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously singled out “white suburban moms” for their opposition to the Common Core and the tests associated with it. But many low-income, minority communities aren’t sold on the new standards, either. Skepticism in those communities challenges a key argument for why such standardized tests exist in the first place.
A tension has emerged between national civil rights groups, which generally support the Common Core and believe standardized tests can help promote equity, and grassroots activists, who say parents and students have a right to refuse to participate in state tests they don’t believe in.
Supporters of test refusal “claim a false mantle of civil rights activism,” twelve civil rights organizations said in a statement last month. When parents “opt-out” of state tests, the statement said, they undermine efforts to improve schools for all children.
To understand the debate, it helps to understand the civil rights logic that undergirded the 2002 federal law No Child Left Behind. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” then-President George W. Bush said when he signed the law. Lawmakers wanted to hold schools accountable for every child’s progress, regardless of that child’s background.
So No Child Left Behind required states to regularly test all children in math and reading, and to separate out scores by student characteristics such as race and disability status. States had to take action when children in any demographic failed to meet learning goals.
The Common Core builds on the same logic. In 2009, a group of experts, backed by state governors and foundations, created a set of learning goals they thought better aligned with the skills students need to succeed in college and the workforce. Today, 43 states have adopted the standards, and children in most of those states took Common Core-aligned tests this spring.
Yet the Common Core has proved incredibly controversial—even more controversial than No Child Left Behind. There’s something in the standards for both Democrats and Republicans to hate, from the collection of private student data to the loss of local control. Almost all the Republican presidential candidates—with the exception of former Florida governor Jeb Bush—oppose the standards.
Opponents say U.S. children take too many standardized tests, they don’t measure learning well, and the new standards aren’t age-appropriate. Quinones thinks the tests aren’t fair to bilingual students. “The language that’s used—it’s something that we’re not used to, it’s not the literature we grew up reading,” she says.
The most damning anti-testing argument, from a civil rights perspective, is the fact that while test scores have risen, achievement gaps have barely budged since No Child Left Behind was passed. White and Asian children still earn higher scores on standardized tests, on average, than African-American and Latino children do. Rich kids consistently earn higher scores than poor kids.
Rita Green, education chair for the Seattle King County NAACP, has researched the issue, and convinced her branch to defy the NAACP’s national stance and embrace the opt-out movement. “The money they spend on those tests should be put in the classroom,” Green says.
So far, much of the loudest opposition to the Common Core has come from white, suburban communities such as Long Island, New York and Douglas County, Colorado. Polls suggest that white parents are more skeptical of the standards than black and Latino parents.
A 2013 Associated Press-NORC poll, for example, found that 62 percent of Hispanic parents and 64 percent of black parents believe the Common Core will improve schools, compared to 40 percent of white parents. Minority parents were much more likely to say standardized test scores were a good measure of their child’s performance and of school quality.
Such data shows that minority parents understand the value of regular testing and the new standards, some education advocates say. Low opt-out rates in New York’s large, diverse cities “tells us something powerful,” Steve Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, and Arva Rice, president and CEO of the New York Urban League, recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “For far too long, too many minority students were allowed to slip through the cracks of our educational system, and the assessments are an important tool in changing the game.”
But Common Core opposition isn’t restricted to a single racial or ethnic group, as activists such as Quinones and Green prove. And the poll data could reflect cultural differences, or power imbalances, rather than a firm belief that the tests help ensure educational equity. The AP-NORC poll also found that Americans with lower levels of education were more likely to support standardized testing.
Green says that in her experience, minority parents tend not to aggressively engage with schools. Immigrants, in particular, may be confused by language barriers or may come from a culture where parents defer to teachers’ decisions.
“There’s a difference between an involved parent and an engaged parent,” Green says. “The involved parent goes to the different events, to support the fundraisers, etc. But an engaged parent? They question the school budget. They question the books that are being used. They question the programs that are being used in school.”
Both Common Core opponents, like Green, and Common Core supporters in the civil rights community want to see minority parents get more engaged. But the supporters would like to see parents seize test score data and use it to fight for better teachers, more funding, and school improvements.
“We’ve got to get people to clearly understand—they’ve got to advocate for us to get equity,” says Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee State Conference NAACP. The parents she talks to tend to say their kids take too many tests, and express a certain fatigue about the latest test-based reform effort. Testing alone won’t fix the achievement gap, Sweet-Love tells them. But advocacy fueled by test score data can push communities to address it.