Is The Anti-Common Core Movement Just ‘Suburban White Moms’?

As opposition grows, so does the civil rights debate over testing.

National Journal
June 2, 2015, 4 p.m.

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.

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