It’s not about Mistrust, It’s about Diagnosis

Arne Duncan made a lot of people mad with his comments about white suburban mothers back in 2013.

Well, I’m a white suburban mother and I was most definitely not angry. On the contrary, I agreed with him wholeheartedly and remain grateful that he said what he said. Though perhaps a bit clumsy in his word choice, he was right.

My gratitude now extends to his continued call for smart and meaningful testing of students. We cannot possibly provide kids with the education they need and deserve if we don’t have an accurate sense of what they know, what they don’t know, and how we can best help them.

I was reminded of Arne’s comment when I read this anti-testing piece in Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post, where a New York educator accuses Secretary Duncan of once again writing off white suburban moms—this time as “awfully gullible” because he is calling for an end to excessive, redundant tests while focusing on annual, high-quality assessments.
New York Principal Carol Burris dismissed the Secretary’s comments this way:
It is a dark and suspicious world where public schools cannot be trusted to do the right thing by the children and the communities they serve…And that really sums up the thinking of Duncan and his cheerleading Chiefs. Their distrust of public schools and the democratic control of schooling run deep. It colors every solution that they propose. They have no idea how to effect school improvement other than by making tests harder and making sticks bigger.

As a mother of three who has spent a decade working in schools and served a term on our local school board, I find this argument maddening.

Testing is not about mistrust. It is about wanting concrete results about the child you are teaching, and the child you are raising—a diagnosis of learning, so to speak.

I’ve seen far too many students arrive in ninth grade so far below grade level that it makes my heart hurt. Teachers and staff wonder why these students struggle with high-school-level content only to discover, through a standardized test, they are woefully unprepared and barely literate. Add to the mix that a majority of those struggling are low-income students of color, and the lack of accountability now feels criminal.

Don’t We Need Tests?

It is ironic that so many people, especially those in positions of privilege, demonize school testing. Don’t they depend on medical tests when they have a sick child to find out what is wrong—is it strep, is it flu, is it mono, is it something more serious? Don’t they ask for blood tests, X rays, and MRIs so that those charged with caring for their children’s physical health can see the precise problem and urgently figure out how best to fix it?

Many of the loudest anti-testing voices do not believe school children are entitled to the same urgency of care when it comes to their learning. They seem to believe that teachers, policy makers, and school leaders should be able to magically meet the needs of all students without the measures and data needed to do so. Those same people who sit in emergency rooms for hours to find out exactly what is wrong with their children refuse to afford the same diagnostic tools and expertise to those charged with maximizing the educational health of America’s children.

As someone who has taught in both privileged and underprivileged schools, I can’t imagine anything more threatening to students’ civil rights than denying them evidence that proves they are—or are not—learning. How else can we expose and aspire to close the achievement and opportunity gaps if we aren’t willing to acknowledge they exist?

It’s cowardly to hide from our failures by refusing to expose them through objective assessment. We owe it to kids to be better than that. In the end, it’s their lives we’re talking about.

What do you think?

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