Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

There is absolutely no reason why the U.S. Department of Education should refuse to grant states waivers this spring from the federal requirement for standardized testing. Two weeks ago, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum released guidance telling states they must test students as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act despite the pandemic. After that, the Senate finally voted to confirm President Biden’s appointment of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education.

We all hope that Dr. Cardona will reconsider. And it is becoming clear that the subject is not closed.  Experts, parents, educators, and members of the public continue to press the new Secretary of Education to do the right thing in this year when some students have been in school, many are on hybrid schedules, and many others continue to learn remotely.

Why should Secretary Cardona cancel testing this spring? When Rosenblum announced that he was charging ahead to require testing, he ignored more than a month of informed advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year. (See here, here, here, and here.) No one in the Department has provided a convincing justification for requiring that the high-stakes tests be administered this school year.

Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead to be used for so-called accountability: so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

A letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021—after he had been appointed but before his nomination had been confirmed—describes in plain language exactly what should happen when children can return normally to their classrooms: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic value when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

New pushback against mandated testing has emerged this week.

On Tuesday, several Congressional Democrats sent a letter pressing Secretary Cardona to cancel the tests.  Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), vice chair of the House education committee and a former middle school principal… The letter to Cardona… was also signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-NY), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) as well as Sens Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)… Bowman, who said he’s had ‘preliminary conversations’ with fellow lawmakers about a legislative path to stopping standardized testing, also took aim at how the Biden administration’s decision was carried out last month. The new testing guidance was unveiled by the Education Department on Feb. 22, before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was signed by Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of the Education Trust-New York.”  Rep. Bowman explains, “Mr. Rosenblum, with all due respect, has never been a teacher or school administrator in his life, and it’s important that our parents and educators know that these decisions are being made by people who do not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Also on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association did something extremely unusual. AFT and NEA released a shared agenda outlining the best thinking of their members and their collaborative research departments and  pledged to work with states and school districts on the steps that must be taken not only to get students back in school but also to support children’s academic progress and their psychological and social well-being after a difficult year.

Part I of this joint document from the two unions that together represent millions of American teachers begins with a plea on behalf of children for relief this spring from the federal standardized testing mandate: “In February 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic in relation to the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Prior to that, both the NEA and AFT stressed the need for flexibility in both the administration of assessments and their use in accountability, and both advised that standardized testing should be suspended for the 2020-202 school year. Standardized test scores have never been a valid, reliable or complete measure of an individual’s instruction, nor do they accurately measure what students know and are able to do. And they are especially problematic now. The assessment flexibilities offered by the department, while helpful, do not go far enough to allow states to support the gathering of information and the distribution of resources in a way that will support teaching, learning and healthy school environments.”  The statement continues with thoughtfully and professionally developed suggestions for “the way forward,” including all sorts of examples of diagnostic assessments that have been developed by educators in collaboration with respected academic research partners and local community partners.

It is not too late for the rest of us to add our voices to those of academicians, members of Congress, the two major teachers unions, and other advocates. Pressure on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to reassess the need for federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing in the 2020-2021 school year remains timely and important.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, offers the following guidance for advocates:

  • “Push the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to reverse plans to deny comprehensive testing waivers;
  • “Pressure states to request maximum possible student assessment flexibility for the current year by pushing the envelope of the waivers USDOE already has said will be granted;
  • “Simultaneously, push states and districts to suspend their own testing mandates for the 2020-2021 school year and lift all high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools;
  • “Pursue these policies in the context of promoting well-rounded, authentic assessment systems developed in partnership with educators; and
  • “If Spring 2021 testing policies are not overhauled consistent with these goals, aggressively promote broad, diverse standardized exam opt-out campaigns.”

Yes! Rethinking the Value of Testing and of Graduation Tests, Ohio Joins More Progressive States

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education discussed ways to reduce standardized testing along with the urgent need to amend the state’s current demand that high school students pass an overly tough set of end-of-course exams in order to qualify for high school graduation. The board had already eased the graduation requirement for the class of 2018. Now its members have agreed to ask the legislature to add an alternative path to graduation for students in the classes of 2019 and 2020.

The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Statewide requirements that students score well on state tests in order to earn a diploma took effect with the class of 2018, this year’s senior class. But worries about a graduation ‘apocalypse’ or ‘trainwreck’ because of low scores led the board and state legislature to ease the requirements earlier this year, just for the senior class… After debate the last few months, board members now want to extend the same exemptions for the classes of 2019 and 2020… Those include graduating, even if state test scores are poor, by reaching some career training goals, having strong attendance or classroom grades as seniors, doing a senior capstone project or working at a job or on community service.”

On Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education also discussed ways to reduce the overall heavy test burden on students and teachers: “The state school board is asking the Ohio legislature to wipe out three items that add a testing burden to teachers and students—the high school English I exam, WorkKeys tests for some career training students, and requirements that some tests be given just to evaluate teachers.  State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and an advisory panel he appointed recommended these and other changes to the board in June, after statewide outcry over the time spent on standardized testing in schools… Board members voted nearly unanimously for the three reductions Tuesday afternoon… (T)he board and DeMaria agreed that the state needs only the high school English II exam, usually given to sophomores, to meet the federal requirement for an English test in high school. They also agreed strongly with DeMaria’s recommendation to wipe out tests that are given just to measure the effectiveness of teachers.  Districts often give a pre-test at the start of the year, then another at the end of the year, to see how much a teacher taught over the year.”

O’Donnell adds that State Superintendent DeMaria recommends eliminating a number of other tests considered extraneous by his advisory panel.

Ohio’s beginning steps to cut back on the standardized testing that has dominated schools since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became federal law, reflect a broader trend, according to Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).  FairTest just released a major report, Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?, which summarizes the effects of broad public opposition to over-testing and some relaxation of federal pressure now that No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act: “Widespread opposition to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is producing a marked shift in attitudes about high-stakes assessments and, increasingly, state and district practices… The drumbeat of concerns includes: the amount of testing; the time it consumes; the outsized consequences for students, teachers and schools attached to test scores; the negative impacts on educational equity for low-income and minority students; and the damage to teaching, learning and children’s futures from the testing fixation.”

FairTest’s report is particularly scathing about the damage for young adults when failure of state-mandated tests denies them a high school diploma: “For tens of thousands of students who don’t drop out but stay in school and complete their other high school graduation requirements, exit exams unjustly confer the status and diminished opportunities of high school dropouts. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13.”

FairTest adds that “seven states have made their elimination of graduation testing retroactive,” creating the opportunity for students previously denied diplomas in Georgia, South Carolina, California, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada to apply for the diplomas they were denied as long as they successfully completed all other graduation requirements.

Public opinion has been changing as it has been more widely understood that “passing” cut scores on standardized tests are in many ways aspirational, not realistic. Cut scores that determine children’s futures have not been based on some kind of scientifically determined amount of knowledge children must master; instead they have been set by politicians for the purpose of driving teachers to work harder and faster.  High stakes standardized testing has been particularly punitive for students who start much farther behind.

Here is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University professor whose new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, exposes the damage inflicted by high stakes testing: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

FairTest Proposes One Possible Path Away from Test-and-Punish

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has released an important brief, Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind last December, opens the possibility of experimentation with some softening of test-and-punish.  There will be no quick turnaround, and it surely will not begin before a new President and new Secretary of Education take over in January. But as FairTest explains, under ESSA there is at least now a chance for states to begin experimenting with change.

FairTest shows how states can take advantage of an experiment—written into the Every Student Succeeds Act—to crawl out from under the avalanche of standardized testing into the sunlight of a program that is its exact opposite: schools’ evaluating students with portfolios of work created in their classrooms under the guidance of their teachers: “FairTest proposes a model system to maximize high-quality assessment within ESSA’s constraints… Unlike NCLB, which revolved around standardized test scores, the model begins with classroom-based evidence that emanates from ongoing student work. FairTest’s model is rooted in exemplary practice and a set of principles derived from decades of assessment reform efforts. The primary purpose of this innovative system is to support high-quality, individualized student learning.  It is guided by teachers but substantially student controlled, with multiple ways to demonstrate learning… Districts or consortia of schools or districts, have the flexibility to ensure the structure and nature of their assessment systems address their local needs and challenges. This could range from assessments rooted in inquiry- and project-based learning, with extensive student choice, to more traditional curriculum, instruction and tests.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act’s  “Innovative Assessment” pilot project allows for up to seven states to try out new testing models as a substitute for federally mandated annual standardized tests.  Now this is sort of tricky, because there are all sorts of requirements that seem daunting: “A full new system must include English language arts (ELA) and math assessments in at least grades 3-8 and once in high school, plus three grades of science…. A pilot can start with a limited number of districts but must include a plan to become statewide in five years, though extensions are allowed… During the pilot period, the new assessments must also be comparable with current state tests.  ESSA draft regulations list ways in which such comparability can be established.  These include administering the state exam to all students in the pilot; or only to students in one grade each in elementary, middle and high school; or both the state test and the new assessment to a demographically representative sample of students in the pilot… or some other DOE-approved method… a state creates.”

In FairTest’s proposal, what is essentially an assessment system based on individual students’ learning portfolios could be made comparable from school to school and district to district through several methods—all with strengths and drawbacks that FairTest analyzes. Classroom teachers would evaluate students’ work but there could be an independent moderator who would re-score each student’s work according to scoring guides or rubrics.  Or a state might use “anchor tasks and tests.”  “In this procedure, the same performance tasks are administered to students across participating districts.  While the new system is being built, all participating districts must administer the current state tests in at least some grades.”  Or states might institute validation studies, perhaps every five years, to compare results across districts according to a standards-based definition of proficiency.

FairTest notes that the requirement for “comparability” in accountability systems will by its very nature pose a threat to education driven to a greater extent by students’ interests: “Comparability has value, but the great value of assessment is to enrich student learning.  The dangers from comparability requirements could be lessened if districts are not forced to alter their local assessment scores to be comparable to state test results.  However, as long as current standardized exams are falsely presented as the ‘gold standard,’ the problem will remain.”

New Hampshire has been experimenting in a small number of school districts with such an alternative assessment plan that it launched under conditions it applied for under a No Child Left Behind waiver. New Hampshire’s PACE program: “was designed to unite rich learning assessed locally with federal accountability requirements. It includes the state ELA and math tests administered once each in elementary, middle and high school; Common Tasks administered in the non-tested grades 3-11, plus science in three grades; local tasks; and an ‘Achievement Level Determination’… Local systems focus on multiple assessment tasks made by district teachers plus items from… (a) bank (of educational tasks created by experienced teachers).  These are scored locally.  Teachers across districts re-score samples for training purposes.”  FairTest’s report explains New Hampshire’s program in detail along with its strengths and weaknesses and provides several additional examples of experiments in alternative assessment.

FairTest recognizes that our society will not immediately be able to reject test-and-punish and move to an ideal new system.  Advocates must be prepared to take the long view and also to realize that while we may in the short run be able to reduce standardized testing, it will take time to help our society imagine a system less reliant on the kind of quantifiable test score data our politicians have come to trust:  “If the next U.S. Secretary of Education understands the damage done by NCLB’s focus on testing and wants to repair it, states could have the flexibility to move in the best possible direction. It will be up to assessment reform activists to persuade the new president to appoint a secretary who understands what is at stake. At the same time, parents, teachers, administrators, students, school boards, and other reform advocates will have to pressure their states and districts to take advantage of their new opportunities.”

Monty Neill of FairTest Comments on ESSA Rules: You Can, Too

The rule-making process for the implementation of the new, federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a little deep into the policy weeds for most readers of this blog.  But until August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education is accepting public comments on the rules it has proposed, and some organizations with the expertise carefully to analyze the law itself and the Department’s proposed rules have been drafting and submitting comments.  FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has submitted a formal comment, and yesterday Valerie Strauss published in the Washington Post an explanation from Monty Neill, the organization’s executive director, about concerns at FairTest about ESSA.

Monty Neill is very familiar with the federal education law’s accountability philosophy and provisions.  In his piece yesterday in the Washington Post, he shares concerns about the rules now drafted by Secretary John King’s Department of Education, rules that will govern enforcement of school accountability. Overall Neill believes that the Obama administration’s Department of Education has proposed rules that yield too much power back to the federal government and undermine the ways in which Congress tried to return power to states for school accountability in the new law.  And test-and-punish accountability is far too prominent in the proposed rules.

Neill writes, “While the accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are superior to those of No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education’s draft regulations intensify ESSA’s worst aspects and will have the effect of perpetuating some of NCLB’s most damaging practices. The draft regulations over-emphasize testing, mandate punishments not required in law, and continue federal micromanagement. When the department makes decisions that should be set at the state and local level in partnership with local educators, parents, and students, it takes away local voices that ESSA restores.”  In his Washington Post column, Neill names five provisions in the draft rules that he believes need to be eliminated or amended.  I agree with Neill’s concerns, but I am reordering a bit as a way to indicate my own concerns about their importance.

  1. The proposed rules require (according to Neill’s third concern) that states come up with performance indicators for their schools and… combine the multiple indicators each state selects into a “single ‘summative’ score for each school.”  Neill writes: “As Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee pointed out, no such requirement is included in ESSA.  Summative scores are simplistically reductive and opaque. They encourage the sort of flawed school grading schemes promoted by diehard NCLB defenders.”  I will add my own concern here.  Congress, under much pressure from teachers and other supporters of public school improvement, left room for states to include some indicators of unequal opportunity-to-learn—disparities in resource inputs, not just test score outcomes. The requirement in the proposed rules demands that while states can choose indicators by which they judge school quality, they must, before they submit the rating, combine all the indicators into school-by-school “grades.”  Those overall “grades” will very likely mirror the current school grades (based merely on test scores) being awarded by too many states today.
  2. The law requires that states continue to identify the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools and the schools whose subgroups of students continue to test poorly.  The proposed rules (and here is Neill’s second concern) require states also to identify three or more levels of performance to differentiate the performance of schools across the state.  FairTest proposes that the regulations should scrap any reference to performance levels and allow states themselves to decide how to identify low-performing schools.
  3. For Neill, the top concern is the the proposed rules’ limitation of parents’ right to protest by opting their children out of testing. (I have moved it to third place.)  Here is how Neill describes his concern: “Most egregiously, the department would require states to lower the ranking of any school that does not test 95 percent of its students or to identify it as needing ‘targeted support.’  No such mandate exists in ESSA.”  Neill recommends that, “The department should simply restate ESSA’s language allowing the right to opt out as well as its requirements that states test 95 percent of students in identified grades and factor low participation rates into their accountability systems.”
  4. In the new rules, the Department of Education requires that a state’s academic indicators for accountability carry “much greater” weight than its “school quality” indicators (Neill’s fourth concern).  Neill recommends that the department leave the language of the law in place—that academic indicators count for more than (not much more than) 50 percent of a state’s school quality indicators.  Personally, I would like to see school quality indicators given perhaps additional weight, though that would depend on what school quality indicators are being used.  Ideally the federal government would be pressuring the states to invest in the poorest schools for equity and thereby improve the quality indicators in the poorest schools, but Congress itself, as it wrote the new ESSA, neglected to use the law as an opportunity to create incentives to promote states’ investments for equity.
  5. Finally  the implementation time line for accountability seems short (Neill’s fifth concern): “The department would require states to use 2016-17 data to select schools for ‘support and improvement’ in 2017-2018.  This leaves states barely a year for implementation, too little time to overhaul accountability systems.” Remember that the new law assigns to the states the responsibility for creating improvement plans for schools that struggle.

Although this all may seem overly technical, reading Neill’s concerns helps clarify at least some of the ways that ESSA remains, on the whole, a test-and-punish accountability law. While ideally states would find ways to invest in, improve, and support the schools in the poorest communities, the places where test scores—the primary measurement states will continue to use—are lowest, the danger is that states will continue to punish teachers and close and charterize so-called “failing” schools across America’s big city neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated.

You can submit your own comments to the U.S. Department of Education until August 1. Neill provides the instructions here: “The regulations are at https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032-0001.  To submit comments on the regulations, go to https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032.  FairTest even has a sample action alert response that you may copy and paste in to the Department’s comment form if you want to simply support FairTest’s comments.

No Child Left Behind Has Not Worked. Why?

Congress has begun to hold hearings to consider, yet again, a reauthorization of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB is the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law, the federal government radically shifted educational philosophy.  The emphasis moved away from supporting the education of under-served groups of children through compensatory funding programs like Title I and toward a new plan: holding schools accountable for continually improving test scores for all children.  It hasn’t worked.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) released data this week to document that NCLB has not lifted school achievement.  The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is conducted independently—apart from accountability-based testing of every child by states under NCLB.  The NAEP is administered across the states to random samples of children across the grade levels.  Its purpose is to measure overall trends in public schools across our cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas.

Here is what NAEP data show: “Overall and for demographic groups such as Blacks, Hispanics and English language learners… progress was generally faster in the decade before NCLB began to take effect than since… Scores for 17-year-olds have stagnated.  NAEP scores were highest for Blacks, and gaps the narrowest, in 1988.  Hispanic scores and gaps have stagnated since NCLB.  Score gaps in 2012 were no narrower and often wider than they were in 1998 and 1990.  Score gains slowed after NCLB for English language learners….”

This week as Congress began to discuss reauthorization of the test-and-punish NCLB, the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable released a major report, The Iceberg Effect: An International Look at Often-Overlooked Education Indicators, alleging that public school achievement levels across demographic groups in the United States are merely the visible tip of an iceberg, but that the causal factors of school achievement remain hidden under the water line: inequality, social stress and violence, the level of support for schools, and the level of support for young families.  The authors compare social and economic conditions, social policy and school funding across nine nations, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The researchers compare the nine societies and educational systems on six indicators:

  1. The United States ranks 8th when measured on an economic equity index, comprised of measures of income inequality, child poverty, infant mortality, and intergenerational economic mobility.
  2. The United States ranks 9th in the category of social stress, calculated by measuring violent deaths per 100,000 population, death from drugs, percentage of population that is foreign born, and births to women between 15 and 19 years old.
  3. The United States ranks 8th in the category of support for families, measured by social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, benefits for young families, access to preschool, and the number of children’s deaths from abuse or neglect.
  4. The United States does better at 4th (though it is important to remember that this is an average across the varied states) in the category of overall support for schools, as measured by expenditures-per-pupil, school expenditure as a percent of GDP, class size, and hours teachers spend teaching.
  5. The United States ranks 5th in student outcomes, as measured by the PIRLS international test of 4th grade reading, the PISA international test of the reading level of 15-year-olds, school completion “on time + 2 years,” and the society’s socio-economic achievement gap as measured by the PISA international test.
  6. The United States ranks 1st on a final outcome the researchers call system outcomes, as measured by the average years of schooling among adults, the percentage of adults who have graduated from high school, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree, and the “global share of PISA high achievers in science.”

The researchers conclude: “Based on the indicators included in this study, it seems clear that the United States has the most highly educated workforce among these 9 nations.  At the same time, American society reveals the greatest economic inequities among the advanced nations in this analysis, combined with the highest levels of social stress, and the lowest levels of support for young families…  And we have the enormous challenge of the achievement gap to deal with.” (emphasis in original)

The authors challenge our society’s test-based school accountability system that fails to look beneath the tip of the iceberg: “Simply developing a scoreboard without identifying the societal factors that influence results does not help the education system become more legitimately accountable to those it serves.”

The authors of The Iceberg Effect are not likely to be surprised at FairTest’s conclusion that NCLB’s test-and-punish strategy has failed to lift school achievement and close achievement gaps:  “Too often…  we narrow our focus to a few things that are easily tested. We become captives of the results and our goal becomes raising test scores rather than raising fully educated people. To avoid that mentality, we want to emphasize the power of a consistent and comprehensive framework that looks at all the measures involved in shaping our future citizens and the future of our nation.”

A New Name in the Tired, Old No Child Left Behind Debate

I urge you to read This Is Only A Test,  Jonathan Kozol’s review in yesterday’s NY Times of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, and then, of course, I encourage you to read (and master the information in) Ravitch’s excellent book.

But having recently read his excellent book review, I am thinking today about Jonathan Kozol, the writer who has again and again created a lens to help us see the plight of America’s children.  Kozol brought us “savage inequalities” and “apartheid schooling in America,” for example, terms that have been adopted into common parlance to depict our society’s growing inequality and racial segregation.

In yesterday’s review, Kozol coined a new phrase that stopped me cold.  He begins the second paragraph of his book review with this simple declaration: “The pressure intensified in 2002 with the enactment of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind…”

Most of us who write about public education, anxious to be scrupulously precise about the historical facts, have described, “No Child Left Behind, the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”  I have recently forced myself to feel comfortable shortening it to, “the current version of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind.”

But of course, as I realized when I read Kozol’s book review, No Child Left Behind has very little to do with education.  How thoughtless of me to have called it an education law.

Kozol’s new name—the federal testing law No Child Left Behind—has given me a whole new way of seeing.  Notice that calling it “the federal testing law” leaves no way to confuse the law with real school accountability or school reform or any kind of civil rights.  It is about massive standardized testing piled on top of more testing.  “The federal testing law” describes what the law does: prescribe annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school—and then prescribe outrageous consequences for school teachers and school districts and particular schools if scores don’t rise quickly.

The new name also keeps our minds from wandering to the hopeless logjam in Congress.  If we call No Child Left Behind “the federal testing law” instead of “the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” we are less likely to think about  the seeming impossibility and hopelessness of a reauthorization that has been languishing since 2007.  More direct possibilities  for protest and organizing come to mind.  Throw Out the Federal Testing Law.  Overturn the Federal Testing Law.  I Opted My Child Out of the Federal Testing Law.  The Secretary of Education could not possibly defame anyone with such a bumper sticker as a “defender of the status quo.”

Of course it is also important to understand why all the testing has been such a dismal failure.  For a pithy review of the issues, I recommend Bob Shaeffer’s piece last week in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Flawed Exams Support Phony School Accountability.  Bob works with Monty Neill at FairTest, which helped sponsor a national resolution against high stakes testing.  If you are a parent, FairTest would urge you to become part of the movement to opt your child out of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind.

I plan to take a very simple step to intensify my protest: I will be adopting Jonathan Kozol’s phrase, “the federal testing law No Child Left Behind” whenever I refer to this law.  I challenge you to do the same.