When six other African-American parents and I traveled from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., last month for a Congressional Committee hearing, we continued what is unfortunately a Great American Tradition: pressing our nation’s leaders to deliver an education to its black children of equal quality to the education it provides to whites.
It’s a tradition we celebrate every February when our nation honors such heroes as Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, and Thurgood Marshall. Yet we don’t seem to honor the thousands of families fighting racial segregation in educational opportunity today.
The reason for our trip was to encourage U.S. senators to preserve a critical tool in that fight. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is being considered for reauthorization this year, which means the role of the federal government in ensuring educational justice is on the table.
Specifically, Congress is debating the federal role in establishing an equally high educational standard for all schools, overseeing how fairly and effectively schools meet that standard, and intervening when racial disparities in educational outcomes are evident.
Some in Congress and beyond are arguing for states’ rights to choose what to test on, when to test, and how to intervene if discriminatory patterns become evident. We believe this is a grave mistake. Before NCLB we had no data to prove our children were not being educated equally. Today, as a result of the direct data comparisons NCLB provides, our nation is finally beginning to address the profound racial inequities that exist in all 50 states.
In D.C., our group of parents highlighted three major benefits to NCLB’s current federal role:
- It supports our children’s learning.
Standardized tests provide parents with objective information about whether or not their children are meeting academic proficiency benchmarks—and empowering them to intervene early to provide additional learning supports in areas where their children are struggling.
At 11, my daughter understands that tests are to measure what she’s learned and where she needs to grow. She’s tested on things like vocabulary, long division, and writing skills. It also asks her open-ended questions that require her to think critically. These aren’t “bubbles” to be filled in, as the rhetoric goes, but fundamental skills she’ll use throughout her life.
- It helps parents choose great schools.
Parents can now compare local schools’ effectiveness in helping students achieve academic proficiency—that’s paramount as they seek out the best quality education for their children.
When I was growing up, my mom didn’t have access to this kind of information. She enrolled me in a school with new facilities, a computer lab, and the promise of a great education. Although I excelled, graduating at the top of my class, I had to take remedial courses in college, as this high school’s diploma didn’t translate to post-secondary preparedness.
- It moves our nation towards a more perfect union.
With NCLB, the public has a means of uncovering racial inequities in education and Americans have the full protection of the law in ensuring those gaps are addressed.
Despite the best intentions, history has shown voluntary compliance to be a losing strategy for civil rights. Even “progressive” Minnesota is just waking up to the fact that we are not walking our talk. Just 29 percent of black fourth graders are proficient on state reading tests, compared to 64 percent of their white peers.And it doesn’t get much better when looking at Minnesota’s results on the NAEP exam, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, with a 26 percentage point difference in the proficiency rates of white 4th graders compared to black 4th graders.
We recognize that some adjustments are needed to No Child Left Behind. The role of the federal government is not one of them.
We can’t simply abolish the test because we don’t like the results. And we can’t abolish the test because we don’t like tests.
As African Americans, our ancestors risked their lives for an education. It’s insulting to say we’re afraid of our children taking a math test.
What we’re afraid of is a future in which our children grow up illiterate, face a limited range of career options, and miss out on the immense opportunities an education brings. We’re afraid of our country turning a blind eye to the school-to-prison pipeline, which feeds off of our own children.
So join us in the fight to preserve federal oversight of our educational system. After all, it’s a family tradition.