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Standardized Testing and the Racial Implications of Data Use

In this chapter we critically examine iterations of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), by first reexamining the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and now the most recent installment, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We revisit lessons learned from the fall out of NCLB, and how ESSA aims to take heed of NCLB’s mistakes by being more equity-centered and offering local school stakeholders more flexibility in implementation under the law. However, we find that elements of how equity is executed under ESSA still takes a color-evasive, market-oriented stance that is not much different than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In response, we consider how educational leaders can facilitate anti-racist approaches to ESSA, especially in regard to how they implement assessments and engage in data-use practices under the law.

In 1965, ESEA was touted as the nation’s civil rights law for education as it made provisions through federal grants, like Title I, to rectify educational inequities and level the playing field for low-income students and students with disabilities (Coomer, Pearce, Dagli, Skelton, Kyser, & Thorius, 2017). ESEA’s original policy intentions were equity-focused. The first iteration of the law aligned with the Johnson Administration’s overall War on Poverty and broader legislative reform known as the Great Society (Zeitz, 2018). In his post-election State of the Union address, in addition to education, President Johnson called for a number of social welfare reforms such as health care for the elderly, the expansion of the Social Security program, as well as enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965

(Johnson, 1964). President Johnson, in this same noted State of the Union address, accredited poverty to “our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children” (Johnson, 1964, para. 25). Hence, ESEA and other Great Society reforms were seen as landmark policy moves that openly acknowledged how societal barriers make the American Dream for many an impossible goal.

ESEA also hallmarked the beginning of federal involvement in public education, which up until now had been primarily state and locally regulated and controlled (Egalite, Fusarelli, & Fusarelli, 2017). With ESEA the federal government aimed to eradicate poverty through the establishment of Title I funds and other grants directed to support increasing educational resources and opportunities for low-income students and to help build the capacity of state education agencies (Egalite et al., 2017). Originally ESEA sought to hold state and local policy actors accountable for providing equitable educational opportunities. For example, the Johnson Administration was able to use carrot and stick tactics by threatening to withdraw federal funding from southern states that refused to racially desegregate their public school systems (Frankenberg & Taylor, 2015). However, with each iteration of ESEA the federal government became progressively heavier-handed, and to date, the 13 years under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from 2002 to 2015 marked the hardest federal grip felt by states and local school districts. Also, as we discussed in Chapter 4, we are now in an era where government officials outside of education, such as mayors and state governments, are more than just having a say in local public education matters. And in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans, these officials have taken over entire school districts (see Egalite et al., 2017).

Unfortunately, the national policy discourse on public education eventually veered away from the equity-based intentions of the 1965 ESEA and neoliberalism began to take a firm hold with the 1983 publication, A Nation at Risk, released by the Reagan Administration (U.S. NCEE, 1983). With A Nation at Risk, the focus was no longer on the needs of students, especially those systemically marginalized by public education, but instead on how the U.S. fared in academic performance when compared to other industrialized nations. Some of the statistics presented in A Nation at Risk were startling, quoting international indicators for student academic achievement that claimed the U.S. was at the bottom of the list for industrialized nations. Controversially, some of the data presented in the Reagan Administration’s publication was faulty. So, the political spin fueled by A Nation at Risk that the American public education system was in crisis was in fact manufactured (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). In addition to this “narrative of school failure”, the Reagan Administration recommended adopting academic and performance standards and state and local achievement tests that aligned with the standards (Strauss, 2018, par. 17). George H. W. Bush followed suit, positioning himself as the “Education President” during his presidential campaign and, once elected, organized a National Education Summit in 1989 of 50 state governors who were committed to developing sweeping education reforms like performance-based standards and high-stakes testing (Egalite et al., 2017). This “narrative of school failure” continued to dominate the national policy agenda on school reform up until recently, as it seems ESSA is attempting to squash the deficit discourse of public education and revert back to the original equity agenda of ESEA.

Although the first iteration of ESEA in 1965 was equity-driven, the law was relatively race-neutral in centering its agenda on students living in poverty, especially considering it was a heightened moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial equality. However, the George W. Bush Administration’s 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), endeavored to be more race-conscious by requiring states and districts to disaggregate student performance data to uncover racial inequities and get one step closer to closing the racial achievement gap. Still, NCLB used market-oriented, one-size-fits all instructional reforms such as standardized testing and punitive sanctions that were immediate fixes, not solutions that would redress systemic racial inequities in public education. As a result, NCLB reinforced racial inequities and stereotypes that blamed students from low-income families and students of color for school failure, not the system charged with serving them (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Leonardo, 2007; Milner, 2012).

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