This article was first published
Davis, a senior at Bell High School, lives in the city of Cudahy,
part of the southeastern part of Los Angeles that has one of the
densest concentrations of Latino working poor west of the Mississippi.
Last year, after some class discussion about the inherent unfairness
of a standardized test called Stanford Achievement Test-Ninth Edition
(SAT-9), Davis and a group of students at Bell got their parents
to waive the test for them. Why cooperate with a system that dooms
students to failure? Although it is their right to choose not to
participate in the high-stakes test, school administrators do not
like to see students opt out, because a large number of waivers
would compromise the school's standing in a statewide "accountability
system" based solely on test scores.
"They made a big deal of it," Davis says.
"They kept asking why we wanted to waive the test. We told
them, 'it's because our parents want us to,' but they just kept
asking us. I was so tired of it. So finally, I said, 'fine. I'll
take your test. Just leave me alone.'"
Davis isn't the only student facing a Catch-22. In 1999,
California's Governor Gray Davis and the state legislature hastily
put together a "school accountability system" assigning
each school an Academic Performance Index score. For the past three
years, a school's score has been solely determined by its students'
performance on the SAT-9. SAT-9, critics claim, unfairly pits California
students against a national norm that is heavily based on white,
middle-class students who attend schools with a lot more resources
than many students in California's urban centers. SAT-9 is also
used as a "high-stakes" test, a test whose purpose is
more than assessing student performance and carries significant
consequences for the school. In California, $700 million of state
money is doled out as financial rewards to schools with high API
score or with significant improvement on the score from the previous
year. Here's the Catch-22: schools cannot get resources unless they
can demonstrate high performance, but they cannot demonstrate high
performance without additional resources.
But Davis, along with some of her classmates, did not
take the test lying down. They joined Coalition for Educational
Justice (CEJ), a volunteer-driven coalition of students, parents,
and teachers in Los Angeles. CEJ was formed out of the struggle
against Proposition 227, a 1998 California ballot initiative that
ended bilingual education in the state. With the passage of 227,
CEJ members, mostly teachers at the time, understood that the attack
on public education and students of color had only just begun. They
decided to regroup, and this time to enlist the support of students
In 2001, CEJ successfully lobbied the Los Angeles Unified
School District to inform parents of an existing state law that
lets them waive their children out of testing. Under more CEJ pressure,
the district reaffirmed in writing the right of teachers and students
to speak openly on school grounds about the waivers, without the
harassment and pressure that students like Davis had suffered. In
May, CEJ leaders pushed forward a school board motion that would
require the school district to set up a task force researching alternatives
to SAT-9, even though the test is mandated by the state.
Although new to the organization, Davis quickly became
a veteran during the campaign. On the day of the May school board
meeting, she was one of two student representatives who spoke on
behalf of CEJ to advocate for the motion.
"When our motion came up, one of the school board
members said, 'We can't change the law.' I remember Genethia Hayes
telling him, 'If Martin Luther King didn't fight against injustices,
we would not be here today.' That was great. That was inspiring."
At the end of the day, Davis made her speech with 300
CEJ members behind her, and the motion passed 4-1.
"At first, people would say, 'You're doing this
just because you don't want to take the test.' Even some of my friends
were saying that," Davis recalls. Many were eventually convinced
CEJ members' conviction that the use of high-stakes testing to demand
academic excellence, without providing adequate resources, was unfair.
To Davis, it would have been easier just to take the test, like
she had the previous year. Instead, she stood up to the pressure
and helped win a key battle for real improvements in her school.
CEJ members have to remind the public over and over
again that they are not against testing, per se. Rather, they are
against high-stakes testing, the practice of using standardized
tests to penalize students and schools that need resources the most.
"High-stakes testing does not answer the question
of what it takes to provide our children an enriched education.
That's the conversation CEJ is forcing on the table," says
Bill Gallegos, a parent leader and a seasoned organizer on educational
"If we are focusing on high-stakes testing, it's
because it is a means to spark a larger conversation. When Martin
Luther King did sit-ins at lunch counters, it was not just about
being able to patronize the lunch counters. It was about social
High-stakes testing is just one of CEJ's many lunch
counters. They are also fighting for reduced class size, bilingual
education and an anti-racist curriculum. These struggles are different
means to a broader agenda: equitable distribution of resources to
communities of color. But, because tests are far cheaper than proven
reforms, such as raising teacher quality or reducing class sizes,
it will be a tough fight.
How to Take a Test
So, what about all those principals and teachers who
say that they have risen to the state's challenge, and that students
are learning better because their scores have improved in the last
"It's funny," Gallegos says. "I asked
some teachers who teach in those improving schools the same question.
They'd tell me, 'All we do is teach to the test.' This is the analogy
I like to use. If you apply for law schools, there are all these
testing companies that claim they can help you increase your LSAT
scores. They might be very effective in increasing your scores.
But ultimately, do you gain any knowledge? No. They just teach you
how to take the test."
Since SAT-9 is based on a national standard, it is grossly
out of sync with the California curriculum. Students are being tested
on materials that they have not learned. Since its implementation,
some teachers have felt compelled to start "teaching to the
test," which translates into a narrower curriculum. For example,
subjects like history get the short shrift because it is not a focus
Sometimes, it gets even more absurd. Last year, Davis
was in an honors Mathematical Analysis class. At the beginning of
the "test window"-the months immediately preceding the
administering of SAT-9-her math teacher passed out a packet that
was supposed to review the materials covered by the class. Instead,
it was a thinly veiled study guide for that year's SAT-9. Despite
the fact that Davis was in an advanced math class, the packet contained
questions on Algebra and Geometry.
"We learned that last year and the year before,"
she says. "All of a sudden, we had to stop the class and switch
gears. It didn't make sense to me why we were reviewing it in that
In Davis' school, one can tell when the SAT-9 is coming.
The atmosphere changes dramatically during the "test window."
The school gives out $1,000 scholarships for those top students
who perform well on the test. "It [the reward] felt like they
were pushing the lottery," Davis says. "And if you walk
through my school during those months, you would see all these SAT-9
posters on the wall. This is not the point of education.
"And because we are a low-performing school, we
have to start shifting resources from other programs. Our drama
program is being cut," Davis, a theater buff, says regrettably.
High-stakes testing is a national movement and has been
for over two decades now. But the mantra of "accountability"
has intensified in the past several years. The recent onslaught
is sparked by two major currents. The first is economic: amidst
reports that American corporations are losing their competitive
edge against their international counterparts, corporations are
demanding a more pliable supply of domestic labor. Corporations
are some of the strongest supporters of national testing. "Elite
decision makers often consider masses of people who fail to meet
their own legitimate expectations a potential threat. Thus, reducing
expectations when the economy needs more hamburger flippers and
janitors than high-tech whizzes should make perfect sense to those
at the top," writes Dennis Fox, an activist against high stakes
testing in Massachusetts. If high-stakes tests can keep resources
from flowing to low-performing schools, students in these schools
will be much more likely to be forced into the low-wage workforce.
The second major force is political. For politicians,
testing is a quick fix. It's easier to measure a score than to foster
and monitor real learning with good teachers and adequate resources.
In some states, high-stakes testing also feeds the voucher movement.
In Florida, for example, parents can receive $1,500 in public money
for private school tuition if their child's public school performs
API ranking system is partly based on a 1998 report that recommended
an accountability system that should be studied for five years before
full implementation. In 1999, not long after Gov. Davis took office,
it took him and the legislature only three months to roll out the
Public Schools Accountability Act. According to a recent Orange
County Register investigation, the API ranking system is riddled
with sampling errors that lead to "an average 20-point margin
of error in the score-a startling swing in a system where a single
point can be the difference in receiving thousands of extra dollars
to upgrade computers, buy library books, or hire tutors." Experts
who designed the system knew about the potential for error. Yet,
caught up in the politics, neither experts nor politicians disclosed
the system's imperfection. Instead, it became law.
Nationally, George W. Bush, who as a presidential candidate
had run on his education record as Texas's governor, signed into
law the "No Child Left Behind" Act earlier this year.
With bipartisan support in Congress-one of the bill's co-sponsors
is Senator Ted Kennedy-the legislation mandates annual "academic
assessments" of students from third to eighth grades in all
states. Like the API ranking system, financial rewards are tied
to high performance. Yet, again, the demand for excellence is not
matched by the supply of resources. The new law appropriates about
$400 million a year for six years for states to develop new tests.
But Time magazine reports that full implementation can run up to
$7 billion. In these economic hard times, it's difficult
to tell the carrots from the sticks. Earlier this year, Vermont,
for example, considered not taking federal money because it might
ultimately cost the state a lot more to abide by the obligations
that come with No Child Left Behind dollars. Other states are not
as bold-yet. However, it will be a challenge for state governments
to develop an assessment system while public education funding is
already on the chopping block for many of them.
Who's Against Testing?
It is rare for an educational justice organization to
have an equal and meaningful representation of teachers, students,
and parents in both membership and leadership. In the white, middle-class
dominated national scene of anti-testing organizations, CEJ is also
unique for being led by people of color.
Dale Martin is a black single father in South Los Angeles
and a CEJ organizer. More than a quarter century ago, he attended
Washington Prep High School, where his 16-year-old daughter Karissa
is now a junior. "I witnessed firsthand the disparity between
schools with resources and those without. CEJ is confronting the
same inequality I experienced 25 years ago as a high school student.
I was not surprised, but I was appalled. Our children are still
being treated like second-class citizens. This takes me back to
the civil rights era."
A self-described "silent activist" before
CEJ, Martin was introduced to the organization through his daughter.
Out of curiosity, and feeling a parental sense of responsibility,
he accompanied her to a CEJ meeting last May to find out what his
daughter had been spending so much time on. At the meeting, members
were planning a demonstration at Washington High. Martin also learned
about other issues that CEJ had been working on: overcrowded classrooms,
lack of resources, shortages of books, dilapidated school conditions,
etc. The laundry list sounded all too familiar. Martin was impressed
by how well the students and teachers were working together, and
his intention to remain just an observer did not last long.
"They really wanted my input," he says. "I
didn't think I was ready or knowledgeable about the issues. But
they were really eager to hear what I had to say. So, I started
giving my opinions. And the more I talked, the more ideas I came
As an organization with a diverse base that is predominantly
people of color, CEJ also makes a point of addressing issues of
race head on.
"We had to have a long conversation just on why
we need to translate our meetings," Gallegos remembers. "If
translations are going to make the meetings longer, parents need
to understand why and not resent each other."
What was the response?
"We did some education on the history of people
of color," says Gallegos. "In the end, an African American
parent stood up and said, 'What was the first thing they took from
us when we came over as slaves? Language. We of all people should
understand that.' It made sense to him that the Latino parents should
be able to participate fully, and in their own native tongue."
While groups like CEJ are consciously engaging immigrants
in their children's education, testing mandates in the new federal
law further disenfranchise these communities. While states must
develop accommodations for other languages "to the extent practicable,"
the law mandates that all reading tests must be taken in English.
Unlike in many parts of the country where the dominant
voices against testing have not come from communities of color,
CEJ is one example of how parents, teachers, students, and organizers
are working to shift the debate from the question of how students
are scoring on tests, to what are the unmet needs of children of
color that the tests and the schools do not address.