It’s (Almost) Testing Time: Cities and Education Reform

Photo by albertogp123

Photo by albertogp123

It’s spring here in Washington DC – the season of daffodils, cherry blossoms, and – for public school students – standardized testing. For about a decade, the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has mandated that U.S. public school students in particular grade levels take assessments each year to determine whether they have achieved proficiency in reading, math, and (more recently) science. While for many students standardized testing may feel like just another sign of spring, recent news reports remind us that this rite of passage is contested and can have significant consequences for students, their schools, and their communities.

Over the past two weeks, we have seen:

  • The indictment of 35 teachers, principals, and administrators in Atlanta Public Schools, including the system’s former superintendant, for their roles in a standardized testing cheating scandal.
  • Hundreds (if not thousands) of people protesting the proposed closure of 54 public schools in Chicago, the largest proposed single-year school consolidation in history.
  • Protests and a lawsuit designed to stop the closure of 15 public schools in Washington DC, following the closure of 23 schools in 2008.
  • The organization of “Occupy the US Department of Education 2.0,” a multi-day gathering of education activists outside the U.S. Department of Education to protest corporate and for-profit education reforms.

Over the past decade, school reform policies have changed everyday life in schools and communities, particularly those located in urban areas. Under NCLB, schools that repeatedly fail to raise the test scores of students in certain subgroups (e.g. minority, low-income, English language learners) are subject to a series of progressive sanctions that culminate in the potential closure or reorganization of the school. According to a report from the Center on Education Policy, about 90 percent of schools subject to this last stage of NCLB sanctions are located in urban districts.

There are several reasons for the disproportionate impact of education policies on urban areas, according to the CEP report. First, urban schools tend to be more diverse than suburban and rural schools, meaning that they have more subgroups of students that are required to meet “annual yearly progress” (AYP) goals. (If one subgroup missed a target, until recently, an entire school could be labeled as failing to meet AYP.) Second, urban school districts tend to be larger than suburban and rural districts, with more schools that are required to meet AYP. Third, urban schools serve a larger proportion of low-income students, who are often less likely than their higher-income peers to score at a proficient level on standardized tests.

The implementation of school choice models and the growth of charter schools have also led to school closures in urban areas as more families move from public to charter schools. Whether school choice operates as a benefit or a burden to urban families can often depend on a family’s resources: time to visit schools and fill out applications and funds to transport students outside of the immediate neighborhood to attend school. School reorganization also can have repercussions in households even without school age children. In her study of education reform in Chicago, Pauline Lipman found that education reform and housing reform policies were often “intertwined” such that school closures and housing redevelopment contributed to processes of gentrification in low-income communities.

Standardized testing has become “high stakes” not only for students, their teachers, and their schools but for their local communities as well. Learn more about the Chicago school closures and hear from some of the individuals who attended the protest here: