Tucker: Why White Parents Might Want to Listen to Black Parents Before Opting Out

This is graduation season, when an anticipated 3.3 million high school seniors will cross a stage and receive an elegant sheet of paper that announces their completion of an important phase of formal education. For the last few years, public school districts have proudly announced their increasing graduation rates: In the 2013-14 academic year, the nation achieved its highest-ever rate of 82 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But for a significant number of those young adults, the diploma may not mean very much. They still won’t have the competence in mathematics and reading to master highly-skilled jobs at high-tech factories or to negotiate college classes without remediation. They are also not ready to win the competition of a globalized labor force.

The proof of these educational deficiencies lies in the scores from college entrance exams, the surging demand for college remedial courses and tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The most recent NAEP scores, released last week, revealed that the average performance of high school seniors in math had fallen between 2013 and 2015. This suggests the gains in graduation rates have been purchased with lower academic standards.

That’s why the opt-out movement — largely fueled by teachers’ unions — is so counterproductive. There’s no doubt that some school systems have administered far too many tests, turning the classroom experience into a rote learn-by-numbers exercise. But unless students take a few strategic standardized exams, it’s nearly impossible to judge their actual academic achievement.

That’s especially true of children from less-affluent homes and children of color. They are often stuck in schools with insufficient resources, poorly trained teachers and overwhelmed principals. The As and Bs that many of those students will receive on report card after report card are hardly a reliable barometer.

Given that, the nation’s leading civil rights organizations are wary of the opt-out movement and its dismissal of tests and transparency. The data measure a key indicator: the achievement gap between children of color — historically consigned to inferior schools — and their wealthier white peers.

(More at The 74: Who’s really opting out? Affluent white families)

While New York Times reporter Kate Taylor recently wrote an op-ed teasing a more diverse opt-out movement, there is no data showing that the protest is gaining traction among black parents or civil rights leaders. (Many black educators do support the opt-out movement; their loyalty is to the unions, not to the children they teach.)

“I know of no reputable civil rights organizations and no reputable civil rights leaders who back the opt-out movement,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told me recently. “There are issues with tests. Some states administer too many.

“But we cannot support a system that camouflages or obfuscates achievement gaps…opting out denies us the data and the information we need. In order to close the achievement gap, you’ve got to know where it is.”

For decades, educational experts have pointed to the educational gap between children from affluent homes and those from homes mired in poverty. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty poured money into public schools to help close the gap, and, for several years, it narrowed. But those gains have tapered off; indeed, the achievement gap may now be widening.

An interactive data analysis recently published by the Times shows that children in school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the wealthiest districts. The gap was even more pronounced, oddly, among poorer children of color in school districts where most of the children come from affluent backgrounds. (Researchers determined the gap, by the way, by compiling scores from a standardized test, the NAEP.)

The opt-out movement has been largely the province of white middle-class parents who are confident that their children’s schools are preparing them well. But those parents, too, have reason to be concerned about what their kids are learning.

An April report by Education Post and Education Reform Now — “Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability” — calculates that more than half a million college students had to enroll in remedial classes during their first year of college, costing their families $1.5 billion a year. 45 percent of those students came from middle- and upper-income families, according to the report.

Opting-out of standardized tests during the K-12 years may not be the best strategy for those kids, either.

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