In this blog post, Lisa Guisbond, of FairTest, considers what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would think about standardized testing. She writes that, among other things, King likely would find fault with the focus on high-stakes testing, ushered in by No Child Left Behind, which largely has affected schools in low-income neighborhoods and those that serve minority students. 

It’s tempting to wonder what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say about the growing national movement against high-stakes testing, as we celebrate his lifelong work for equality. King’s vision of racial justice was broad and deep. We know from his writings that he valued equal educational opportunity as part of a broader struggle for equality. But what would he think about the way testing has been held up as the key to educational equity? What would he say about the way high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, said to fuel cheating and the school-to-prison pipeline? It’s hard to picture him on the sidelines.

King’s “I have a dream” speech is well known, but he also spoke eloquently about education. In a 1947 Morehouse student newspaper article, he said, “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”

The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law set a goal of equal educational outcomes. It imposed an arbitrary mechanism based on the “efficiency” of standardized tests, leaving schools awash in testing. Yet our research concludes it has not only failed to produce equality but has causeddisproportionate damage to educational quality for young people of color, especially those from low-income families.

If Rev. King were with us, he would surely see that schools in poor communities remain both severely segregated and underfunded. This affects class size, access to science labs, books, art and music. It also affects teachers and principals, many of whom quickly burn out and leave a challenging school or the profession itself.


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