How the Civil Rights Movement Impacted Assessment

How the Civil Rights Movement Impacted AssessmentAs we reflect on the lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King on our society, it seems timely to examine the powerful effects the civil rights movement has had in shaping American assessment. As early as 1947, Martin Luther King was writing in his campus newspaper about the purpose of education:  “It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture,” (Maroon Tiger, January-February 1947).

The Gordon Commission study, To Assess, To Teach, To Learn: A Vision for the Future of Assessment, provides a summary of the many shaping influences in the formation and evolution of education assessment extracted from Carl Kaestle’s 2012 report, Testing Policy in the United States: A Historical Perspective. Kaestle connects changes in assessment to cultural changes.

The civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s brought progress to the assessment field:

  • concern for equity in the testing world and public consciousness
  • increased call for disaggregated assessment data and reporting out of student subgroups
  • decrease in the use of some tests for placement because of legitimate concerns about the impact on certain groups
  • tracking achievement and growth patterns of groups of students based on race and social economic status
  • sensitivity and bias panels came into being to ensure that testing materials did not bias any group of students

These changes, especially disaggregating data, helped reveal systemic issues in American public education. In response to these issues, numerous school reforms came into being because of the Civil Rights movement.

For the first time, Congress required the scientific validation of tests used to place children into special education programs. These validation requirements were spelled out in the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, (1975).

In 1964, researchers established a standing Exploratory Committee on the Assessment of Progress in Education which produced recommendations that became the initially controversial National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Now there would be a snapshot of how groups of students performed across the nation.

Educational policy, which mandates many of the uses of assessment, has also been a lever in addressing equity issues. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) and the subsequent reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind, (2001), grapple with how to effectively educate our diverse nation’s students, provide access to high quality resources, including great teachers, and produce equal outcomes for all. We are currently going through a revision of this influential policy.

Affected by the values and needs of the larger society, assessment continues to respond to persistent equity challenges. Scientific validation procedures, sensitivity and bias committees, NAEP, and a sharpened focus on test purpose and fair use of test data are lasting legacies of the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and assessment. These practices and procedures improve the quality and usefulness of assessments for all kids so that education can serve the two-fold purpose outlined by a young and prescient Martin Luther King: utility and culture.

Note: This post was co-authored by April Roethel