Civil Rights, Brown, and NCLB

K-12 Testing

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision abolishing legal segregation in public schools, civil rights leaders are stepping up their criticism of the federal “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act and its high-stakes testing underpinnings.


Speaking in Topeka, Kansas, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond observed, “Today minority children face inequalities in school spending, and more – they face what Jonathan Kozol calls ‘punitive testing and accountability agendas’ imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have adopted a ‘grill and drill curriculum’ that substitutes learning by rote and teaching to the test for the transmission of critical thinking from teacher to pupil.”


The 180-organization Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) has issued a “12-Point Program to Invest in Equality.” The final two points state:


11. Use standardized tests only as diagnostic tools to assess student needs. Employ tests as only one of several measures for evaluating student progress and to direct resources to meet student needs, not to punish under-resourced schools or students who have not had the opportunity to learn the tested material. Reject high-stakes testing as a sole criterion for making major decisions.


12. Ensure that no child is actually left behind. Fully fund the No Child Left Behind law so it provides resources to meet standards, instead of punishing schools and diverting funds from students and schools with the greatest need for help."


These statements stand in stark contrast to efforts by President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige to claim that NCLB is part of the struggle for racial equality and quality education. NCLB proponents have pointed to support for NCLB by the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights and the Education Trust to lay claim to the legacy of Brown.


But the growing number of civil rights movement critics of the law point out that NCLB’s flaws and its lack of sufficient funding for real educational improvement will ensure that schooling for low-income and minority-group children will be reduced to test preparation, denying them the high-quality education they need. In addition, most of the nation’s schools will be deemed failures based solely on test scores, potentially damaging vital community institutions (see the new FairTest report, Failing Our Children, article on p. 1). This will continue to limit the pool of academically prepared minority students, thereby hindering the desegregation of the nation’s colleges and universities.


In contrast to NCLB’s inadequate funding and punitive sanctions, the LCCR calls for committing the resources to hire and retain high-quality teachers, enable small class sizes, ensure a strong curriculum, strengthen parent and community involvement in the schools, and invest in communities to break the cycle of poverty that causes much of the performance gap (see also book review of Class and Schools, p. 12).


• The LCCR document is on the web at
• A copy of Bond’s talk was provided by the NAACP. Bond was citing Kozol in The Nation, May 3, 2004.