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Today, a large coalition of civil rights and disabilities organizations — including The Education Trust — released its top priorities for Congress to consider when reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as ESEA, later this year. Among those priorities, at least one might come as a bit of a surprise: continuation of the federal requirement that states test all students in grades three through eight once a year, and again at least once during high school.

Why would these groups, many of which have a long history of fighting against the misuse of tests to hold students back, remove them from the regular curriculum or deny them admission to the best high schools, embrace the testing requirement so unequivocally?

The reason is simple: Kids who are not tested end up not counting.

Earlier in our nation’s history, many of the organizations in our coalition — including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities — did yeoman’s work to secure the right of black and Latino children, English learners, and students with disabilities just to attend public schools with other children. And many subsequently fought in state courts and state legislatures for fair funding for schools serving concentrations of such children — a fight that, sadly, is still going on today.

But it turns out that access to public education — even where that education is fairly funded — doesn’t necessarily mean that all children get the quality educational services they need to have a real shot at the American Dream. Too often, schools expect less of children of color and low-income children, and even less of children with disabilities. Indeed, for years it has been considered acceptable by many education authorities for these children to be taught disproportionately by novice or unqualified teachers, to be assigned to less rigorous courses, and even to get “A’s” for work that would earn a “C” in the suburbs.

All of us who have been fighting for quality education for the country’s most vulnerable children recognize that testing every child every year doesn’t automatically change any of this. And we worry about the huge number of other tests that districts and schools have piled on top of the annual statewide, federally required tests, taking away valuable instructional time.

But when statewide annual tests are part of an accountability system that requires educators to improve results for every group of children, and when parents themselves have access to results for their child as well as others in the school and district, we at least have a fighting chance to right these wrongs.

And that, indeed, is what has been happening. Since the imposition of the federal requirement for annual tests, full public reporting, and serious accountability for the results of every group of children, achievement among black, Latino, and low-income students has improved. On the longest standing national examination — the NAEP Long Term Trends Exam — these groups have improved faster than at any time since 1980. And students with disabilities that many assumed would prevent them from ever meeting state standards are achieving more than ever before.

Have recent gains been big enough or fast enough? Not even close: We still have miles to go, and both educators and parents have a lot of work to do. But, when we are finally going in the right direction, why would we even consider going back?

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