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In 2000, I was a 22-year-old, fist-pumping student organizer barely out of college working with a beautifully motley crew of high school students from across Washington, D.C., who were raising their voices around educational equity in local public schools.

Over slices of pizza and soda after school and on Saturdays, these students analyzed master course schedules, looking at disparities in college-preparatory course offerings across city wards, from the crumbling schools in Anacostia to those in the tony neighborhoods of upper northwest that cling to the edges of the District lines as if trying to escape. And they examined achievement across schools, revealing the yawning gaps that existed as a result.

Counting-2Many of the students I worked with had a suspicion that they weren’t being taught to the same levels as kids in the more affluent schools. They’d heard about the science labs, AP and IB classes, and college expectations that rose with the housing prices uptown. They even knew that, within their own schools, different students were getting different opportunities. Among our small group, we had students in high-track honors classes, and students who spent their days in remedial classes; students whose English classes included lots of reading and writing, and students whose English classes were lined with more poster board assignments than essays.

But it wasn’t until they saw the test results — bar charts like the District’s skyline, cracked along lines of ethnicity and school poverty — that they knew it was not just unfair, but academically devastating.

Had there been no test, they would have never known.

“People need to see these so everyone can know that all students aren’t getting the same education,” one high school junior in the group later wrote.

Then another student noticed something else in the assessment data from one of the large comprehensive high schools: way more students tested in math than in reading. When he compared those numbers to the reported enrollment of students who should have been tested, he gaped. The school had tested — or at least reported scores for — 84 percent of students in math and just 32 percent of students in reading.

“You mean they don’t test everyone?” The student was stunned. “Then how do they know how those students are doing?”

“They don’t.” I can still feel the answer scratching its nails along my throat on the way out.

To these young people, the idea of not including all students — not knowing where every student was performing — was incomprehensible. They looked back at the test-taking data for the other high schools and saw similar patterns: students counted at the beginning of the year but somehow missing from spring testing rolls.

But it was so common a practice that it took the indignation of youth, with help from a wonderfully gruff civil rights war horse named Phyllis McClure and a forward-thinking school board member, to call attention to it and demand that all students be included in assessment — and that they all ultimately count in gauging how well their schools are doing.

Meanwhile, advocates and civil rights groups were also beating the drum at the national level for more accountability and public information. The annual testing, accountability, and reporting requirements ushered in by No Child Left Behind the following year wouldn’t, by themselves, close gaps. But they would give educators, parents, and students a clearer picture of where those gaps were. And they would ensure that all students counted in measuring school performance — that schools accepting students at the beginning of the year would be expected to account for those students’ academic performance at the end.

To these high school students, mostly African American and Latino, it was common sense. And it seemed only fair.

Those students I worked with so many years ago fought for annual tests for all students and full accountability for schools. Not because they loved taking tests, or loved the test prep that too many of their teachers thought would give them that extra edge, but because they knew that, without annual assessments where all students were tested — and all students were counted — they could never know for sure whether all students were being prepared.

Students and parents place their trust — their very dreams and precious children — in their schools. But we can’t ask for them to trust blindly.

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