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Social justice and policy design

Randall F. Clemens

A few weeks ago, I read about Illinois’ new testing plan. It includes a number of points. The most notable is the state’s decision to use different standards to measure achievement among student groups. By 2019, Illinois expects 85% of white students—compared to 73% of Latino students and 70% of black students—to pass the state reading assessment. In other words, some students will be held to higher standards than others. State officials have presented the system as an improvement to No Child Left Behind. Remember, NCLB required 100% of students to be proficient at state assessments (even though, test scores became a bit of a moving target). 

I don’t know how you interpret the convoluted new plan. I tried to consider all perspectives, but had trouble remaining neutral. In fact, the words “idiotic” and “racist” came to mind. I then attempted to explain the policy as some sort of affirmative action. However, affirmation action tries to reverse discriminatory practices—not create them—in order to provide opportunity.

Of course, Illinois state officials provide perfectly acceptable rationale. They even mention all of the familiar buzzwords. Data. Data. Data. Growth. Growth. Growth. And also, a few nods to poverty and after-school programs. Everyone can rest comfortably, they argue. The state’s low expectations are all backed by science. This braintrust, I’m sure, had nothing to do with the last policy iteration—the one that used to be touted as the next best thing and is now evidence they use to justify the new best thing.

My primary objection with Illinois’ reform—like so many across the country—is the degree to which it is divorced from common sense and the day-to-day lives of students. How does a mom explain why the state has different expectations for her child? What happens at the lunchroom when a group of friends try to figure out their test scores? And, why did the state create a policy in which the major accountability measure affirms current inequities, rather than eliminates them? 

We ought to be able to design policies that provide opportunity for all students.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how research contributes to the problem and also provides a potential solution.