Recently, my three-year-old and two-year old sons were reveling in the joy of celebrating a playmate’s fourth birthday. Games were played, cake eaten and gift bags grabbed.  The parents looked on with joy as the children played with an independent abandon that only required a few “stop running” comments.   My joy, however, was extinguished at the grown folk’s table when conversations moved toward selecting kindergartens for our children.  One parent shared that for 4,000 selective enrollment kindergartens, there were 15,000 applications and all the applicants are tested. Wait, testing?

Testing. Chicago Public Schools are now subjecting 4-year-olds to 45-minute tests where they are asked to leave their parents and go with a stranger to assess them. The nation’s third largest school system sees nothing wrong with this practice.  But it is wrong.  We are determining the life trajectory for our youth at age four. 

I realize I may be hopelessly old school because I think that nothing was wrong with my kindergarten experience where I was not tested and where I was able to play, learn colors, recite ABC’s, finger paint, hear nursery rhymes, sing, and take naps.  I also grew up in a relatively small factory town in Indiana, where the burden on children was simply to do well in school when you went to whatever school you attended. But in Chicago, like other major metropolitan areas, the stakes are high. 

Months ago, a fellow parent shared just how high they are: “Your son is about to be four.  You have to think now about what college he is going to attend.  You choose the kindergarten in order to get into the elementary school that has the best test scores so they can be accepted to a high school that has a strong record of students attending good colleges.“  I asked, if kindergarten was that serious.  His silence let me know just how serious he was.  I was in denial until that same sentiment was echoed at the grown folk’s table by more than one family. 

The Chicago Tribune reported that in 2011, the actual number of openings were 1,150 for which 13,058 applications were tendered.  Only 8 percent of those 4-year-olds were told that they were good enough.  Let’s put that in real terms – in a 100 person game of Red Rover, only 8 were sent over.  he other 92 were told they weren’t good enough.

I recently participated in a Chicago State University panel discussion entitled  "Is Public Education the New Civil Rights Battle?" While the debate centered on the relative merits of charter schools vs. traditional public schools, panelist and Chicago Public Schools teacher Kevin Triplett questioned, “What kind of system tests four-year-olds and what does that say about our society?” 

What it says is that America is accepting the idea that quality schools can only be provided to limited numbers.  The country is abandoning the idea that all are to be provided a quality public education.  Abandoning this idea forces us to examine public education as a Civil Rights issue since many urban schools have re-segregated and history has shown that separate is never equal and the disproportionate victims of the public educational system in this country are Black, Latino, and Native American.  The limited number of quality schools are not likely to have a large number of Black, Latino, and Native American students.

Utilizing the Civil Rights protest model may mean that angry parents will have to take to the streets to demand more quality schools.  In Chicago, we see children who have been taken by the streets when an educational system and a society has told them that they aren’t good enough.

So why can’t more schools perform at higher levels?  None of the panelists had a definitive answer and neither has one definitive answer come from over 20 years of research and billions of dollars in educational innovation. Research does reveal that there are several answers and those range from parents, to curriculum, to higher student expectations, and even reinstalling recess.  One solution that has not been revealed however, is more testing. 

The disparate conditions that disproportionately impact lower-income Blacks has led leading education researcher Diane Ravitch to suggest that poor children get tested, while rich kids get taught.  Indeed. 

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in 1966, Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee commented on education in his seminal speech “Black Power:”

"So it is clear that this question is not one of integration or segregation. We cannot afford to be concerned about the 6 percent of Black children in this country whom you allow to enter white schools. We are going to be concerned about the 94 percent. You ought to be concerned about them too. But are we willing to be concerned about the Black people who will never get to Berkeley, never get to Harvard, and cannot get an education…"

Carmichael's words ring sadly true today. There is more to overcome and the prospects for education for our children in Chicago is but one tragic example.