Task Force on Educational Measurement & Civil Rights

Educational Measurement and Civil Rights

An NCME Presidential Task Force

Education, directed to the full development of the human person, is recognized as a fundamental human right (United Nations, 1949). Equal access to a quality education is furthermore recognized as a civil right in nations, states and other jurisdictions. In the United States, education rights are enshrined in constitutional protections (e.g., fourteenth amendment equal protection rights), U.S. legislation (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972) and state laws. Persons in the United States have rights to education that may not be abridged on the basis of gender, race, disability, language, and other protected categories. Social activism that has led to the establishment, realization and protection of civil rights to education has a long history and continues to achieve advances in courtrooms and legislative bodies today.

In recent years, educational measurement in the form of tests and assessments has figured prominently in the debate over civil rights in education. In 2020, a decades-long case involving the University of California debating the use of standardized tests was settled by the University’s agreement not to use standardized tests for admissions or scholarship decisions (Smith v. Regents, 1997). That same year, Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP reached an agreement with the state of Delaware over school funding. In that case, based on a 2018 complaint, test scores were used as evidence of deficiencies in educational resources provided to low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners (DEO v. Carney, 2018). Just last year, educational outcomes including state standardized test scores were used to debate whether the rights to equal education guaranteed in the Pennsylvania state constitution had been abridged by the state’s school funding practices (William Penn School District vs. Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2023).

A full accounting of the impact of educational tests and assessments must include numerous historical examples where they have been used to deny the civil rights of individuals and groups. In a landmark case that preceded and influenced Brown vs. Board of Education, the Westminster School District in California used IQ tests administered in English to justify the segregation of students of Mexican heritage (Mendez vs. Westminster, 1946).

It may furthermore be argued that some uses of educational tests and assessments undermine rather than uphold values of respecting human dignity, because they may be reductive, stigmatizing, and de-motivating for students. At particular risk for such harms are students whose cultural backgrounds differ from those that predominantly inform the educational systems within which such tests and assessments operate.

In 2023 the Board of Directors of the National Council on Measurement in Education reflected on the roles, positive and negative, that educational tests and assessments have played in relation to civil rights. Recognizing the complexity of the issues, the criticality of accurate information, and the timeliness of a substantive contribution to public discourse, NCME President Michael Walker is announcing the creation of a Presidential Task Force on the Role of Educational Measurement in the Protection and Advancement of Civil Rights.

The Task Force is charged with creating clear and accurate information regarding educational tests and assessments that is relevant to the protection and advancement of the civil rights of all to education. In particular, the Task Force shall:

  • Review the salient history of educational measurement in civil rights litigation and civil rights advancement and investigate and illuminate positive and negative uses of educational tests and assessments in relation to the advancement of civil rights in the past.
  • Identify specific elements of civil rights protections (e.g., fairness, equal access) that may possibly be supported by educational measurements of any type.
  • Examine the landscape of educational measurement programs, including large scale assessments at federal, state and local levels. The Task Force will focus attention on those programs that purport to provide a fair basis for making judgments about educational progress across individuals or groups (e.g., NAEP, summative statewide assessments). The Task Force will explicate the features of such educational measurement programs and the purposes they serve.
  • Identify and address common misunderstandings regarding tests and assessments that interfere with the development of legislation, policy, and practice necessary to ensure equal rights to education.
  • Write a report that addresses these issues directly, reflecting to the degree possible the consensus of the field of educational measurement, and indicating areas where greater understanding and consensus-building may be needed.

It should be noted that the product of the Task Force’s work is not expected to be advocacy for more testing or less, or necessarily for one policy position over another. Instead, the work is expected to advocate for correct understanding of educational tests and assessments, their forms, purposes and limitations, so that efforts to advance civil rights, whether in the courts or legislative bodies, may be well informed. Understandings developed through the Task Force efforts may, on the other hand, also challenge NCME and the measurement field itself, how we see our history and what principles should guide our evolution.

In performing its work, it is expected that the Task Force will benefit from communication and collaboration with civil rights organizations and other parties, and such efforts will be supported with adequate resources.

We have issued a Call for Volunteers and are accepting self-nominations to serve on the Task Force using the form available here. It is expected that the Task Force will be appointed by April 2024 and conclude its primary work by April 2025. NCME President Michael Walker will serve as the Board liaison to the Task Force, including through his year as Past President.


  • Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches v. John Carney, Governor of the State of Delaware, C.A. No. 2018-0029-VCL.
  • Mendez, Gonzalo et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County, United States District Court, Southern District of California, 1946.
  • Smith v. Regents of University of California, 56 Cal.App.4th 979, 65 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813 (Cal. Ct. App. 1997)
  • United Nations. General Assembly. (1949). Universal declaration of human rights (Vol. 3381). Department of State, United States of America.
  • William Penn School District vs. Pennsylvania Department of Education, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 2023.