For People who Have Experienced Racism in Schools, Standardized Testing Can Seem like A Solution. But It's Not.

The following is an excerpt from More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing, edited by Jesse Hagopian, (Haymarket Books, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.

Standardized Testing and Students of Color

I’ll never forget the day that my students lost their science experiment. I was teaching fourth grade in East Harlem, and we were in the middle of a week-long investigation. Teams were assembled with trays of powders and liquids. Students were busy all over the room mixing and pouring, making observations and recording them. At one point in the proceedings my supervisor entered the classroom and told my students to stop what they were doing. As she held the door open, youngsters from another classroom delivered stacks of test preparation workbooks. My supervisor turned to me and explained that we needed to stop our experiment and immediately begin preparing for the upcoming state standardized tests. Assuming I misunderstood her, I suggested we would begin test preparation immediately following the experiment in progress—since it was in progress. She clarified: we were to clean up that very moment, and begin test preparation. No more science experiment.

There’s something reassuring about the tests. Every student takes the same test, so there’s an appearance of fairness. The poor and the rich are treated the same, apparently. Every student receives a score, so there’s the semblance of transparency. Numerical scores provide an easy-to-grasp gauge of student progress: high scores are good, low scores are not. So it makes sense, on some level, for everyone—students, teachers, and administrators— to focus on raising test scores. If scores go up, that means students are learning and growing. It shows that teachers and administrators are doing their jobs. I don’t entirely blame my supervisor for canceling our science experiment. Her action was logical. Our school was populated by students who traditionally have not done well on state standardized tests. Low scores or slow progress in raising scores could mean bad things for students, teachers, administrators; they could even herald the end of the school itself. So administrators are forced to prioritize raising test scores. In turn, teachers must force students to focus on raising their test scores.

The idea that standardized tests can be a lever of advancement for people of color has some powerful roots. There was a time when black people and other US “minority” groups were excluded from public sector employment, for example. Working for the government in transportation, social services, or education, you pretty much had to know someone to get a foot in the door. When civil service exams were introduced, many (but not all) people who had previously been excluded were now at least potentially included. To this day, bus drivers, firefighters, and many other public sector employees get their positions by taking a test. In most people’s minds, a test is an opportunity, and believing in our children and encouraging our children means teaching them that they can pass anyone’s test.

For people who have experienced racism in the schools, standardized tests can seem like part of the solution. In 2013 I participated in an event at a public school where parents, educators, and students came to discuss high-stakes standardized testing. It seemed to me that most of the attendees were already opposed to the spread of such tests, but at least one man was on the fence. Toward the end of the discussion, this parent rose to ask a question. He was dark-skinned and had an accent I couldn’t place. His question, as I remember it, was something like: “I hear what you are saying about the problems of these tests, but what if a teacher doesn’t like my child or discriminates against my child? Isn’t the test more fair than the teacher’s judgment?” From where that man was sitting, the choice between a standardized test and a prejudiced teacher was no choice at all.

I once asked the Chicago public school teacher Xian Barrett how he deals with these thorny questions. His advice was simple: “When parents raise those difficult issues, that’s when you have to deepen the conversation.” I thought of Xian when I was sitting backstage with a black parent at a right-wing television talk show. He was about to go on the air and talk about how great his kid’s charter school was and why he supported school choice. I was about to go on to talk about how competition and choice were harmful to the universalist goals of public education. But instead of clashing backstage, we deepened the conversation. I asked him a lot of questions about his child’s charter school and what he liked so much about it. As it turned out, the things he liked were the things public school parents have been fighting for all along: small class sizes, real arts education, science labs—in a word, resources.

Likewise, when we deepen the conversation about standardized testing, we usually discover that parents and educators want similar things for our children. If standardized tests are widely and loudly touted as an antiracist measure of opportunity and fairness, some parents who are desperately searching for some measure of fairness for their children might latch onto that. Those of us who are opposed to high-stakes standardized testing shouldn’t moralize with people, or disparage their viewpoints or their experience. Rather, we have to validate their experience and find a way to deepen the conversation.

In my mind, we can find a lot of common ground on resources and curriculum. Of course, I think teacher training is important. It is absolutely essential that teachers be trained to respect the languages, cultures, and viewpoints of students and their families—and engage them in the learning process. But this should never lead us away from demanding the kind of educational redistribution that this country refuses to take seriously. My experience as a student has convinced me that resources are central. On scholarship, I attended an all-boys’ private high school. As one of the few students of color (let alone black students), did I experience racism and prejudice? Absolutely. However, there are aspects of my education that I wouldn’t trade for anything—the opportunity to read whole novels and discuss them in small classes, the opportunity to participate in several sports teams, to put on plays, to engage in organized debates, and to practice giving speeches. If, for my own child, I had to choose between an amazingly well-resourced school with a fabulously rich curriculum staffed with some prejudiced teachers, on the one hand, and a resource-starved school with progressive, antiracist educators who were forced to teach out of test-prep workbooks on the other, I hate to say it, but I would choose the resources every time.

Our society is currently spending untold sums to create more tests, more data systems, more test preparation materials, ad nauseam. And then they have the audacity to tell us that these are antiracist measures! Of course, all this focus on testing is a huge market opportunity for the private companies that provide all these services and materials. What is never under serious consideration is the idea that we could take all those same millions of dollars and create for all children the kind of cozy, relaxed, child-centered teaching and learning conditions that wealthy kids already enjoy. 

It’s not just that my students lost their science experiment. Science is about asking questions and learning how to find your own answers. It turns out that’s not a bad way to approach literature, or mathematics, or history, or art, or social studies, or anything else that you want to learn about. But formulating your own questions and then trying to figure out what you might do to answer them takes a great deal of time. And when you’re dealing with a population of students whose natural intelligence, curiosity, creativity, and brilliance tend not to register so well on standardized tests, then, if the stakes attached to those tests are high, time is one thing you don’t have. The survival of my school required us to spend a ridiculous amount of time in test-preparation mode. From that perspective, tests—and the high stakes associated with them—were most definitely not a measure of fairness or of justice or redistribution but actually meant my students spent even less time working with the resources they did have.

When I was a student in public elementary schools, I definitely took tests. I took tests created by the teachers and I even took some standardized tests. However, I never remember anyone encouraging me to prepare for them. I certainly do not remember feeling that my future, or the future of my teachers or of the school hung in the balance. Tests were just tests. I took them to show my teachers how I was doing, with almost no pressure attached. When I began my career as a public school elementary teacher in 2003, things were very different. A breaking point for me was the idea—presented to the staff in a professional development session—that the test itself should be the object of a genre study. Our reading and writing units were more or less organized around genres. One unit on poetry, another on memoir, the next on informational texts, and so on. Now we were to insert a new genre—the standardized test. Studying this genre required students to get into the head of the test-maker, understand their strategies for trickery, for offering false possible answers, for writing questions in a purposely confusing manner, and so on. And for the record: such lessons are effective. You can teach an eight-year-old how to do process of elimination in a multiple-choice test, and you can improve their scores by doing so. When wealthy students have to take a high-stakes test (the GREs, SATs, LSATs, or MCATs—and the value of even these are increasingly called into question), their parents often hire very expensive tutors who teach them the specific nature of the test. Do you lose points if you leave a question blank? If not, you might be better off leaving questions blank than attempting to answer them. That’s important to know! Or is it? Should an eight-year-old learn things like that? Is that justice? And given the fact that it is precisely those students who have the least resources who will inevitably have to spend the most time in preparation for these tests, we have to ask: is that fair?

My child is not yet eight, but when she is, I sincerely hope that she does not have to learn to think like a standardized test writer. I hope she gets to dance, and play pretend, write what’s on her mind, and ask great questions. Among other things, I also hope she gets to conduct real science experiments. And while she’s at it, I hope her teachers’ supervisors wouldn’t dare interrupt her.

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