Race and the Standardized Testing Wars

Kate Taylor, New York Times, April 23, 2016

When the parents of more than 200,000 pupils in the third through eighth grades in New York chose to have their children sit out standardized state tests last spring, major civil rights organizations were quick to condemn their decision, along with similar movements in Colorado, Washington and New Jersey.

Reliable testing results, they argued, broken down by race, income and disability status, were critical in holding schools accountable for providing equal education for all. By refusing to have their children participate, the parents were “inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child,” according to a statement by the groups.

Because the families opting out were disproportionately white and middle class, testing proponents dismissed them as coddled suburbanites, while insisting that urban parents, who had graver concerns about the quality of their children’s schools, were supportive of the tests. Earlier this year, proponents of testing began using the hashtag #OptOutSoWhite–a spin on the #OscarsSoWhite social-media campaign–to suggest that testing opposition was a form of white privilege.

Yet as testing season unfolds this year, the debate is becoming murkier. More minority educators, parents and students are criticizing the tests, opening a rift with civil rights groups and black and Hispanic educators who support testing, like Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

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Some even suspect that part of the tests’ purpose is to identify future dropouts and criminals. There is a persistent myth that some states use reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they will need in the future. Although there is no evidence to support it, the rumor continues to be repeated, perhaps because it reflects a suspicion in some communities that the policy makers promoting the tests and the companies writing them don’t want to raise poor students up but instead keep them in their place.

While there is little evidence thus far of a major groundswell of nonwhite, urban students opting out of testing, the battle lines are clearly shifting.

On April 15, a group of racially mixed high school students in Baltimore walked out of school and rallied outside the district’s headquarters to protest their state exam, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The students expressed frustration over the underfunding of their schools and the lack of culturally relevant courses and said they did not want to take the tests until those problems were addressed.

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In a rap video produced by the Baltimore Algebra Project, the youth advocacy group that organized the student protest this month, one singer lamented: “They really using this test to tell what I’m-a be/They probably want me in jail or probably in the streets.”

Pro-testing educators say they are listening closely to the calls by black and Hispanic parents and students for a richer educational experience, although some point out that the era before standardized testing was hardly better.

In a speech this month, Mr. King acknowledged that in many schools “the balance has shifted too much away from subjects outside of math and English–the subjects that can spark students’ passion and excitement about learning.”

As a counterexample, he pointed to Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of Washington’s public schools, who has made it a requirement that all second graders learn how to ride a bicycle.

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But she also said that doing away with the tests would be most damaging to black and Latino students and those with disabilities. “Before No Child Left Behind, there were lots of schools where parents thought their kids were going to great schools, but after you disaggregated the results, you figured out that black kids and Latino kids or special-ed kids were actually worse off” than similar students in less high-performing schools, she said. “We need to know that kind of information. I don’t ever want to go back to a time when we don’t know.”

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