Civil rights, discrimination, and standardized testing

By Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education

How standardized tests harm children of color, and what we can do about it

FairTest’s recent report on the growing national resistance to standardized testing suggested that the movement is composed primarily of white or privileged protesters, and that communities of color are more likely to be unconcerned about standardized testing or even to consider it a necessary tool for holding schools accountable. Civil rights organizations such as MALDEF and the NAACP, continue to support annual standardized testing, which has provided data advocates have used in some legal cases.

While appreciating the need for accountability, including the continued reporting of disaggregated student achievement data that these groups seek to protect, critics of high-stakes standardized testing believe a better job can be done using multiple assessments that more accurately diagnose learning needs without promoting the high stakes testing environment which has been most harmful to low-income students, students of color, English-language learners and students with special educational needs.

FairTest’s report also indicated that parents and groups representing students of color have become more aware of the link between high-stakes testing and school closure, teacher firings, and student retention.

For the testing resistance movement to grow as a multiracial, multicultural coalition, and for the movement to gain more allies in the civil rights community, the facts about the disproportionate negative impact of standardized testing on students of color must be more clearly and effectively communicated. This paper is one effort to raise the red flag on standardized testing’s racial, cultural, and economic discrimination, and we hope that the accompanying 2-page fact sheet will provide a useful tool for sharing this important information with parents, students, concerned community members, and policy makers.

Racial bias in standardized testing

In a message published in the February 2014 issue of Chicago Union Teacher magazine, then CTU President Karen G J Lewis wrote:

What many people do not know is that the use of standardized tests has its origins in the Eugenics movement, where basic tenets assert that certain races are inferior to others biologically and intellectually. From our 21st century perspective, we can look back in horror, but we have to be clear about the original purpose of standardized tests. The original IQ tests were designed by French psychologist Alfred Binet for benign and limited uses: a) on young children who were not developing “normally”; b) as “general” tools to make “general” decisions, not a precise measurement for precise decisions; and c) to signal when a child needed more help in their intellectual development. Unfortunately in the United States, IQ scores were posited to be fixed and innate, and were promptly used to rank and sort individuals by race and ethnic background. Businesses, government agencies and educational institutions used IQ tests to justify placing certain people into certain jobs and excluding them from others….

Ask yourselves whether you want to be part of a legacy born of the unholy alliance between the concept of “natural inequality” and the drudgery that has been imposed on many of our classrooms. Do your own research and let’s start to have the discussions on what is fair, equitable and good for our children.

A FairTest fact sheet, “Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing,” states that “young people of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most as the explosion of high-stakes standardized testing in U.S. public education has undermined equity and school quality.”

According to FairTest, decades of research demonstrate that African American, Latino and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience the following problems with high stakes testing, from early childhood through college entrance.

  • They disproportionately fail state or local high school graduation exams. Those tests provide no social or educational benefit. They do not improve college or employment readiness. Not having diploma leads to higher rates of unemployment and imprisonment and lower rates of forming stable families.
  • Students in these groups are more likely to be held back in grade because of low test scores. Grade retention produces no long-term academic benefits; it undermines self-esteem and doubles the likelihood of dropping out. Boys are subject to this damage more often than are girls.
  • Because, on average, students of color score lower on college admissions tests (SAT and ACT), many capable youth are denied entrance or access to so-called “merit” scholarships, contributing to the huge racial gap in college enrollments and completion.
  • Schools at times suspend, expel, “counsel out” or otherwise remove students with low scores in order to boost school results and escape test-based sanctions mandated by the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” law, at great cost to the youth and ultimately society.
  • As Claude Steele and his colleagues have demonstrated, “stereotype threat” increases the likelihood that students of color will have inaccurately low scores. Stereotype threat means that students who are aware ofracial and gender stereotypes about their group’s intellectual ability score lower on standardized tests perceived to measure academic aptitude. In effect, the use of high-stakes testing in an overall environment of racial inequality perpetuates that inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test-takers.
  • High stakes testing causes additional damage to the many students of color who are English language learners. The tests are often inaccurate for ELLs, leading to misplacement or retention. ELLs are, alongside students with disabilities, those least likely to pass graduation tests.
  • African Americans, especially boys, are disproportionately placed or misplaced in special education, frequently based on test results. These programs often fail to fully educate them

(Citations for this FairTest fact sheet can be found at http://fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf)

A PURE Fact Sheet, “Bias in Standardized Tests,” adds to this list of concerns, stating that “although in recent years test makers have attempted to address concerns about test bias by establishing review committees to ‘scour’ the tests for bias, and by using statistical procedures, significant problems remain in the content of the questions, the cultural assumptions inherent in the ‘wanted’ answers, etc.”

Here are just a few examples from PURE’s Fact Sheet:

Discriminatory item selection:Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, which provides test preparation programs for the college-entrance Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), reported in 2003 that potential SAT questions which are answered correctly more often by black students than white students are rejected by the test makers. This was apparently done to assure that test results (showing African-Americans scoring lower than whites) would be “consistent” from year to year.

Outright racism:A series of questions on the 2006 global history New York State Regents exam asked students to describe how Africa “benefitted” from imperialism. Using this 150-year-old quote: “We are endeavoring … to teach the native races to conduct their own affairs with justice and humanity, and to educate them alike in letters and in industry,” students were asked to name “two ways the British improved the lives of Africans.”

Socio-economic bias masquerading as cultural diversity:The 2006 New York State Regents third grade reading practice test used the example of African-American tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams to ask children questions about tennis “doubles” and country clubs.

Accidental (?) bias: In 2001, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) included a reading passage taken from Ann Cameron’s book, More Stories Julian Tells. The book is about an African-American family and is familiar to many African-American children, but the illustrations showed a white family.

Lack of cultural awareness:A Latina “bias reviewer” caught this item while reviewing questions prepared for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. “I remember one question that showed a picture of a couch on a porch and asked, ‘What doesn’t fit?’ ” she says. “I started laughing…the way I grew up, everyone had a couch outside.”

PURE also warns, “Watch forthe increasing use of ‘feeling’ questions which supposedly evaluate the student’s ability to construct meaning from the text but may also evoke a wide variety of life experiences resulting in ‘wrong’ answers.

What can be done?

According to FairTest, solutions to these problems exist. They recommend that organizations and individuals work to bring about these changes:

1. Congress must address the structural and resource inequities that plague communities with high concentrations of low-income students, most intensely those of color. This means providing adequate school resources and addressing the intertwined consequences of poverty and racism that make it very difficult for most students to reach high levels of success in school.

2. Congress must over haul ESEA/NCLB. (The current version of NCLB is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA.) It must end high-stakes uses of tests to evaluate schools and districts. Standardized test scores should be one minor factor in evaluating school status and progress. Congress also must reject the Department of Education’s policy of pressuring states to use test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. Tests should be only a minor factor in staff evaluations. States and districts must then follow suit.

3. States and districts must end high-stakes uses of standardized tests. No student should be held back, denied a diploma or placed in an academic track based on a test score. If used, tests should be only a minor factor, while the various tests must be improved.

4. Congress and the states must support proven positive forms of assessment coupled with professional development that enables effective uses of such assessments. In addition, they must provide supports for ensuring schools are hospitable, engaging, supportive and academically challenging for all their students.

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