Standardized Tests are a form of Racial Profiling

A familiar refrain in education circles is that standardized tests are changing public education. With the rise of standardized testing there has been the loss of the arts and music in curriculum and increased stress among children, youth and teachers. A recent survey reported over half of  teachers are considering leaving the profession because of the ill effects of standardized testing on their profession. Research report after research report has demonstrated the invalidity of the tests themselves.  Kate Menken, a linguist and professor at CUNY determined that the New York ELA Regents’ exam (a high school exit exam required for graduation)  is not a valid measure of academic content knowledge for youth learning English, given that the oft-idiomatic or culturally-specific English used on the test is challenging to someone newly learning the language. (Given that  the city of New York was recently sued for failing to provide services to support ELLs, it would seem to make sense that the Regents’ not be used as a measure of academic achievement or gateway to high school graduation until the Dept of Ed was able to provide a good program to prepare them for the tests. But that is a different argument for a different blog.)

What I would like to share here is what I have seen happen to young people trying to take the Regents’ exam: ELLs — who are currently 14,4% of the student population in NYC have the highest drop out rates of any student sub-group population in the city. At the high school where I conduct research in downtown Manhattan, immigrant 11th and 12th grade youth take the ELA Regents’ six, seven, and eight times hoping to pass. Some age out of high school, begin working full time and come back to school solely for specialized Regents’ prep classes in hopes of passing. It is like this sophisticated form of torture. Smart, talented kids with their eyes full of the American Dream taking and retaking a test to earn just a few passing points by answering questions about “straw bales” (that’s a real question). They cannot attend college without a high school diploma (or GRE), and they can’t get a high school diploma without passing the Regents. It is a fun-house of mirrors.

English-speaking black and brown youth may do poorly on standardized tests too, and from this policy-makers have lots to say about the “achievement gap.” (Some of us now prefer to call this an “opportunity gap”). Poor test-taking is due to a constellation of factors, including the racial and cultural bias of tests and lack of resources for test preparation. And then there is stereotype threat (Steele and Aronson, 1995): a psychological effect whereby people who believe themselves to belong to a failing group in turn perform poorly.

I want to take all this further here and push deeper, because many people extol the ills of standardized testing in schools and yet the tests are still administered— and more of them every year.  I don’t know that it is enough to simply say the tests are invalid and harmful. Rather, I think we should call a spade a spade: standardized tests are a function of white supremacy, a way to maintain the white power elite, and a method of racial profiling in schools.

Racially profiling is understood as the act of targeting particular groups of people because of their race. We usually think of the targeting as done by law enforcement, and racial profiling is usually thought of as traffic and pedestrian stops, raids on immigrant communities, and the ejection of Muslim Americans and South Asians on airlines and at airports.

Tests are a form of racial profiling because they provide a way for school districts and education reformers to frame black, brown and immigrant youth in particular ways and target the education services that these youth then receive. When a child’s knowledge, worth and assets are reduced to a test score, assumptions can be made about that child’s intelligence (and by extension the intelligence of the child’s racial group). To “help” the child failing the test an array of expensive for-profit services are put into place at the expense of recess and social studies and fun and joy. Let’s take away art and have a double serving of drill and kill vocabulary, shall we? In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education, released the findings of the first nationwide arts survey reporting an “equity gap” between the availability of arts instruction as well as the richness of course offerings for students in low-poverty schools compared to those in high-poverty schools, leading students who are economically disadvantaged to not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students.

My point is– standardized tests create test scores which are then used to target students of color by limiting the creative depth, intellectual wealth, and variety of their education. Producing test scores is an act of racial profiling. The alternative, here, is to opt young people out of tests, which means opting children out of this particular form of racial profiling. If they (the district, the power elite, the mayor, the education corporate reformers) do not have a young person’s test score, then they cannot assign value or worth to that particular young person. Test refusal is refusing racial profiling and saying yes to dignity and anti-racist, humanizing schooling.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. beetsyg says:

    Very well argued, Christine. I think there is more than enough evidence now that what standardized tests prove is whether someone is rich and white or not. They do not access what students know, just how much money their parents have (which could be easily determined without subjecting them to the tortures of inane tests).


    1. Thank you Betsy! Yes, I was in dialogue with some folks about race at an education justice conference here in NYC and it just hit me… this is simply racial profiling. That all. Racism is so insidious.


  2. Mary Sawyer says:

    I agree with you that standardized tests are penurious insults to the intelligence and the educational opportunities for students of color, and I like your idea about thinking of them as a form of Racial Profiling. But could we also argue that these tests have also hijacked the education for even the most elite and priviledged students who stay in public schools? And what might we say about the time spent by all our youth on scoring well on the exams beyond Regents…the SAT and AP scores, etc. and then the MCATS, GRES, LSATs, GMATs, etc. . What role should these tests be playing in our educational system?


    1. I think we can say that the tests have hijacked education for the elite, but the elite have a safety net to fall back on that those in economically under-resourced areas, mostly black and brown youth and rural whites, do not have. Black and brown youth are economically-underresourced because of housing, banking and economic policies that target low-income families and continue to maintain U.S. poverty. So yes, while the elite may be inconvenienced by testing, others are targeted by testing with higher-stakes for dignity and economic/self-sustaining capabilities.


  3. Joe says:

    What I find interesting and frustrating, Christine, is that many civil rights groups stand staunchly against the op-out movement and against the push back on standardized tests. (See Their fear is that if states stop testing, they can make claims about having made progress in closing the achievement gap which cannot be disputed. They would, in effect, be off the hook for addressing the disparities in education. Keep in mind that many in the African American community supported NCLB because they saw it as forcing states to take responsibility for the uneven conditions in schools which helped to maintain the opportunity gap (a term some prefer to achievement gap). States, of course, have been quite adroit in slipping that accountability off of their shoulders and onto the shoulders of teachers and their unions. The civil rights groups point to the fact that opt-out is largely a middle and upper class white phenomenon, and they find this suspicious. As the letter they released in May stated, “We can’t fix what we can’t measure.”

    To be sure, not all Civil Rights groups agree. There are some who would find your assessment spot on. Still, I think it’s worth considering what we might put in place to make sure that states continue to feel pressure to make things right in education, should we succeed in pulling the teeth out of the testing movement.


  4. Snowball says:

    Perhaps you’ve discussed this before, but what alternatives to standardized testing do you propose to gauge subject competency?


    1. I really like the movement around portfolio assessment. They are doing great things with portfolios in some schools … Check out the Consortium schools in NYC.


    2. Joe says:

      I find this an interesting question, Snowball, but it brings up another question in my mind. Do you feel that teachers are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to gauge the level of subject competency their students have achieve? For hundreds of years, teachers were trusted to be the ones to create assessments and identify the level of student achievement. I’m not sure what we have gained by moving that responsibility to one-size fits all tests. Realistically, are we getting more knowledgeable people from this vast array of standardized tests than we were getting from teacher-vetted students?


  5. Given my personal experiences and the ultimate ability of my parents to insulate me from the violence that plagued my community I am absolutely convinced that in an environment in which violence is the norm learning is very negatively impacted. I believe this to be a much more significant issue than mere poverty since poverty does not necessarily mean violence in the community is commonplace. While anecdotal in large part I have never encountered anyone who grew up surrounded by violence who does not agree that fear for one’s personal safety is far more impactful than any other single factor. I remember walking home many times worried that one or more individuals who did not believe I was “Mexican enough” because of my father would be waiting for me around some corner or, and this actually happened, hiding in bushes. Ultimately my parents made the decision to relocate the family to a place this issue did not exist. In dealing with those in the educational field I have found an almost complete ignorance regarding the issues effecting children who grow up surrounded by violence. While I believe the vast majority of children, all other things being equal, would do well on standardized tests, when those tests and the presumed learning behind them have no basis in the real lives of those students being tested low scores are inevitable.


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