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.