Standardized testing has been recognized and criticized for being part of the picture of structural racism for some time. Standardized testing specifically refers to uniform measures of knowledge, learning or intellect. Because standardized tests generally measure information and skills that people acquire through schooling, they will often reflect differences caused by educational discrimination. In other words, people who do not receive good quality education do not generally perform as well on standardized tests. However, standardized tests are used as measures of individual effort, intelligence and future performance rather than as evidence of educational inequality. As a consequence they help prevent students of color, especially though not only those with fewer economic resources, from getting access to higher education and sometimes from being finishing secondary education (i.e., graduate high school).
What is Eugenics
The “Eugenics” movement, also associated with the concept of “racial hygiene”, was based on the idea that social groups were inherently different based on genetics, or DNA. Eugenicists believed that Caucasian people were, based on genetics, more intelligent, more likely to behave morally or ethically, and less susceptible to diseases, defects, or disabilities (and less likely to pass them on to children). Eugenic ideals promoted the concept of a normal, American who was white, Anglo-Saxon, and free of disabilities or physical deformities. In addition, eugenicists attempted to measure physical differences whether in human brains or physical structure, in order to predict psychological and intellectual performance.
In Europe, the Eugenics movement helped to create the philosophy of Nazism, contributing to the genocide of Jews, Roma people, and others deemed inferior, as well as the sterilization of Afro-German women, during World War II. There were many offshoots of the Eugenics movement in the U.S., including a period when working class and poor whites and mixed-race people, deemed likely to contaminate the white race, were mass sterilized to prevent pregnancy.
The Birth of IQ Testing
Intelligence Quotient, or IQ testing, was one of the first forms of standardized testing used in the United States. Eugenicists promoted IQ tests, grounded in the theories of Alfred Binet, a French psychologist who in 1905, developed a measure of “mental age”, based on the idea of measuring intelligence relative to chronological age (how old one is). His formula, (mental age/chronological age x 100) was used to develop intelligence quotients. In the U.S., IQ tests based on Binet’s theories contained information about white American culture and language primarily, and as a result white, U.S. born people tended to consistently receive the highest scores when taking them. Eugenics advocates used IQ tests to “prove” the theory of eugenics, since they supposedly demonstrated that white Americans were smarter than other racial and national groups. IQ tests continued to be used during the 20th century, at times to determine where children should be placed in school tracking systems, and are still sometimes applied today, particularly in diagnosing learning disabilities.
Stereotype threat refers to the impact of hearing or reading negative stereotypes about one’s race, gender, or other identities such as disability, as it affects testing performance. Piloted by social psychologist Claude Steele and others, the theory of stereotype threat is supported by substantial evidence indicating that negative stereotypes can be “internalized,” meaning that students take them in and either partially believe them or feel less confident and secure in their intelligence. Stereotype threat has particularly negative consequences for African Americans, Latinos, and Native students. Research also indicates that stereotype threat can affect female students and students with disabilities. Study of stereotype threat and “intersectionality”—or the interaction between more than one form of discrimination – also tells us that for female students of color and students of color with disabilities, the effects of stereotype threat can be more intense or worse.
Barriers to Testing Access
Students of color are more likely to have a number of forms of disability, especially those that may be caused by malnutrition, lack of prenatal care for pregnant mothers, or psychological stress associated with racism and/or poverty. In addition students of color may develop conditions like asthma due to living in poor neighborhoods that are more likely to be polluted by powerful corporations, affecting air and drinking water. This practice, known as “environmental racism” creates higher rates of various health problems for African American, Latino, Native, and some Asian and Middle Eastern communities. Although disability is more common amongst some groups of people of color, students of color are less likely than white students to receive adequate disability accommodations in schools. This can affect standardized test performance because students of color may face more obstacles to learning than white students with disabilities and therefore are less prepared for testing. In addition many students with disabilities across racial groups require disability accommodations – such as extended time, low-distraction environments, or screen readers (for visual disabilities) – in order to take tests and perform well. Because white students are more likely to have received appropriate disability accommodations in their K-12 education, they are better able to qualify for testing accommodations for tests for graduation or college admission, because they can document the need for continuing accommodations. That is, those who have gotten more disability rights and resources are more likely to keep qualify for those resources. As a consequence, students of color with disabilities are severely disadvantaged by standardized tests.
Cultural Bias in Test Construction
Standardized tests often measure knowledge of literature, language, or concepts that white students are more likely to have been exposed to both through better funded educational environments and through participation in white culture, particularly among those with more class privilege (i.e. middle and upper class students). Studies of cultural bias also indicate that school curriculum is heavily geared towards racially dominant norms, and that students are more resistant to learning material that contains negative cultural stereotypes or alternately that ignores or under-represents their own cultures. As a consequence white students will often feel more “at home” in areas like social studies, history, and English or literature, particularly if they have not been taught using “multicultural” or culturally inclusive content.
Standardized Tests Measure Educational Privilege More Than Intelligence or Potential
Aside from the problems of stereotype threat, barriers to testing for students with disabilities, and cultural bias, a major criticism of standardized testing focuses on what it measures: the extent to which a student has already acquired knowledge through education. Poor schooling, or “educational disparities” (inequalities in education based on race or other categories), result in students getting less individual attention from teachers, having fewer learning aids such as computers, games, field trips, or other resources, out of date textbooks, and often facing more discipline or policing in schools. All of these may result in students acquiring less knowledge or skills, because they are not well taught or get fewer options for learning. Therefore although standardized tests may measure differences in intelligence or learning between students who actually have the same resources and backgrounds, on the large scale, what they measure best is who has had access to higher or lower quality education. As a way to measure the success or failure of schools, they may be useful – for instance, if female students or students of color as a group are performing poorly, then that tells us that educational discrimination is continuing. However, they are instead used to judge or evaluate students as learners and individuals – whether they should be allowed to advance, graduate, or go to college. As a consequence, they become part of the pattern by which under-privileged students are reframed as less intelligent, or less hard-working, and less deserving of higher education or employment opportunity.
High School Exit Exams are also known as “High Stakes Testing”, because their consequences, allowing students to graduate or not, are so important for students’ futures. The proposed purpose of exit exams are to ensure that schools adequately educate students before they graduate. However, exit exams have been heavily criticized because they can prove to be a barrier to graduation for students who do not test as well, but who have earned the right to a high school degree. As with other areas of standardized testing, exit exams show disparities in test performance for certain groups, particularly students of color (excepting some Asian-American populations), English language learners, and students with disabilities. Students who fail exit exams are at very high risk for dropping out entirely, as it is discouraging to complete all the work needed to get a high school degree, and then have to face remedial education or more time before completion. Students without a high school degree occasionally will pursue later community college or higher education, after completing a GED (General Equivalency Diploma), but are much less likely to do so than those who graduate high school. Students who do not complete high school are also at a severe disadvantage in college admissions.
Below are four key talking points for students and advocates who want to stop or prevent the use of exit exams as a barrier to high school graduation:
1) Exit exams have been shown to be discriminatory: High stakes testing disadvantages students with disabilities, African-American, Latino, and Native students, and students in the process of learning English. Test content is sometimes culturally biased, often disadvantages students who work hard and learn well but do not perform well in high pressure situations (such as students with disabilities), and is timed so that students who read English more slowly are at a disadvantage.
2) Refusing to grant a student a degree is not a good remedy for failures in the school system: Students who have received poor education due to lack of school funding may indeed be under-prepared for standardized tests, but may have worked hard with the limited resources available to them. When students do not pass standardized tests in high numbers from particular school districts, or from particular groups it may be very important to evaluate the school and its resources. But to make graduation contingent on passing indicates that students who go to poorly funded schools will have less of a chance or right to get a high school degree. This is a discriminatory practice.
3) Students who do not get high school degrees lose opportunities: Failure to graduate high school predicts increased risk of imprisonment, lower chances for middle- or upper-class income, and higher risks of poverty, health problems, and homelessness. A high school degree is an economic and social resource, that students need in order to ensure future life chances.
4) Exit Exams don’t work well. They don’t always accurately predict later success: Exit exams are limited tools, which can’t control for limitations in the students’ present learning environment, rely on particular testing mechanisms that don’t apply well to all types of learners, and take place in high pressure environments that are best able to test the ability to take tests, rather than learning throughout K-12 education.