Do standardized achievement tests unfairly advantage white and Asian students and disadvantage the rest? According to a group of educational organizations and civil rights groups the answer is yes. The recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education pointing out that black and Latino students in New York score below whites and Asians on standardized tests so consistently that although they are almost 70% of the overall student body, they are only 11% of students enrolled at elite public schools. As a result, the complaint argues that New York City is in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because schools rely on a test that advantages one racial group over another.
This is not the only instance where race has become an important factor for how standardized tests are used in public education. Just last month public schools in both Virginia and Washington D.C. announced targets for how many students in each racial group must pass for schools to remain in good standing. For example, in Virginia only 45% of black students in each school must pass standardized math tests while 68% of whites, and 82% of Asians must do the same. Officials say that these plans are not discriminatory because students who are the farthest behind must progress the most, but critics reason that if one expects less from some students, those lower educational expectations will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for school districts and those students will fall even farther behind.
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What these recent developments make clear is that instead of setting different educational benchmarks for groups based on race or income, it may simply be time for us to stop relying so heavily on standardized tests to begin with. Though opinions differ as to why, on k-12 achievement tests and college entrance exams, lower income students, as well as black and Latino students, consistently score below privileged white and Asian students. These gaps persist despite decades of research and numerous studies attempting to explain and then close them. One theory suggests that students with grandparents who have graduated from college always score higher, suggesting that the tests unfairly penalize students who are the first in their family to attend college. Whatever the explanation, it is difficult to reconcile why we rely on such tests when we know that they so heavily advantage some and disadvantage others.
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And if the standardized testing gap between racial minorities is bad, it’s nothing compared to the gap between the poor and the wealthy. For example, one recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the gap for achievement test scores between rich and poor have grown by almost 60% since the 1960s and are now almost twice as large as the gap between white students and children of other races. The playing field is far from level when we continue to use tests where we know at the outset that wealthy students will do better than less wealthy students and white and Asian students will outperform blacks and Latinos.
One thing all this research has shown us is that the issue lies with how we use these tests, not with the kids who take them. Just consider the history of standardized tests which — according to Columbia University Professor Nicholas Lemann’s history of the Educational Testing Service, The Big Test: The Secret History of America’s Meritocracy — were first developed in the 1940s as a way to exclude Jewish students from Ivy League campuses. Interestingly, Stanley Kaplan, today one of the largest test preparation organizations, got its start when Mr. Kaplan resolved to come up with test-taking techniques to “beat the test” and ensure that such students did well.
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Today, as an acknowledgment of the inherent racial and economic inequity of standardized achievement tests, hundreds of colleges have already stopped requiring the SAT for college admission decisions. However, the same cannot be said for k-12, where scores on achievement tests are in part used for everything from admitting students to prestigious public schools to placing students in gifted or remedial programs, allocating federal funding, and even evaluating teachers.
A growing number of parents, school boards, teachers and civil rights organizations are beginning to question the fairness of our overreliance on standardized tests and recently over 300 groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund signed a petition to ask congress to ban the use of such tests. Given the recent developments in Washington D.C. and Virginia, it would seem that it’s about time.