Education: Standardized Testing

ROUNDUP WEEK 40  – MARCH 5, 2021

Hi friends,

It’s Friday and we’re back to continue our series on racism and the education system, this time with an abbreviated but important lesson about standardized testing. We won’t wax poetic about whiteness and shame and how it’s okay to feel whatever you feel reading and remembering your own experiences within the education system, but know that we’re here for it if you want to process (aloud or via email) your thoughts on what we’re reading. We’ll have a dialogue soon, too, but for now, let’s hop to it.

We know we all come into these newsletters from different knowledge bases and professions, so we’ll try to explain some important key terms up front. 

Title I Schools

The basic principle of Title I is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to help meet students’ educational goals. The number of low-income students is determined by the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced price lunch program. Title I funds are limited to certain uses but generally are used for improving curriculum, instructional activities, counseling, parental involvement, increasing staff, and program improvement.

The kicker is this: schools must meet “adequate yearly progress on state testing” to continue to receive Title I funds.  
“Achievement Gap”

The achievement gap refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students, most often between white students and students of color. The achievement gap is identified primarily through gaps in test scores (both class-specific and standardized tests), dropout rates, course-selection, and college-completion, among other metrics. Usually, the disparities measured are racially and socioeconomically based—between white students and Black/Latino students and between Title I schools and their neighboring middle-income counterparts.

In the past decade, scholars have emphasized the importance of assessing this gap based on other factors as well, particularly first-language English students versus English Language Learners (students whose first language is something other than English). Scholarship has also expanded to include “achievement” disparities based on genders and learning disabilities. 


During the Bush-Gore election of 2000, the Bush administration ran on the premise of “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) as a means of creating standards-based metrics for educational achievement, particularly for Title I school districts. (As a first grader, Emily loved this. She recently found a journal in which she had drawn a poster for GWB that said “NO KID LEFT OUT!” so, obviously, she had a clear grasp on the complexities of the situation).

Through what seemed like a semi-clear, well-intentioned goal of creating a more level educational playing field for students in Title I schools, the Act prioritized high-stakes standardized testing as the sole means for assessing students and educators. NCLB also provided statistics that could help close the achievement gap and purported to do so through the following measures: 

Annual testing: Schools had to give students statewide math and reading tests every year in grades 3–8 and once in grades 10–12. Parents had the right to get individual test results for their children. Schools had to publicly report school and “subgroup” results. For example, schools had to report how students in special education were performing on reading and math tests.

  • Academic progress: States had to bring all students, including those in special education, up to the “proficient” level on tests. They had to set targets for improvement, called adequate yearly progress (AYP). Schools basically got a report card from the state on how they were performing. The school had to share that information with parents of their students. If a school didn’t meet AYP, it could be labeled as “needing improvement.”
  • Penalties: Schools with many low-income students were called “Title I schools.” If a Title I school didn’t meet AYP, NCLB allowed the state to change the school’s leadership team or even close the school. If a school repeatedly failed to meet AYP, parents had the option to move their children to another school.

AYP goals and sanctions were supposed to push schools to improve services and instruction for struggling students, including children in special education. These penalties didn’t apply to non–Title I schools. 

Federal laws have to be reauthorized fairly frequently so, after a few years in limbo past its reauthorization set date, NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which kept many of its core provisions, but largely shifted the assessment standards to be reviewed at the state level, though the federal government still retains broad oversight and regulatory powers. What did not change with the new act was that standardized testing was still being used to evaluate schools, now allowing states to implement a second measure to supplement standardized test scores as a measure of school success (i.e. school safety or access to advanced coursework). 


In the 19 years since NCLB ushered in rigid annual testing measures the achievement gap has not budged or narrowed. And conversations about the achievement gap might be doing more harm than good. A Harvard-USC joint study found that “achievement gap discourse” leads to student deficit-based explanations rather than structural explanations for disparities between students, which contributes to both implicit and explicit stereotypes within school districts and classrooms alike.

Problems with standardized testing don’t end with the harms of achievement gap discourse, however. Oftentimes, preparing students for standardized testing means sacrificing in other areas of learning – the arts, experiential learning, socioemotional learning through gym class, recess, or electives. And schools with the most at risk during test season (Title I schools whose funding can be tied directly to their students’ performance) often implement the strictest requirements for student behavior leading up to the tests. In recent years, this well-intended orientation toward “hard work” has contributed to a flood of semi-arbitrary, untested behavioral adjustments: students must sit in “scholarly position” (sitting up straight with hands folded at all times unless students are writing), have limited social interaction time throughout the day, and lose time doing “non-academic” activities like music class or P.E. to prepare for tests or as a consequence for not meeting aforementioned behavioral standards.

Despite good intentions behind prioritizing academic achievement, withholding rest and play from students in low-income schools can contribute to a broader opportunity gap, lower self-esteem, and greater academic discontentment (among other issues) for those students. And at the end of the day, this is one more way academic disparities play out in real time (students at middle-income schools don’t have such rigid behavioral expectations! They don’t lose important socialization times throughout the day because someone in a class wasn’t sitting in “scholarly position” during a math lesson!). It’s worth mentioning that both Ellie and Emily have worked at schools that upheld these rigid standards, in part because they bought into the allure of the school boasting an achievement gap reversal between low income students of color and their white counterparts. This topic is layered and nuanced and one that we still grapple with constantly.

Alfie Kohn, educational theorist and known critic of standardized tests (we know, we know, clearly not an unbiased source, but very much someone who understands the nuance of his own position and has written extensively on the topic) notes that tests are unreliable indicators of student wellbeing or parental satisfaction. Using standardized tests as the ultimate metric for students’ academic performance was never even meant to assess or improve their academic experiences, but rather, to separate students – the “high achievers” from the “low achievers,” often along race and class lines. 


We won’t go too deep into this but it’s worth noting that there is a multibillion dollar industry created and bolstered by the standardized test score-induced education crisis. Linda Perlstein, author of Tested, notes her surprise at the number of consultants and education programs that buzz around schools, selling packaged curricula and test-boosters. These companies include everything from the Open Court reading script from McGraw-Hill (for which districts have paid $7 million for just one year), Saxon Math, Corrective Reading, Soar to Success, SpellRead, Brain Gym (which presents a New Age set of exercises called Education Kinesiology), Second Step (violence prevention), Ace Your Test, Polishing the Apple, Total Quality Management, and the Positive Behavioral Intervention System. None of these are necessarily a bad thing, we’re just noting their existence and their obvious economic interest in keeping standardized tests as a core component of our education system.

Think back to all of the SAT, ACT, LSAT, PSAT, MCAT, bar prep, etc. programs that we are willing to pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to access. There is an entire industry dependent upon students needing additional assistance to pass aptitude tests at all levels. (Emily is particularly salty about this as she just paid an inordinate amount of money for a summer bar prep course that will test virtually nothing that she’ll need to know to be a public defender. But it’s fine! She’s fine!). 


Beyond the ways that annual public school standardized test scores relate to racially disparate outcomes for students, here’s just a tidbit of the racist roots of some other standardized tests:

  • The SAT – the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” was born as an intelligence test after a “wave of nonwhite immigrants” entered the United States in the 1920s. It was a way for the nation’s white Anglo-Saxon protestant leaders to sort the new arrivals based on “intellect.” The test’s developer was then recruited by the College Board to create the foundation for the SAT in 1926. 
  • The Bar Exam (for incoming lawyers) was developed as a means of excluding Black lawyers after the American Bar Association accidentally admitted three Black lawyers in 1914. The ABA continued to explicitly exclude Black applicants until 1943.
  • The LSAT and MCAT require resources to prepare adequately (both in the form of money for test registration, prep programs, and expensive study books, and in the form of time, as test preparation requires a LOT of energy and effort). The LSAT tests logical reasoning and other non-classroom courses, requiring students to use extra resources and time, which proves to be a major barrier for low-income students, many of whom are students of color, as they cannot afford the study materials or the time away from paid jobs to adequately prepare for these tests.


Perhaps one place we start making the playing field a little more equitable is by reframing the conversation about what the gap even is. Students from low-income backgrounds aren’t “achieving” less, they are afforded fewer opportunities. Title I schools aren’t inherently “bad schools,” they have been systematically deprived of the resources of neighboring districts (see, Tuesday’s conversation about redlining, for example). Students aren’t “low-achieving,” they are deprived of necessary resources and opportunities. As we work toward a world where our classrooms produce more equitable outcomes, it’s important that our language actually points to the gap we’re trying to fill: opportunities and resources, not “achievement.”

We also want to note that while race, zip codes, and the economic circumstance a person is born into may be arbitrary, the systems that assign and allocate power based on those factors are not. While it’s tempting to reduce conversations about the opportunity gap to some sort of “random chance”/”it could be any of us” message, the truth is, these gaps exist because we have a history of policy choices that enable and perpetuate these disparities. We’ll get into those choices next week. 

Until then, we’ll be catching up on Tracie Hunte and the Atlantic’s new podcast, The Experiment, about United States history, present and future, and watchingJudas and the Black Messiah before it gets taken off HBO next week. Have a safe and restful weekend!

In Solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: