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'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.' (Photo: AP/file)

Standardized Tests are a Form of Racial Profiling

Several days before writing this blog post, I visited a 12th grade class that I have been following since the beginning of their 11th grade year. I am a researcher and I study how education policy affects teachers and students in their daily lives. The youth I work with are all immigrants, students of color, and learning English as a second language. I sat next to student I didn’t recognize and asked the teacher who he was. The teacher explained the boy was simply in the class to try to pass the NY Regents’ exam—the test all high schoolers in New York state have to take in order to graduate from high school.

The boy had all the credits necessary for high school graduation, but hadn’t passed the Regents’ exams in math and English. Without passing scores, youth do not receive a high school diploma, their only other option to study for the GED. Now in his fifth year in the high school, the teachers had created a specialized plan for the young man so he only had to attend math and English classes to prep for the Regents’. “He isn’t going to graduate,” the teacher whispered to me. The teacher continued, “he is going to age out of high school in January when he turns 21. He won’t be able to get his scores up in time, his English is too weak. He has only been in the country for three years, and we think he may have some special needs as well.”

"Frankly, the situation has nothing to do with these youths’ willingness to work hard and attempt the American Dream, and everything to do with how we treat people of color and immigrants in this country."

I asked the teacher what would happen to a young man of color and English Learner with no high school diploma in a neoliberal city like New York with a shrinking middle class. “I don’t know,” he said. “It breaks my heart. And guess who is going to have to tell him that he won’t graduate? Me. The policy makers won’t tell him. The people who are in the classroom with these kids have to deliver the news. After they moved here, got to class, did the work and learned English … that they won’t graduate. And then they evaluate me based on my students’ test scores when my kids barely speak English … it is not fair. The system is designed for these kids to fail.”

Of the 22 young people in the class of students I have been studying for 14 months, 22 will attempt the English Language Arts Regents’ exam for the 3rd time in January, having received non-passing scores on their first two attempts. Some of them, their teachers predict, will take the test seven or eight times. English Language Learners — 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. Only 39.1% of ELLs graduate from high school according to data from 2013. Something is deeply wrong when we create a system that causes 60% of youth to leave high school without a diploma.

Kate Menken, a linguist and professor at CUNY has studied the Regents’ at length, and determined that the exam 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. Consider this passage by Margaret Atwood from p. 5 of the Aug. 2015 Comprehensive English Exam:

Invitations to perform cascaded over us. All the best places wanted us, and all at once, for, as people said—though not to me—my voice would thrive only for a certain term. Then, as voices do, it would begin to shrivel. Finally it would drop off, and I would be left alone, denuded—a dead shrub, a footnote. It’s begun to happen, the shrivelling.

Cascaded. Thrive only for a certain term. Denuded. Shrivelling.

I am a memoirist and poet in addition to being a researcher. It behooves me, with a Ph.D., to use language in sophisticated and creative ways. But what are we trying to prove with 17 and 18-year old youth? What are we actually testing?

It would be easy enough to provide these youth with a different kind of test that more accurately assesses what they know and can do and is still rigorous and standards-based. My argument isn’t to dumb down the tests, but provide them with reasonable tests where the majority can actually show off what they can do well and get credit for their hard work in high school. But we don’t. Frankly, the situation has nothing to do with these youths’ willingness to work hard and attempt the American Dream, and everything to do with how we treat people of color and immigrants in this country. If 60% of immigrant youth, who are also people of color, do not graduate in New York state then the white power elite is maintained.

The power elite is preserved because in a time of shrinking opportunities, a filter that eliminates large numbers of English learners from the mix gives white students an advantage. Let us be clear: the promises of the civil rights era have not come true. Both the workforce and schools remain segregated with a significant white power elite that is both about class and about race. Today, Blacks make up less than 4% of practicing physicians, and Latinos about 5%– similar percentages to 1960. Schools are not desegregated, and maintain the same rates of segregation since landmark Brown v. Board policy in 1954. Today, Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.

I think we should “call a spade a spade”: standardized tests are a function of white supremacy and a method of racial profiling in schools.

Racial 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 as “failing” 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). The low-intelligence of people of color and immigrants is a regular trope in this country. The assumed superiority of the white brain means that we norm all “standards” (aka tests) to bizarre and out of touch expectations that only youth with an array of special services can pass.

Let’s talk about those special services. Once youth of color get low scores on bad tests, they are framed as “failing” and targeted to receive an array of expensive for-profit services put into place at the expense of recess and social studies and fun and joy. Effectively, their educational opportunities are reduced to passing math and English. 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.

Frame and target. Frame and target. This is at the center of racial profiling.

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.


© 2021 Living In Dialogue

Christine Brigid Malsbary

Christine Brigid Malsbary is a postdoctoral fellow with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Her research examines how teachers and students are impacted by education policy reform. She currently teaches at Vassar College as a Visiting Assistant Professor. Follow her on Twitter here. 

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