Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Standardized Tests Shortchange Education: Concern for Minority Youth

I get why we need standardized tests. Teachers teach the objectives, students get tested on the objectives and state tests provide a standard, verifiable way to ensure that all students are where they need to be. But not all students are the same. They do not begin the same way and they certainly do not progress the same. They are each unique individuals who may not comfortably conform to a test that is so confining and narrow in format.
In a school that is 65% Hispanic, 28% Black, and 3% White as well as Asian, “the test” has come to dominate our curriculum at the expense of all else. 

People are always talking about how public school teachers only teach to the test but nobody really knows what this means. About a month ago, a story ran in the Houston Chronicle about “the war room,” an entire classroom paneled with white boards from ceiling to floor (never mind that I am still working with chalkboards). Every wall is covered in magnetic strips describing every student’s name, demographics, teacher, scores from the past and anticipated scores for the current year. Everything is color-coded so that each student can be known in a single glance from their at-risk status to their language proficiency. 

The students are reduced to numbers, lives are reduced to statistics and teachers are reduced to input variables. I recognize the need for data and I understand the necessity of “leaving no child left behind,” but the extremes of this type of analysis leave me sick to my stomach. I do not teach a standardized subject. I am an elective teacher for Communication Applications and my job is to “assist” the “core” areas in ensuring all I do is somehow, TAKS (now STAAR)- related. 

There are 4 tests: English, Math, Social Studies and Science. For each of these tests, schools will shut down for a half to a whole day in order for students to “practice” taking these tests in real, simulated conditions. Once all practice testing is complete, students who are not “on track” to receive the scores necessary to pass will be pulled from their elective courses (my class, along with Art, Theatre, and anything else un-tested) in order to attend testing tutorials. 

Electives are the reason many students bother to come to school at all, and since this process has begun, our school’s attendance has begun to drop. As an elective teacher, we are not allowed to mark these students absent, and we are responsible for ensuring these pre-selected students are caught up with all they miss in order to pass our classes. By the way, this is not just for students simply at-risk of scoring low on these standardized tests; tutorials are also being required of those very close to achieving  “commended” status in order to improve the school’s bottom line.

As a non-core, elective teacher, my course has been deemed as not nearly as important as core-tested subjects by my own administrators. As a Latina educator struggling with my own voice in a school whose teacher demographics (40% Black, 40% White, 15% Hispanic) are hardly reflective of the students, I urge future Latino/a educators to question the validity of such a limited focus.  The challenges our country and our world will face in the future will require problem-solving, innovation and imagination; qualities which are being stamped out as our public institutions systematically require that every thought be standardized.

~ A Latina high school teacher in Houston, Texas currently enrolled in a Masters program at UH


  1. I just had a conversation yesterday with a colleague at another institution and we talked about another standardized test--the GRE. I know this has been hashed out over and over, but some still see how the GRE is used by department chairs & others to justify the lack of diversity in graduate programs.

    We have to monitor the process directly--adding a service component to our duties--and have a willingness to argue against traditionalists in the admissions process. Then, if we are successful in admissions, we get stigmatized as having "poor quality" students--which makes us push our advisees harder.

    Instead of standardized tests, why don't they just call them whiteness tests?

  2. Ha! I remember loving the electives classes as a youngster in grade school.

    I also remember being terrified of standardized tests as part of high stakes outcomes. In my Race & Ethnicity Comm. class just this week we talked about how institutions and authority figures (including teachers as consistent influences) can have a strong pull in the direction our lives take or are shaped.

    They were appalled when I told them about how a h.s. counselor told me I'd likely not get into college with my low ACT scores. I, of course, was mortified since I've always been a straight A student, on the honor roll, and with tons of extracurricular involvement, etc. The same thing happened when I was applying to grad school. Despite having retaken the GRE to improve my scores after paying a pretty penny for a prep class, my scores only slightly improved. My mentors assured me the test scores were only one part of the admissions equation and they were ultimately right - not only did I get into every college I applied to, but I got scholarships to every single one. Not only did I get into multiple grad schools right away both times (Master's and Doctoral), but I got a prestigious fellowship for my Ph.D. program. I completed both degrees in the time frames I set out to and with flying colors.

    The point is that there is much more to a person's likelihood to succeed than a standardized test can indicate. Al's referring to them as "whiteness tests" makes perfect sense. In fact, not only have I heard standardized tests referred to in this way by my mentors of color, but several of my white professors have said the same thing. My question is what's the deal with slow as molasses attitude change and pervasiveness of these tests as this particular teacher-blogger points out? I certainly feel for those of you who teach with standardized tests at the forefront. Adding the service part to our agendas as individuals situated within institutions to promote change would be worthwhile.

  3. Here's a link to a recent article on Inside Higher Ed --> “We find that placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, high school GPAs are useful for predicting many aspects of students’ college performance.”

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed