Kendra Bischoff argues that high-stakes tests can play an important role in evaluating student performance, but they can also unintentionally promote educational inequality.
The U.S. education system is currently in a state of flux as the Obama administration pushes reform, the documentary “Waiting for Superman” spreads the story of school choice, and leaders of the nation’s most challenged school districts lambast teacher unions for protecting unqualified and underperforming teachers. In the meanwhile, undergirding school reform initiatives are student achievement data. Because we are so caught up in the best way to improve student test scores, we rarely take the time to critique the practice of high-stakes testing. The obsession with standardized tests brings with it a false sense of accuracy and meritocracy as it evaluates students and schools.
It is well known that tests are a flawed measure of knowledge, and that some students test better than others. It has been argued that there is racial bias in the content of standardized tests and that negative social stereotypes cause women and minorities to underperform on tests. Moreover, because it is possible to prepare for standardized tests, privileged students benefit from an unfair advantage. Thus, when standardized tests are used as the basis for admission into elite programs and schools, we need to ask: Are these tests a fair basis for admission? Do they accurately measure traits that schools value in students? And finally, do they aggravate existing inequalities, or bolster meritocracy?
To highlight this point, let’s take a look at New York City’s policy on admission to its elite public magnet school programs. Admission into high schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech is based solely on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), a voluntary standardized test that measures verbal and math ability. These schools are highly selective and offer free tuition. According to the NYC Specialized High School Handbook, 25,527 students who took the SHSAT listed Stuyvesant as a choice but just 961 were offered admission. It leads one to question why Stuyvesant’s demographic composition (see also) is at such variance with the NYC school population at-large. The chart below shows large racial, socioeconomic, and language-based disparities in attendance patterns. Shockingly, only 5% of Stuyvesant’s students are African-American or Latino, compared to over 70% of those minorities in the city’s public school population.
Stuyvesant is not to blame—it is an excellent school with an impressive list of graduates and a talented teaching staff. But it is a useful example in the debate over high-stakes tests because it shows how segregated schools can become when admission is based on one sole test for which expensive preparation courses abound. The Princeton Review, a well-known test preparation company, offers an 18-hour “premier” SHSAT tutoring package for $6300. Its website states, “While it may seem unfair that the SHSAT is the only criterion for admissions, in reality, it may be an advantage. If you are proactive in your preparation for the SHSAT test, admission to a NYC Specialized High School is a possibility.”
Undeniably, this admissions process has created a hierarchy of opportunity based on race and class. For, while African-American and Latino students do not take the test at the same rates as Asian and white students, the very proclivity to take this voluntary admission exam underscores inequality. The likelihood of a child taking the test is determined by numerous factors such as, information about the test and the admissions process, encouragement from middle school officials, and the availability of parental social networks. Such points of information exchange may thus put certain types of students at a disadvantage for even taking the test, let alone doing well on it. This issue is not lost on the media. The New York Times has reported on two similar cases in New York City in which program participation is racially skewed and admission is based on a single test—Hunter College High School and the city’s elementary school Gifted and Talented program.
But, the equity issue is tough. Proponents for the current system in NYC would argue that testing is a meritocratic basis for admission—anyone can take the test and free materials are available to prepare for it. They might argue that a more holistic application process, perhaps including teacher recommendations and student portfolios, would be impractical considering the sheer number of applicants. One might also argue that these schools were created for the most talented students— deviation from the objective, test-based criteria would drive such a school toward mediocrity. However, these admission tests are treated as IQ tests when in fact test preparation makes a big difference. Test prep courses are even available for kindergarteners who are applying for the city’s Gifted and Talented program! Given the achievement gaps that are observed when children enter kindergarten—a clear indication of unequal developmental opportunities prior to formal schooling—one might argue that tracking kids at such a young age is both unjust and undeserved. In addition, students who have attended under-performing schools since kindergarten have little chance of doing well on an exam in middle school—they are already far behind.
To be sure, testing is incredibly useful. The push for increased standardized testing more generally has helped measure student learning at the school level, and to assess teacher effectiveness. To boot, part of the rationale for implementing mandatory testing was to document and hopefully, to dismantle the racial achievement gap. But the accountability movement has colored many people’s perspective on the function of schools. Our current way of measuring school success, as well as measuring students’ potential, reflects a narrow focus. Our country holds schools in high esteem as crucial sites of upward mobility, as equalizers of opportunity. But schools can both alleviate inequality, or reproduce it. While standardized and high-stakes tests are often placed under the rubric of meritocracy, it is important to critically question the role of testing in the structure of inequality.