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Why Standardized Tests Are a Dilemma for African Americans

Years of being a classroom instructor and an educational administrator has afforded this African American a specific vantage point on the matters of education in America.

A Profile of Standardized Tests

Public education might be the last resort for children of color to constructively assimilate into American society, but there is an enormous disjoint looming over America’s educational itinerary with dire consequences for African Americans. Across the US, our government spends less educational funding on students of color. Ary Spatig-Amerikaner (2012) painstakingly provides the convoluted details on how the unequal funding is maintained through federal loopholes. While schools today depend overwhelmingly on standardized tests in reading and mathematics, the connection between testing and funding is an unrefined area of contention.

The Problem of Using Standardized Test to Assess a School's or Teacher's Merit

The results of standardized tests appears to be the most important attribute of a school’s worthiness. Schools use standardized tests to measure a student’s ability, while ignoring other salient indicators. Far too often the tests scores do not show the real potential of African American students. Because standardized tests results are used to determine how funding will be allocated to schools, low-income districts face even more pressure to have their students earn high scores on such tests. In addition, the tests are also used for tracking and student placement.

In 2015, eleven former Atlanta educators were convicted of conspiring to tamper with thousands of students’ test scores. The cheating scandal magnifies the ills of America’s emphasis on standardized testing. Tell teachers their salaries are tied to test scores and things change. Deceptive scoring practices can be found in schools across the country, and they seem to be growing in popularity in an era that places heavy emphasis on standardized testing (Education, 2016).

Standardized Tests and Eugenics

In a message published in the February 2014 issue of Chicago Union Teacher magazine, then CTU President Karen G J Lewis wrote "we have to be clear about the original purpose of standardized tests.” The use of standardized tests has its origins in the eugenics movement, which asserted that certain races were inferior to others, biologically and intellectually. The original IQ tests were designed by French psychologist Alfred Binet for benign and limited use on young children who were not developing “normally” as “general” tools to make “general” decisions, not a precise measurement for precise decisions to signal when a child needed more help in their intellectual development.

How Standardized Tests Fail Certain Students

According to the Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing program, the law promotes teaching to the mostly multiple-choice state tests, focusing on rote skills and ignoring higher-level thinking. The impact is greater in schools that serve low-income youth, particularly students of color. Likewise, The National Center for Fair & Open Testing criticized standardized tests as incredibly inefficient while unfairly misplacing black boys in special education classes. Many times these young African Americans are not in need of special education but lack the knowledge about the standardized educational canons that the tests are built on.

The Standards of Dominance

Standardized tests support a white middle class mode of ranking. The policies, practices, processes, and rituals of American education are implemented by the privilege group, thereby maintaining a disprivilege group (Goodman, 2012). Bill Gates is a very strong proponent and financial supporter of standardized testing. His money speaks volumes.

Alfred Tatum expounds on the idea of black alienation in education by agreeing that the dominant culture sees their own race widely represented on TV; when they do not have to educate their children about systemic racism in schools; when they are sure that the low performance of their child is not due to his race, and the dominate group can dictate if an issue is “racial” because of their perceived credibility.

Standardized Assimilation

On a daily basis, African American children leave their “cultural selves” to assimilate into a European centered model of learning. (Ladson-Billlings, 1998, p. 219). The black child soon learns that he or she is not speaking Standard English, as well as learning that their cultural experiences are not the norm of the larger society. Paulo Freire, former Professor of History and Philosophy of Education, would describe the latter as the Pedagogy of the Oppressed which tends to devalue or exclude experiences of African Americans, thus representing African American culture as inferior. Children’s books also may not be as interesting to black children (or their parents) because of the lack of diversity in them: Characters in children’s books are overwhelmingly white. Black students are more likely to be held back, despite mounting research showing that holding back children does not benefit them socially or academically and makes them more likely to drop out later on (U.S. News, 2016).

The combination of institutional racism, intergenerational poverty, and the lack of meaningfully sustained educational reform creates challenges for schools and students. Measurement experts agree that no test is good enough to serve as the sole or primary basis for tracking or holding students back. Too often the assumption is that low-scoring students need low-level remediation rather than enrichment, positive challenges, and support, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. 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: But the same cannot be said for K– 12th grades.

What Standardized Tests Really Measure

Various educational researchers have always maintained that standardized tests ultimately measure a student’s access to resources. Test scores reflect the advantages and resources that wealthier children have; among these advantages are private tutoring and monetary funds to access test-preparatory classes. Attaching high stakes to these exams only serves to exacerbate racial and class inequality. Boston University economics professors Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” reveals that a standardized bubble test does not help teachers understand how a student arrived at answer choice “C.” In A Brief History of the "Testocracy," Standardized Testing and Test-Defying, Jesse Hgopian (2015) states that tests that measure as little and as poorly as multiple-choice exams cannot provide meaningful accountability.

The Writer’s Perspective

While administering a student exchange program between the University of Salford in Manchester England and a premier university in the United States, a troubling truth about multiple choice (or bubble tests) reaffirmed this writer’s misgivings regarding standardized testing formats. The students from England were very high academic achievers and were required to maintain a certain grade point average in order to remain in the exchange program.

The students were quite dejected after taking their first multiple choice test. They were use to a test taking strategy wherein a written discourse supporting or rejecting a certain argument was required. They expressed their dissatisfaction about having to select only one answer out of four questions and not being afforded a chance to defend their answer, or debate the fallacies of the other answers. The exchange students had been taught to think abstractly, to engage their higher order thinking skills, and to discern a matter before making one linear assumption.

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Too often test preparation replaces more in-depth and comprehensive instruction, causing students to receive an inferior education. A few decades ago I was hired as a high school English teacher in the City of Detroit. After being shown a store room full of neatly stacked classroom texts, the instructions from the administration were to issue the books accordingly but not to assign homework from them, but rather teach specific test content for the upcoming city-wide standardized testing. The day after Labor Day will mark the fall 2022 semester for many districts and the practice of teaching to the test will once again take center stage.

In the journal of Rethinking Schools, the late educator for educational justice, Harold Berlak, maintained that “…standardized curriculum and tests insist upon one set of answers, and only one. Linking standards and curriculum to high-stakes testing is a powerful and pervasive way to ensure the continued hegemony of the dominant culture. The standards and tests by design [create] a particular and singular view of the "basics" of history, geography, literature, art, and ways of looking at and thinking about truth. They are an effort to put an end to the most valuable asset of a multicultural society”.


Fergus, E., Noguera, P., & Martin, M. (2014). Schooling for resilience: Improving
The life trajectory of Black and Latino boys. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education

Goodman, K. F. (2012). Privilege and Disprivilege in Discourse in and Around Literacy Assessment in Second Grade. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W.F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory in education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), pp. 47 – 68.

Stewart, D. L. (2008). Being all of me: Black Students negotiating multiple identities. Journal of Higher Education.

Swanson, D. P., Cunningham, M., & Spencer, M. B. (2003). Black males’ structural
Conditions, achievement patterns, normative needs, and “opportunities.” Urban
Education, 38, 608-633.

Young, Alford A, Jr. (2004). The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

First day of school

First day of school

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Joy Johnson

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