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An Alternative to Standardized Tests

An Alternative to Standardized Tests

If you could create an ideal data set of students’ and teachers’ experiences at their schools, what would be in it? How might you use it? And, specifically, would you ask about school diversity or school integration?

I’m asking myself similar questions now, as I start a new position as the director of School Quality Measures for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Educational Assessment (MCIEA).

Much of contemporary school segregation is held in place by dominant (and extremely flawed) ways of measuring schools that are connected to a long history of racial discrimination. Here are some of the sources that are most influential in my thinking:

In the last year, I completed a post-doc at Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights. We held a conference for Brown v. Board, where Nikole Hannah-Jones gave the keynote, in which she reminded us all that standardized testing was developed by eugenicists and standardized tests were (and still are!) used to give scientific authority to the myths about black inferiority invented to justify slavery.

Of course, many others have made similar arguments. Wayne Au is easily among the most poignant voices on this. Just last month, he published a piece in Rethinking Schools, with the subtitle “white supremacy, high-stakes testing, and the punishment of Black and Brown students.” He also wrote a short journal article with Matthew Knoester called “Standardized testing and school segregation: like tinder for fire?” I highly encourage reading these. A few key arguments and related excerpts from each:

Tests do not accurately measure teaching and learning

  • “Test scores correlate most strongly with family income, neighborhood, educational levels of parents, and access to resources — all factors that are measures of wealth that exist outside of schools.”

Tests are used to provide scientific cover for racist views of intelligence

  • “In 1916, based on standardized test scores, Stanford Professor Lewis Terman (one of the founders of standardized testing in U.S. schools) argued that certain races inherited “deficient” IQs, saying that “No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens.”

Tests are particularly harmful to schools that disproportionately serve students of color

  • “Low-income kids and kids of color are tested more; experience the greatest loss of time spent on non-tested or less-tested subjects like art, music, science, and social studies; don’t have multicultural, anti-racist curriculum made available to them because those areas are not on the tests; and lose opportunities for culturally relevant instruction because the tests tend to inhibit process-based, student-centered instruction in favor of rote memorization.”

High-stakes standardized tests function as a proxy for whiteness

  • “Testing allows parents and others to avoid the stigma of saying out loud that they favor segregation as they choose schools with a whiter and richer population for their own children, and also provides justification for their support of segregation within schools.”

Clearly, there’s a lot wrong with a system that relies on narrow measures of student learning whose very origins come from racist pseudo-science of human intelligence. We see this all the time in the debate about school integration, especially in racialized notions about “good” schools and “bad” schools and parents’ fears about sending white students to diverse schools.

As part of my job with MCIEA, I’ll be leading the survey work, which is based on a very straightforward premise: it’s possible to learn a lot about a school by asking the teachers who work there and the students that it aims to serve. We use the surveys (details here) along with the administrative data to measure school quality (but not rate schools against each other!) according to the following 5 categories:

SQM Framework

Because much of the school diversity research relies on test scores to measure benefits for students, we are hoping this kind of work can add important nuance to our understanding of the benefits of school diversity.

In particular, I’d like to dig into differences in “segregated schools”. I think this term has come to specifically refer to schools that predominately serve students of color. However, there are of course many segregated white schools as well, there’s major differences in the way these places serve their students, and both kinds of segregation compromise the notion of education as preparation for participation in a multicultural democracy. Moving into this work with MCIEA leads me to these questions:

  • Are there overall differences, by racial sub-group, when comparing survey ratings from segregated white schools against ratings from segregated non-white global-majority schools?
  • How do students of color in segregated white schools rate their schooling experiences? And, how do their ratings compare to students of color in segregated global majority schools?
  • How do white students in segregated white schools rate their schooling experiences? And, how do their ratings compare to white students in segregated global majority schools?

This article originally appeared on Peter's blog, School Diversity Notebook. This version has been adapted for length.

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