High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice

Christina Duncan Evans argues that the high-stakes testing opt-out movement “ignores a major function of testing,” which she identifies as: “A major reason we use standardized tests is to make the case that there’s large-scale educational injustice in our nation.”

As an advocate for educational equity and social justice, Evans explains:

States don’t have a very good track record of providing equitable access to education to all of their students, and the federal government should ensure that American school quality is consistent. This has made me an advocate of standardized testing, following the logic that we can’t solve achievement gaps unless we measure them first.

Before examining this commitment to standardized testing (also found among civil rights organizations), I want to highlight that public education and state government have had a long history, continuing today, of failing miserably black, brown, and poor children and adults.

The evidence of lingering race and class inequity in the U.S. is staggering, and that inequity is too often replicated and perpetuated in public schooling—through inequitable access to rich curriculum and experienced, qualified teachers, for example.

As well, there is a troubling aspect to the opt-out movement along with the backlash against Common Core; as Andre Perry states, reinforcing Evans:

Take it from black and brown children who are used to being tested. Students will overcome. However, privileged adults who aren’t used to being tested may never stop crying.

The opt-out and Common Core backlash have exposed an unintended lesson about U.S. public education and society: As long as punitive and biased practices impact mostly or exclusively black, brown, and poor children (think “grit” and “no excuses”), the mainstream world of white privilege and wealth remains silent.

However, Perry also concedes that “having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students.”

In other words, and this is my main concern, the accountability era over the past thirty years—based significantly on standards and high-stakes testing—has not confronted and eroded race and class inequity, but in fact, and notably because of the central roles of standardized testing, race and class inequity has become even more entrenched in our schools and society.

Standardized testing remains biased by race, class, and gender, and thus, continues a warped tradition in the U.S. of masking bias as science; consider IQ testing and the current claims about “grit.”

High-stakes, standardized tests are, as Audre Lorde stresses, “the master’s tools.”

For those of us seeking educational and social equity and justice, then, we must heed Lorde’s call:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change….

The essential flaw with continuing to cling to high-stakes standardized testing is two-fold: (1) the tests are race, class, and gender biased, and (2) the demand that we raise test scores keeps all the attention on outcomes (and not the policies and practices that create the inequity).

As such, the demand remains that black, brown, and poor children (and adults) are themselves flawed and must be “fixed” (see Paul Gorski on “blaming the victim”).

This second flaw is also addressed by Lorde: “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”

Testing is never any better than a proxy, a representation of something else (student learning, teacher quality, school quality), but testing is never a valid proxy for equity or justice—always instead a fatal distraction. As I have argued before:

Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

The accountability movement and the increased stakes linked to standardized testing have focused the gaze even more narrowly on individual children and educators. That tunnel-vision allows the privileged to avoid addressing social and educational inequity because marginalized groups are forced to work at the “master’s concerns,” not their own.

If we are determined to find data to highlight educational inequity so that we can address it, let us turn that gaze to the inequity of opportunity. For example, Rebecca Klein reports:

In Mississippi’s Carroll County school district, there are no advanced placement courses, no foreign language classes and not enough textbooks for children to take home at night. Until last year, students on the high school football team had to change clothes in a makeshift room that previously functioned as a chicken coop….

Schools in Mississippi are provided with some of the lowest levels of state and local funding in the nation, according to two reports released simultaneously Monday detailing disparities in school resources around the country. For most of the past 10 years, the state has failed to live up to its own law requiring certain funding levels for schools.

Unfortunate circumstances like the ones in Carroll County can be seen across the country, say the reports from the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal and advocacy group.

The abundance of evidence of social and educational inequity is overwhelming, and continuing to mis-measure it through relentless and punitive standardized testing is inexcusable.

Lorde concludes:

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Advocating for social justice in our schools must include the choice not to bend to high-stakes standardized testing, but to unmask “raising test scores” as the “master’s tools”—and then to demand we turn our gaze to the inequity of opportunities condemning another generation of children to the “master’s concerns,” and not their own.

9 thoughts on “High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice

  1. Reblogged this on Opt Out Orlando and commented:
    Paul Thomas is, perhaps, the most incisive education blogger. He writes critically about current national policies in public education. His blogposts are always informative, insightful, and thoroughly referenced.

    Here, he addresses the misguided arguments of those who would assert that high stakes testing is needed to protect the interests of poor children and children of color.

  2. Pingback: Paul Thomas: High-Stakes Tests are the “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. A rather obvious example of the truth of Mr. Thomas case against standardized testing is the way charter schools do all in their power to remove students who do not test well or who otherwise don’t fit the charter mold and are therefore poorly served by the focus on behavior modification and test scores rather than on authentic education. The fact that they do not backfill, or replace the evicted students speaks volumes. They manufacture the illusion of success in part by reducing class sizes as the students progress through the grades, a proven strategy largely denied real public schools. Charters don’y want students who give the lie to their claims of having the solution to poverty and the achievement gap, they keep only those who help maintain the illusion that they can.

  4. Pingback: Ed News, Friday, June 12, 2015 Edition | tigersteach

  5. Pingback: High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice | The Opt Out Florida Network

  6. Pingback: Two Questions Every Presidential Candidate Needs to Answer about Education | VAMboozled!

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