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When learning no longer matters: Standardized
testing and the creation of inequality
Boaler, Jo . Phi Delta Kappan ; Bloomington Vol.84,Iss.7, (Mar 2003): 502-506.

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A California high school serving low-income students from many ethnicities is famous for its outstanding
mathematics department. On independently designed assessments, students at the school consistently
outperform students in wealthier schools. Boater discusses why Railside High school received an underperforming
label from the state.


A California high school serving low-income students from many ethnicities is famous for its outstanding
mathematics department. On independently designed assessments, students at the school consistently
outperform students in wealthier schools. Why, then, Ms. Boater wonders, has the school received a demoralizing
“underperforming” label from the state?
THIS IS A STORY about a remarkable school, a school that has been labeled “underperforming” by the state of
California. It is a true story, and it draws on a combination of research data, collected as part of a Stanford
University research project on mathematics learning, and the lived realities of teachers and students working hard
to achieve success in a low-income, urban school. At the heart of this story lies the conflict between learning and
SAT-9 success, a conflict that has affected the lives of students and teachers in this school in profound ways.
As a new professor at Stanford University, recently arrived from England, I was considering schools to include in a
study of mathematics teaching and learning. I soon learned that a school that I’ll refer to here as Railside High had
a mathematics department that worked in very unusual ways. Some years ago the teachers “detracked” their
classes in response to the low performance of some students. The mathematics department plans lessons
collaboratively, and the teachers meet every week to discuss and improve their lessons. They visit one another’s
classes frequently, and every new teacher is given the opportunity to watch every lesson that he or she will teach
being taught by an experienced colleague first. The algebra curriculum that all students take on entry to the school
was designed by the department, and it draws from a variety of different curriculum materials. Students from a
range of ethnicities – Latino, African American, white, Filipino, and other Asian groups — work together in groups to
solve complex mathematics problems. All the teachers in the department are mathematics specialists, and they all
regularly attend professional conferences as a department.
These practices would be unusual for any school, but this is a school in a low-income area with few resources.
Lessons are accompanied by the steady hum of cars zipping past on the two freeways that surround the school
and are interrupted at frequent intervals by the sound of trains that pass just feet away from the school yard (thus
our chosen pseudonym for the school). Financial resources are low – in the school and in the students’ homes. Yet
qualified mathematics teachers are queuing up to join this department, and, after a year of studying and
monitoring the mathematics teaching and learning in this school, we have discovered some unequivocally positive
As part of a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, my research team and I gave incoming
students at three high schools a mathematics examination. The students starting Railside High scored at a
significantly lower level than the students starting the other – wealthier – schools in our study. However, after one
year at Railside High, the students attained a higher average score on the end-of-year algebra examination than the
students at the other schools in the study. By the end of the second year at the school, Railside students were
significantly outperforming students at the other schools.
There is one other high school in Railside’s district – in a wealthier area. At the end of each course (algebra,
geometry, trigonometry, etc.) both high schools give students the same final examinations, designed to carefully
assess the competencies specified in the California mathematics standards. These exams are constructed and
graded by the two departments and overseen by the district. In all three years that the exams have been given, the
Railside students have significantly outperformed their wealthier counterparts at every level of mathematics.
In questionnaires, the Railside students are significantly more positive about mathematics than other students in
our study. Indeed, there are many indicators that the mathematics teaching at Railside High is unusually effective.
Moreover, the vast amounts of time teachers spend working together and preparing lessons to challenge and
motivate students pay significant benefits in terms of student engagement and learning. The students at Railside
appear to learn more mathematics than most, to develop more positive attitudes toward mathematics, and to take
more mathematics courses.
BUT ALL is not well at Railside High. The hardworking teachers and students have been dealt a devastating blow,
as the state has decided that they are “underperforming.” Despite outperforming the other district high school and
the other schools in our study on varied mathematics assessments, the Railside students scored significantly
lower on the SAT-9 than students at the other high schools. In addition, SAT-9 scores at Railside did not “improve”
sufficiently over the one-year time period set by the state.
The “underperforming” label conferred upon this school bears no relation to the learning we see in its classrooms.
This mismatch between the students’ achievements and the state’s label is unfortunate for many reasons, but it
also provides us with an important opportunity to consider what is being assessed in the SAT9 and what is not.
Consider, for example, two of the questions from our assessment that directly assess the competencies in the
California standards. On these questions, the Railside students performed at a significantly higher level than
students from other schools.
1. Here is a rectangle. The sides are 2x + 4 and 6 units.
a. Find the perimeter of the rectangle. Simplify your answer if possible.
b. Find the area of the rectangle. Simplify your answer if possible.
c. Draw and label a rectangle with the same area that you found in part b, but with a different length and width.
2. Solve the following equations:
a) 5x – 3 = 101
b) 3x – 1 = 2x + 5
These questions differ from those in the SAT-9 in a number of ways. First, they are not set in contexts that are
confusing to linguistic-minority and low-income students. Second, they reward all students who attain the correct
answers, rather than only those who have answered the questions in the same form as the acceptable multiple-
choice answer. Third, they do not use long and confusing sentences. By contrast, consider this question from the
SAT-9 test for students of the same grade:
A cable crew had 120 feet of cable left on a 1,000– foot spool after wiring 4 identical new homes. If the spool was
full before the homes were wired, which equation could be used to find the length of cable (x) used in each home?
F. 4x + 120 = 1000
G. 4x – 120 = 1000
H. 4x = 1000
J. 4x – 1000 = 120
The most obvious difference between our questions and this one is that the SAT-9 question is set in a context with
which only some students will be familiar. In addition, it uses long sentences and words unknown to many
students new to the country (e.g., spool, cable crew, wired). Note, too, that the expression that would sensibly be
used to represent the length of cable used – x = (1000 – 120) divided by 4 – does not appear as an acceptable
answer. This question, as with many others in the SAT-9, assesses many things – confidence in the face of
unfamiliar answers, knowledge of context, and language. However, none of these are indicators of mathematics
knowledge, and they are all likely to stack the deck against language learners, students from low-income homes,
students who are from minority ethnic and cultural groups, and girls.1
In other SAT-9 questions, students are asked to consider a student’s bank balance and to calculate the possible
values of combinations of nickels and dimes. Students who have a bank account will undoubtedly be advantaged
by questions that refer to them. I arrived in the U.S. from England four years ago, and I am still thrown on the rare
occasions when I come across the terms “nickel” and “dime,” because they are rarely used in modern-day American
society, and I had no cause to learn them before I came to this country.
The publishers of the SAT-9 questions have used these contexts in response to recommendations from the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and other groups that mathematics be taught through realistic
problems and situations. But teaching situations, in which students are learning, are very different from
standardized assessments, in which they are being tested. Contexts may be useful and motivating in classroom
activities and questions, but their use is minimized in the standardized assessments used in most other countries
because it is known that they present barriers to some groups of students and not to others and so they contribute
to inequalities.
In interviews, the students at Railside reported that they found the SAT-9 totally confusing, mainly because of the
language and contexts used in the mathematics questions. But our research has found that there was still another,
more insidious, factor affecting the Railside students’ performance on the SAT-9. The students had been told by
the state that their school was “underperforming,” so they did not expect to do very well on the tests.
Was this important? Claude Steele has shown the importance of “stereotype threat.” He found that, when students
were told that the test they were about to take tended to produce achievement differences, with women and
minority students scoring at a lower level, this is exactly what happened. In the control groups, where students
took the same test but were not told about any expected performance differences, there were no performance
differences among different groups of students.2 Educational research – a field that often produces contradictory
results – shows remarkable consistency on this issue. If you tell students they are low achievers, they achieve at a
lower level than if you do not.
In one of our first visits to Railside, a young boy asked us why we were looking at the mathematics department.
When we replied that it was interesting, he frowned quizzically and said, “But we are a 3.” He was referring to
Railside’s score of 3 out of 10 on the Academic Performance Index (API), which is used to rank the state’s public
schools based on student performance on the SAT-9. In recent interviews, the students told us that they go to a
“ghetto” school. Students from other schools had told them so. The Railside students struggle to make sense of
the label, as they believe that the teaching at Railside is good and that the teachers really care about them. But
they have been seriously affected by these labels that have emanated from the state’s use of SAT-9 scores.
In addition to the labeling of the school overall, students received their own, individual labels when they took the
SAT-9. Parents and students at Railside, as in all other schools in California, were sent the results of the students’
SAT-9 tests, displayed on a graph divided into three sections that are marked “above average,” “average,” and
“below average.” Of course, such a label tells nothing of what students have learned over any period of time.
One of the students we interviewed, Simon, had arrived in the U.S. from Nicaragua as a young boy. He told us that
elementary school was a time of constant failure for him, as he couldn’t understand what the teachers were
saying. But he has since caught up and is now excelling in school. He told us that the teachers at Railside told him
that he was smart and that he started to believe in himself and achieve. He now loves mathematics and is very
appreciative of the teaching at the school. He performed extremely well on our assessments. Despite all of this,
when the SAT-9 results arrived at his door, he started to question his ability: “My parents, they saw in the SAT-9
graph thing I was below average in the majority of the things and especially math. I was like – below average. Right
there. The thing is like – below average – you want it to be a little bit above average.”
I asked Simon whether that SAT-9 report affected how he thought of his abilities as a mathematics learner. He said
that it did. “You say – you tried so hard and then suddenly they give you a paper where it says you’re below average
and you’re like, What? I did so much work.”
Simon had reasonably assumed that the result he was given should tell him something about how hard he had
worked or about what he had learned in mathematics. But plainly it did not.
The teachers at Railside are concerned that the SAT9 results that are sent home to parents will convey negative
messages about the students’ mathematics learning. In response, they have started to organize portfolio days,
when students show their parents their mathematics work and all that they have achieved. These are very positive,
well-attended events, but Simon’s repetition of the term “below average” reminds us of the extent to which such
labels are internalized and remembered.
Almost half of all students in California are told that they are “below average.” In the new system that will be used
in California, students will not take the SAT-9. Instead, they will take a different test that also includes only
multiple-choice questions and that will confer labels that seem even more damaging. In the new system,
approximately half of all students will be told that their attainment is “basic,” “below basic,” or even “far below
basic.” What impact, I wonder, do those who designed this system think that these labels will have on students’
confidence? On their future mathematics achievement? Research tells us that confidence in one’s ability to
succeed in mathematics is an intrinsic part of success and motivation. The labels that the students at Railside
received are working against the positive achievements that their teachers had brought about.
Now Railside students are being told by students in the other district school that they attend a “ghetto school”
because their test scores are low. Of course, Railside students outscored the other school on our test, and the
researchers I know who have spent time in the school agree that it has one of the most professional and dedicated
mathematics departments they have ever seen. The hard-working mathematics teachers have, understandably,
been demoralized by the school’s label, as one of them reported to us in an interview:
They told us we had been considered an “underperforming” school because of our API scores, and if we wanted to,
we would be able to choose this outside consultant to come in and help us raise our test scores. And I left that
meeting in tears because I have never in my lifetime worked as hard as I work here to help students learn math and
show off what they know about math in a way that is meaningful and makes sense to them. So being told that we
were underperforming meant to me that I hadn’t been doing my job. And that was at the heart level.
The teachers are now thinking that they need to spend more time on test-taking skills, even though they do not
believe that this will improve the students’ understanding of mathematics.
President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act mandates the kinds of testing programs I have described in this article.
Yet it is clear that some children are left behind precisely because of such testing programs, which do not measure
learning. It is imperative that policy makers consider very carefully both what is being assessed in the tests they
mandate and the impact the associated labels may have. Such reflection must include careful examination of the
reasons that schools with high proportions of low-income and languageminority students achieve at the lowest
levels. The correlations between socioeconomic status and SAT-9 success have been reported to be as high as 0.9
in some districts. The simple fact that the vast majority of “underperforming” schools in California are in areas of
high poverty should cause us to look very carefully at the nature of the test that produces this label.
The students at Railside tell us that language and contexts – as well as the unfamiliarity of the test — are huge
barriers. For example, the students don’t normally face a barrage of short questions with “fill in the bubble”
answers, and they are not normally required to work without calculators. Railside is not the only California high
school that has created positive learning environments and is being told that it is underperforming. We have
collected a range of evidence that suggests that the low performance of students in the SAT-9 at Railside is
related less to mathematical understanding than to language, context interpretation (which relies heavily on
language), and test-taking skills. Using such tests – and their associated labeling – as a tool to increase the
performance of underachieving students, particularly those from low-income and ethnic minority homes, does not
seem to be a wise decision on the part of policy makers.
What’s more, even if the SAT-9 were a good test of students’ mathematics achievement – and I strongly believe it is
not – a single test can measure the students’ attainment only at a certain point in time. It does not track any
increases in learning. When the British government moved from reporting test scores to reporting students’
improvement over their years in school, the list of schools – ranked by “success” – was completely rearranged.
When “improvement” (i.e., learning) became the criterion, many of the excellent schools in low-income areas
moved to the top of the lists.
The designers of the API system in California have tried to assess learning by focusing on the improvement of
schools, but this is measured by comparing the scores of one cohort of students with the scores of a later cohort.
Such a system not only compares different students, without capturing the learning of any particular students, but
it is also open to considerable abuse. Schools that push needy students away and into other schools will report
greater “improvements” than schools that keep their students with special needs and work to help them. And such
exclusionary practices, aimed at higher improvement ratings, are already being reported.
Simon, the student from Nicaragua, may have worked harder, learned more, and improved more than anyone else
in the country over the previous year, but a SAT-9 test score could never give any indication of that. The SAT-9
does not measure learning, and events in this school suggest that its main effects can be to lower students’
perceptions of what they can do and to demoralize teachers. The place of this and similar regimes of testing and
labeling in an education system that purports to hold higher – and more equitable – achievement as its goal seems
questionable at best. The students and teachers at Railside High have discovered this fact, at considerable
personal cost.
1. Jo Boater, “When Do Girls Prefer Football to Fashion? An Analysis of Female Underachievement in Relation to
‘Realistic’ Mathematics Contexts,” British Educational Research Journal, vol. 20, 1994, pp. 551– 64; Barry Cooper
and Mairead Dunne, Anyone for Tennis? Social Class Differences in Children’s Responses to National Curriculum
Mathematics Testing,” Sociological Review, January 1998, pp. 115-48; and Robyn Zevenbergen, ” `Cracking the
Code’ of Mathematics Classrooms: School Success as a Function of Linguistic, Social, and Cultural Background,”
in Jo Boaler, ed., Multiple Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning (Westport, Conn.: Ablex Publishing,
2000), pp. 201-24.
2. Claude Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance,” American
Psychologist, vol. 52, 1997, pp. 613-29.
JO BOALER is an associate professor of mathematics education, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., and the
author of Experiencing School Mathematics (Erlbaum, 2002). She thanks Ed Haertel and Lani Horn, who both gave
extremely helpful advice in the earlier stages of writing this article.


Subject: Secondary schools; Quality of education; Academic achievement; Mathematics;
Location: California
Company / organization: Name: Stanford University; NAICS: 611310
Publication title: Phi Delta Kappan; Bloomington


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Volume: 84
Issue: 7
Pages: 502-506
Publication year: 2003
Publication date: Mar 2003
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa
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When learning no longer matters: Standardized testing and the creation of inequality
Personal Perspective
Michele Phillips is a graduate student
at the University of Texas at El Paso,
El Paso, Texas.
Standardized Tests Aren’t Like T-Shirts:
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Michele Phillips
Personal Perspective
Testing has become a way of life that
starts shortly after the cradle and may end
just this side of the grave. (Black,1963)
In January of 2002, President George
W. Bush with his No Child Left Behind
Act changed testing forever. Tests aren’t
just tests anymore. In some states they
are used to determine which students stay
back a grade, which high school students
get their diploma, and which teachers get
bonuses (DiMarco, 2000). Testing can have
a damaging effect on all parties involved.
Test scores are being used as the only mea-
sure of a student’s knowledge and skills.
Tests are important, but should only be
a portion of a student’s evaluation. With
these high stakes tests having so much
weight on the future of the child, teacher,
and school, you would hope that they would
provide an accurate measure of a child’s
knowledge. They don’t!
High stakes tests may give us a slight
measure of a child’s intellect, but they also
measure the child’s culture and language.
Standardized test are biased. Bias takes
place when the test scores are infl uenced
by irrelevant characteristics of the test-
taker, such as race, sex, family, wealth,
religion, and so forth (Strenio ,1981). For
the most part, standardized multiple
choice tests are culturally biased in favor
of the culture toward which the test is
directed—the mainstream White culture
(Elford, 2002). Current methods of mak-
ing standardized tests must be abandoned
(Bormuth, 1970).
This article seeks to provide you with
a lens through which to view standardized
testing and to show you the negative effects
that testing may have. It will also give you
a picture of how tests are biased and how
student scores have very little to do with
intellect and more to do with language,
culture, and environment.
Language profi ciency plays a large
part in student performance on standard-
ized test. In spite of differences in content,
it may be that for certain test-takers lan-
guage profi ciency is the most important
contributor to performance. The most
obvious problem presented to non-native
English speakers or to those who speak a
nonstandard variety of English is whether
they have familiarity with or knowledge
of the words and linguistic structure of
standard English (Gifford, 1989).
As it stands now, many non-English
speakers are failing the tests and being
held back a grade. This is not due to their
intellect or IQ. Many students are doing
poorly on our high stakes tests due to a lack
of understanding of the complex English
language. It is often diffi cult for a non-na-
tive speaker to translate the questions into
their own language and be able to make
meaning of them.
Perhaps if the tests were written and
administered in the student’s native lan-
guage a truer assessment would be made.
We might then be assessing students on
their knowledge and not merely giving
them an intense vocabulary test about the
English language.
Another bias that effects students’
test performance is their culture and en-
vironment. Test scores may feed back in-
formation about your cultural background
instead of your ability (Gifford, 1989).
According to Gifford, standardized tests
have less trouble measuring some forms of
ability among those with similar upbring-
ings than they do with rating people from
very different upbringings. You must take
into account the entire child when look-
ing at his test scores. What effect does his
culture and upbringing have on his test
scores? Signifi cant differences in school
experiences, in prior test exposure and
coaching, in motivation, in previous racial
discrimination and the family back ground,
can affect test scores ( Gifford, 1989).
Another aspect that could infl uence
students’ test performance is their culture’s
attitude towards test and performance in
school. In the United States attitudes to-
ward schooling along with parent’s ability
and efforts to foster student progress seem
to differ signifi cantly across certain ethnic
and socioeconomic groups. In high stakes
testing, schools are being held responsible
for raising the test scores of ethnic and
socioeconomic groups that appear to hold
deep-seated attitudes towards academic
performance—attitudes that schools can
do very little, perhaps nothing, to alter
(Thomas, 2005).
Some cultures hold testing and aca-
demic performance to a high esteem while
others are more focused on family and
personal values. If a child is raised in a
home where school is not important, that
child’s views on testing and the desire or
lack of desire to pass the test will effect the
resulting scores.
Tracking is another outcome of stu-
dents playing the testing game. Minority
students’ test scores are typically lower
than the scores of their peers. For this
reason they are more likely to be placed
in special classes. The students are labeled
by their test scores and have a hard time
Personal Perspective
escaping or changing this label. They are
tracked and only allowed to take certain
classes, and these classes are typically
taught at the lowest level. The students
are not challenged, they are basically being
taught how to pass the test and nothing
more. They have low expectations placed
upon them and aren’t expected to achieve.
They continue to fall behind and increase
the testing gap in student performance of
minority students.
Not only are tests biased but they can
also have negative consequences. Students
have test anxiety and may avoid going to
school during test time. Students as young
as third grade are fearful of not passing
the standardized tests. Students in the 8th
grade drop out of school for fear that they
will soon be told by someone else that their
scores weren’t good enough to get into high
school. Kids are denied diplomas in high
school for failing the exit level test even if
they have done well throughout the year
in their classes. Teachers are singled out to
take the blame for students’ failure. When
families in the community fi nd out about
a school’s low performance on tests they
choose to have their child go to another
school. Schools can be restructured or shut
down due to students’ poor performance on
tests. All of these consequences of students
having to take high stakes testing are
severe and damaging.
The ultimate goal of standardized test
is to give us an indication of the students’
ability and intellect. As they are written
now, test don’t achieve this goal. We are
evaluating students based on scores re-
ceived on a test that has very little to do
with intellect and everything to do with
the norms and cultures represented by the
test and policy makers.
We can not continue to take this “one
size fi ts all” approach in regards to testing.
It would be different if all kids learned the
same, where taught the same, and had the
same background, but none of this is the
case. We cannot measure all students in
a single state by one standard and expect
any validity in the results of such testing.
A well-balanced evaluation of students’
learning and of schools’ effectiveness can
not result from a single set of multiple
choice tests in a few subject matter fi elds
(Thomas, 2004). We must figure out a
more effective, impartial way to analyze
students, teachers, and schools.
No Child Left…
They’ve All Been Kept Behind
A Story by Michele Phillips
At the home of Mary Anne Smith:
“Mom, I think I am going to be sick
tomorrow. Please don’t make me go
to school!”
“What’s wrong Mary Anne? You usu-
ally love going to school.”
“I know, Mom, but tomorrow is going
to be the worst day of the rest of my
life. I just know it. Tomorrow is TAKS
test day. What if I don’t pass it? What
will happen to me in the future? Will
I even have a future? If I don’t pass
the test I won’t graduate from High
School. If I don’t graduate from High
School I can’t go to college. If I don’t
go to college how will I become the
fi rst women president? Mom, please
don’t make me go.”
“Sweetheart, you know this test is
really important. Besides you are
the smartest, prettiest girl in third
grade. You’ve made A’s all year long.
Why are you worried? Go to bed dear.
It’s almost eight o’clock and you need
to get your rest. You are going to do
At the home of Tyrone Jenkins:
“Mom I’m tired. Can I please go to
bed now? My teacher says that we
all need to get a good night sleep
so that we can do well on our test
“Test, what test? I’ll show you a test.
Let’s see if you can get these dishes
done by 11:30 tonight. That’s the only
test you need to worry about.”
“Yes mam.”
“Okay mom, it’s 12:15. I cleared the
table, washed the dishes, and did
everything you asked. Can I go to
bed now?”
“Yeah go ahead. I’ll wake you up at
the usual time, 4:30 sharp. Remem-
ber you have to help me get breakfast
ready. I don’t want to have to drag you
out of bed again. Son you know I love
you right? Good night.”
At the home of Jorge Pena:
“Jorge, Jorge, wake up. Let’s go.”
“All right mom, I’m up. You know I
don’t like it when you call me Jorge.
Can’t you just call me George like my
teachers do.”
“Whatever Jorge. Go get your broth-
ers and sisters up also. Hurry you
can’t be late. Its TAKS test day. If
you do good this year you won’t have
to be in those special classes again
and your teachers won’t pick on you
anymore. The bus will be leaving in
forty minutes Jorge. Eat your break-
fast and get going.”
At the home of Candice Ferrell:
“Mom, I don’t want to go to school
today. This is my first year doing
this testing stuff. What if everyone
else does better than me? What if
all the kids fail? We’ve been getting
ready and preparing for this day for
so long. I can’t believe it all comes
down to this.”
“Sweetheart, everything is going to be
fi ne. Besides you’re the teacher, you
have to go to school.”
Five months later … at the school of
Mary Anne, Tyrone, Jorge, and Sue…
in the class of Mrs. Racey:
“Sit down and don’t talk. You are all
here for one reason and one reason
only. You are failures. Because of you
I have to stay after school and teach
this TAKS reading class. Because of
you our school didn’t meet its AYP for
the third year in a row. Because of you
we may all loose our jobs. I certainly
hope you do better at third grade the
second time around.
“Your teachers from last year were
gracious enough to provide me with
a copy of your test scores and the
questions that you missed. George
Pena, let’s start with you. Hmmmm,
it looks to me like you have a slight
problem, you are illiterate. I can’t
believe the questions you missed. On
your writing prompt you were sup-
posed to write about a time that your
parents embarrassed you. Instead
you wrote a paragraph, in all lower
case letters I might add, about your
mom being pregnant. What is wrong
Personal Perspective
with you? What does that have to do
with you being embarrassed? Never
mind, I don’t have all day to wait for
your answer. Go sit down and write
the word embarrassed 200 times. I
am sure that will teach you what it
“Sue, you must be even slower than
George over there. You missed the
easiest question on the test! Let me
refresh your memory just in case you
forgot what it was: Question 6. Last
night we ate ____________________
_____ for dinner. Your choices were
(a) steak, (b) dog, (c) a house, or (d)
none of the above. You chose B. Hello,
the correct answer was (a) steak. Not
dog. We don’t eat dogs for dinner. Sue
look at me when I am talking to you.
I thought your people were supposed
to be smart. You must be the shame
of your family.
“And then we have Mary Anne.
Sweetheart, what happened to you?
You are such a smart girl. I can tell
just by looking at you. You didn’t even
fi nish the test.”
“Well Mrs. Racey, I started taking
the test and I just got bored. It was
so easy. Anyways, you know how you
have to bring a book to read after you
fi nish the test? Well I took a break
from the test and started reading the
Divinci Code, and before you know it,
time was up and I didn’t fi nish. I am
sorry if I upset you. I will do better
next time.
“I am sure you will Mary Anne. I’ll
see what I can do so that you won’t
have to take this class.
“And let’s see who else is left. O yeah,
the colored boy. I thought there would
be more of your people here. O well,
they probably wouldn’t have shown
up anyways. You failed the test but
you had the highest score out of any-
one else here. How did you manage
that one? You must have been copy-
ing someone and then got caught.
Lets look at some of the questions
you missed. Oh, this is my favorite.
A picture, Tyrone, you can’t even
identify a picture. They showed you
a picture of a tree stump and grass
sticking out of the water. This is a
picture of a swamp. Can you say that
with me? S-W-A-M-P. All you had to
do was bubble in swamp.
“This is ridiculous. I bet you if it was
a picture of a rap singer you would
have gotten it right. Don’t just sit
there. What do you have to say for
“Well, Mrs. Racey, fi rst of all my Mom
doesn’t let me listen to rap music.
Second of all you need to stop calling
me colored. I may not have passed
that stupid test but I’m smart enough
to know that I’m not the only colored
person in here. White is a color too.”
The Problem
Obviously this was an exaggeration of
a scene, one that unfortunately could take
place in many of our schools. The story is
fi ctional but the content is real. The reason
these student’s didn’t pass the TAKS test
had little or nothing to do with intelligence.
Their test scores gave us information about
their culture and background and not nec-
essarily their intellect.
Case #1—Jorge Pena is an ELL
student. The question he missed was a
mistake of vocabulary and nothing more.
The prompt asked for the student to write
about an embarrassing situation and Jorge
wrote about his mom being pregnant. Jorge
made a mistake that many students who
are not native English speakers might
make. He read the word embarrassed, and
assumed it had the same meaning as the
Spanish word embarazada, which means
pregnant. This false cognate caused him
to miss the question.
Case #2—Sue made a cultural mis-
take. Dog is something that her family
used to eat almost every night before they
moved from Korea to the United States last
year. Dog would have been the best answer
if the test were created and administered
in her native land.
Case #3—Mary Anne is an identifi ed
Gifted/Talented student. She has made
straight A’s for the last two years in
school. She didn’t pass the test because
it wasn’t challenging enough to keep her
attention. She got bored early on in the
test with its easy content, and never went
back to fi nish it.
Case #4—Tyrone is from El Paso,
Texas, and has never lived or visited any-
where else. He has never seen a picture of
or ever been to a swamp. The picture of a
tree stump with grass sticking out of water
was a completely foreign environment to
him. Perhaps he would have had a better
chance at getting it correct if the picture
showed tumbleweed surrounded by dirt.
Whose Standard Is It Anyway?
We call these tests standardized, but
according to whose standards are we judg-
ing students? Test publishers try not to
include biased questions, but they almost
always fail in that effort. “Bias takes place
when the test scores are infl uenced by ir-
relevant characteristics of the test taker
such as race, sex, family, wealth, religion,
and so forth” (Strenio, 201). There are bi-
ases inherently built in, in so many aspects
of testing. The test questions are written
and graded based upon the norms of White
middle-class America, and are graded by
the same people the test caters to. Aside
from the questions themselves, we also
need to take into account external factors
that affect a child’s performance. Did they
have teachers like Mrs. Racey? Where they
tired when they took the test? Is doing well
in school something valued by their culture?
Is the material not challenging for them?
Until reforms are made in standard-
ized testing there will always be a gap in
student test scores and bias will be present.
Policymakers are quite aware of these test
biases and yet schools still use scores to
determine a child’s intellect, the classes
they are allowed to take, and now in more
and more schools, whether a child will be
promoted to the next grade or not. If we
keep using test scores as the sole deter-
miner for student’s success we will have
no children left to graduate, they would
all have been kept behind.
Black, H. (1963). They shall not pass. New York:
William Morrow & Company.
Bormuth, J. (1970). On the theory of achieve-
ment test items. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press.
DiMarco, M. (2000). High stakes testing: Trends
and issues. Mid-Continent Research Foe
Education and Learning. Retrieved October
3, 2005 from http://www.education-world.
Elford, G. (2002). Beyond standardized testing.
Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
Gifford, B. (1989). Test policy and test perfor-
Personal Perspective
mance: Education, language, and culture.
London, UK: Kluwer Academic.
Gipps, G.V. (1994). A fair test?Assessment,
achievement, and equity. Philadelphia: Open
University Press.
Green, B. (1981). Issues in testing. San Francisco:
Jencks, C. (1998). The Black White test score
gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institu-
tion Press.
Kochman, T. (1989). Black and White cultural
styles in pluralistic perspective. Boston:
Kluwer Academic.
Kornhaber, M. (2006). Raising standards or rais-
ing barriers: Inequality and high stakes test-
ing. New York: Century Foundation Press.
Linden, J. (1968).Tests on trial. Boston: Hough-
ton Miffl in.
Phelps, R. (2005). Defending standardized
tests. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum As-
Sacks, P. (2001). Standardized minds—The high
price of America’s testing culture and what we
can do to change it. Cambridge, UK: Perseus
Strenio, A. (1981). The testing trap. New York:
Rawson Wade Publishers.
Thomas, M. R. (2005). High stakes testing: Cop-
ing with collateral damage. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.
Valencia, R. (2000). Intelligence testing and
minority students. London, UK: Sage.
Call for Contributors to Voices of Justice,
the New Creative Writing Section
of Multicultural Education Magazine
We’re seeking submissions of creative writing on topics including diversity, multiculturalism, equity, education, social jus-
tice, environmental justice, and more specifi c subtopics (race, gender/sex, sexual orientation, language, (dis)ability, etc.).
Do you write poetry? Short stories or fl ash fi ction? Creative nonfi ction? We will consider any style or form, but we prefer
prose that is no longer than 750 words and poetry that can fi t comfortably onto a single page of text.
Submissions will be reviewed on a rolling basis.
And… If you’re a teacher, Pre-K through lifelong learning, please encourage your students to submit to us! We would love
submissions from the youngsters as well as the not-so-youngsters!
Where to Submit: Submissions may be sent electronically or by postal mail. Electronic submissions should be
sent to Paul C. Gorski at pgorski01@gw.hamline.edu with the subject line “ME Submission.” Hard copy, mailed
submissions should be addressed to: Paul C. Gorski, Graduate School of Education, Hamline University, 1536
Hewitt Avenue, MS-A1720, St. Paul, MN 55104.
Format: All submissions should be double-spaced, including references and any other materials. Please send one copy of
your submission with the title noted at the top of the page. The title of the manuscript, name(s) of author(s), academic
title(s), institutional affi liation(s), and address, telephone number, and e-mail address of the author(s) should all be included
on a cover sheet separate from the manuscript. If you are a student or if you are submitting work on behalf of a student,
please include age, grade level, and school name.
What to Send: If you are submitting your work via postal mail, we ask that authors send the full text of the submission on
a 3-and-one-half-inch High Density PC-compatible computer disk in any common word-processing program. If you wish
the manuscript or other materials to be returned after consideration and publication, please also send a stamped and
addressed return envelope large enough for that purpose.
Please address questions to Paul C. Gorski at pgorski01@gw.hamline.edu
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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