Standardized Tests Are Racist, So Are You

Jan 3, 2023 9:00:00 AM


Too many Black, Brown and low-income students are further behind in their pursuits of their God-given potential. For many of our youth, they are behind more than ever.  

None of this was inevitable.  Leaders chose this path for students. As researchers from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research put it, “the widening racial gap happened because of negative shocks to schools attended by disadvantaged students” including lower-quality remote instruction and longer closures of school buildings. 

But if you listen to some voices in education policy, especially those who claim to be the closest allies of Black and Brown communities, we shouldn’t pay attention to these gaps.  Measuring, even mentioning, these gaps just reinforces inequality–these “allies” claim. 

Ignoring The Writing On The Wall 

I want to be clear: Far too many of our children can’t read or do math. Observing this fact and finding it unacceptable is not racist. Indeed, to excuse it away with some virtue-signaling waving of hands is racist.  

To ignore the impact that it will have on the lives of young Black and Brown students and on our communities’ future, that is racist. To turn and run from the very real and often deadly barriers, challenges and threats that Black and Brown children inhabit daily because it’s a cleaner fit with your intellectual project to do so rather than to do the hard work of improving our public education system is dishonest and lazy.  

Worse still, it is premised on racist notions of the helplessness of our Black and Brown children and communities.  

Measuring Student Success Is Imperative

We must recognize and act upon the idea that citizens within their communities are able to simultaneously contribute to their communities. Stripping Black and Brown communities of their agency is the foundation and height of racism and injustice.  

By contending that any type of standardized academic measurement–imperfect as any human-created system will be–shows nothing of use for Black and Brown children does just that.  It conceives of their individual abilities as insurmountably swallowed up, drowned out or obfuscated by the “whiteness” of the tool being used to measure those abilities.  

Ignoring the very real progress made on improving the cultural relevance of academic measurement tools, these advocates would have us just go off “vibes” to know if kids are ready and prepared to pursue their aspirations. And, yes, expanding and improving how we measure our students’ success is an imperative, but some will just wring their hands and fret, while others will say the only thing necessary to erase the centuries of racism and low expectations in our school systems is more funding.

A Black And Brown Nation At Risk

On the other end of the spectrum, we have state leaders who, it would seem, are just fine with Black and Brown children learning less. They are the ones who have said these children, our children, are destined to “flip pizza crusts” and so should expect less of themselves, their leaders and their society.  

On all sides, Black and Brown children are being told not to worry about the fact that other kids are learning more.  Meanwhile, it’s our youngest children who may be the most injured. Some of the worst declines for Black and Brown students are among nine year olds–a critical age group. 

Research shows that the end of third grade must be the point at which students go from learning to read to reading to learn.  Those who read proficiently by that time are four times more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who struggle to read beyond third grade. 

Similarly, learning to do mathematics is a cumulative effort–losing out on the basics early makes learning more challenging content much more difficult. 

We are, in the end, a Black and Brown nation at risk.  Far-right elected officials telling us Black and Brown communities should expect less, social justice allies telling us to ignore the quantifiable injury suffered by our children.  

The only way out of this downward spiral is to be clear-eyed about where our children are currently and flood our schools with the research-proven academic and social interventions we know they need.  

Our children deserve honesty and candor as much as they deserve educational equity and justice. Excusing away the accelerating achievement and opportunity gaps that they face robs them of that and in so doing, diminishes their agency, their very personhood. We must see our children for who they are and level with them about where they are. That will ensure we are transparent about who we, the adults, actually are. 

This originally appeared in Philly’s 7th Ward.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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