by Joseph Williams
As students nationwide begin to take standardized assessment tests in the coming weeks, a new report argues the exams shortchange students of color by ignoring their lived experiences, further widening the educational achievement gap.
Further, the report, produced by the nonprofit organization EdTrust, makes the case that parents and education activists should pressure officials to overhaul the tests and make them more culturally and racially inclusive.
Tests that include questions with facts or premises relevant to students of color — from an abuela preparing a special Mexican soup for her grandson to a Black girl wearing a bonnet at bedtime — can better gauge their learning and knowledge retention than culturally neutral questions.
“By updating these assessments, students of color can more fully demonstrate what they know and can do, giving parents, policymakers, and educators a more accurate picture of how schools are serving all students,” according to the report.
At issue are federally-required standard assessment tests, which are designed to measure school performance through student achievement, compared to a universal benchmark.
Set against a specific benchmark, those tests can help authorities determine if students have learned what they were expected to learn in a particular curriculum, module or grading period. School officials use the information to allocate and distribute resources as well as identify struggling schools and educational inequities.
The tests are seen as critical because they allow for valid comparisons across student groups, schools, and districts within a state.
After convening a series of focus groups, the EdTrust report found that parents of students of color believe the tests are biased against Black and Latino students. The tests “limit students of color from demonstrating what they know and can do,” according to the report, because the questions exclude facts and framing that connect to their lived experiences or communities.
That absence is by design: intent on avoiding bias, testing companies stripped tests of all facts or references that might be familiar to white students but foreign concepts to Black or Latino students. But that attempt at neutrality and “color-blindness,” the report argues, actually has the opposite effect.
Tests that are “stripped clean of any specific cultural references” are actually “reinforcing the dominant culture of Whiteness,” according to the report.
Studies show that culture “plays a fundamental role” in learning, according to the report. That’s because “students build knowledge and understanding by incorporating new information into their existing experiences and awareness.”
Tests that include authentic, familiar elements of culture — from multigenerational households to music or foods — encourage and enhance learning, according to the report. For students of color, it functions as a mirror, enabling them to feel “seen,” while for white students, it’s a “window” that can promote cultural understanding.
To help bring about that change, the report has several recommendations for test companies, including diversifying staff and content producers, updating diversity and sensitivity guidelines, and encouraging feedback from the community.
But the report also says parents and grassroots activists also have a role to play, including mobilizing students, parents, and educators to share their experiences with tests that don’t match their experiences, urging state and local to hold test creators to a diversity standard, and ushing state legislators to allocate additional assessment funding specifically to developing inclusive content and improving processes to allow for inclusive content.
By acknowledging the connection between culture and learning, dismantling assumptions, and pointing out present bias, the report states, “advocates can push their state leaders to forge a path toward modifying statewide assessments that empowers all students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, to demonstrate what they truly know and can do — improving data that drives decision-making.”