Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Garfield High Teacher: Standardized Tests 'Disproportionately Impact Students Of Color'

Wes Chapman

The issues of race and class currently fueling protests around the U.S. manifest in a different way in the classroom, says Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian.

"Many of our students feel they're being set up," said the educator-activist and advisor of Garfield's Black Student Union who led the school's testing boycott in 2013.

Hagopian says the setup exists in the standardized tests policymakers across the nation have increasingly used to measure the gap in academic performance. The gap, he says, too often separates students of color from their white peers, and hold teachers and school leaders accountable for closing it.

Catching Students Who Are Falling Behind

President Obama has said, "There's nothing wrong with testing. We just need better tests ... that track how well our students are growing academically so we can catch when they're falling behind, and help them before they just get passed along."

Though the mechanisms that made the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act so powerful have become largely unpopular, many, including Obama administration officials, still support the law's central aim: to shine a bright spotlight on inequities in the nation's education system.

But Hagopian sees it differently, especially when it comes to racial inequities in schools. He recently edited a book titled "More Than A Score" that criticizes education policymakers for becoming too obsessed with standardized testing.

'Disproportionate Impact' On Students Of Color

"When you discuss the problem of black success in terms of their failure to succeed or their failure to achieve," said Hagopian, "and you don't discuss the fact that the opportunities are being systematically denied to them, then you blame our black youth for the problems that our society has created."

"These tests," he added, "disproportionately impact students of color because they lack the resources and the access to programs that would help them succeed on the tests the best — test prep tutors [and] smaller class sizes."

Hagopian says the harms of standardized testing can be quantified. He points to a working paper from a Boston University professor that found the use of high school exit exams, while having no significant impact on students' ability to get jobs or earn decent wages, can reduce graduation rates and increase incarceration rates.

'Take Educational Equity Seriously' — But How?

Hagopian doesn't oppose the use of "authentic assessments," saying high schools need something equivalent of higher education's dissertation defense process to assess students' critical thinking skills and mastery of subject material. He says a movement against fill-in-the-bubble testing, though, is on the rise.

But whether that movement has any impact remains to be seen, as New America Foundation education researcher Conor P. Williams recently wrote in a Talking Points Memo commentary.

"The first African-American president of the United States is not likely to... weaken the federal government’s ability to force states to take educational equity seriously," Williams said. "For most of American history (and today), the decentralization of public education has been repeatedly used to protect de jure and de facto segregation, inequitable allocation of educational resources, and a dizzying variety of civil rights abuses."

Hagopian had planned several national events to promote the book, which features pieces from prominent testing critics Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.