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How Standardized Testing Reveals Stark Inequalities Between Rich and Poor

Is the call for more testing just another way to maintain the status quo?

Last month, USA Today reported on the hundreds of thousands of children across New York State who opted out of the state standardized English Language Arts (ELA) tests. Data from the tests is high stakes all around; it’s linked to individual students’ academic advancement, teacher evaluations, and overall school performance ratings. Proponents of testing usually argue that collecting such data is necessary to measure student achievement and hold educators accountable, but the state director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Nicole Brisbane, offered USA Today a surprising explanation for why students really ought to take these tests: “Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs,” Brisbane told USA Today. “How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn’t clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data.”

The opt-out movement was bigger than ever this year, with an estimated 200,000 New York children refusing the state exams that test ELA and math. After a budget season in which Governor Cuomo pushed hard to have student test scores count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation, critics of high stakes testing had even more evidence to argue that the so called “education reform” agenda has more to do with firing teachers and closing public schools than it has to do with ending inequality.

Following Brisbane’s statement about potential Scarsdale homebuyers to its logical conclusion would suggest that testing is actually about maintaining inequality, not fighting it. “It is apparent that this competition, market-based ideology accepts that there will be inadequate resources for some and an abundance for others,” says Jia Lee, a New York City public school parent and teacher. “I would argue that all public schools should and could be excellent places for all of our children and communities.” Lee rejects the premise of pro-testing reformers that standardized tests are reliable indicators of quality education. “Historically, standardized tests have been reliable indicators of access to resources and nothing more.”

When it comes to resources, there’s no question that wealthy school districts in New York State have an abundance compared to those that serve poorer children. According to data from the Education Trust, the highest poverty districts in the state receive 10% less funding per student in state and local revenues than those with the lowest poverty rates. Adjusted for the needs of students in poverty – who, according to the federal Title 1 formula, cost at least 40% more to educate – the poorest districts actually receive 16% less than those with the least poverty. On top of that, districts serving the most students of color receive 11% less per student than those serving the fewest students of color.

Given these funding disparities at the state and local level, on top of the individual advantages that wealth provides students, like access to school supplies, tutoring, and enrichment, it becomes clear that students in a place like Scarsdale aren’t on remotely the same playing field as students in the Bronx, where there is a 45% child poverty rate. Using the data provided by standardized tests to argue that wealthier neighborhoods have “better” schools further entrenches that inequality. Wealthier neighborhoods simply have wealthier schools.

“It makes me so angry that there are people who have so much money and so much power who are using that power to keep my students in poverty, by putting policies in place that they know will keep some property values high and some property values low,” says New York City public school teacher Megan Moskop. For Moskop, Brisbane’s quote is significant because it unveils what’s beneath the successful narrative of so many education reformers who advocate for closing public schools in the name of equality. “The narrative of DFER has been so carefully constructed and thoughtfully worded to call it a civil rights narrative. I think there are a lot of well intentioned people that buy into that narrative,” including passionate teachers who believe in the charter school movement, says Moskop. “They’re not seeing the other side of that, which is that this is a competitive system where kids are losing more and more.”

Victoria Frye, a New York City public school parent whose son has chosen to opt out of the tests since fifth grade, was surprised to hear DFER’s focus on wealthy communities, given that the organization’s agenda is all about focusing on accountability for schools in under-resourced communities. (A national reform organization, DFER advocates for “policies which stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools” (particularly charter schools) “and…simultaneously close down failing schools.”) “They’re supposed to be concerned with the so-called ‘failing’ schools that are failing poor students, not with suburban property owners,” Frye says. Her son is now a seventh grader and is opting out this year even though the tests are a determining factor in high school admissions; his current school goes through 12th grade, and he’s happy to stay. “[Opting out] really diminishes your opportunities for applying to different schools, which is, of course, part of the whole market-based consumer model of education ushered in by Bloomberg,” says Frye.

Frye and her husband are both scientists and firm believers in quantitative measurement. But as her son lost increasing amounts of instruction time to test prep, and as the tests became further connected to teacher evaluations, “it just became more and more obvious that they were used for political reasons and not for pedagogy.”

Indeed, according to DFER’s website, the organization’s mission is to support leaders who “champion America’s public schoolchildren.” But Brisbane’s USA Today quote is not an outlier. She expressed a similar sentiment in a DFER blog post, writing: “How will suburban communities maintain their draw if there isn’t a measure of how the schools are actually doing in comparison to those across the state?” She went on to argue that test data has “sparked so many positive changes for low income students.”

In a statement to AlterNet, Brisbane claims it is the opt-out movement, not testing, that really harms low-income students: “The people who are opting out of tests are largely those who already feel like their child has access to a high-quality education, and are doing so in a way that directly harms low-income and minority students throughout New York. We should be supporting students and teachers throughout New York, whether they are in Scarsdale or the Bronx, and making sure all students have a fair shot at a quality education. Rather than maintain the status quo where wealth determines a quality education, data can and should highlight where the gaps are so we can invest in schools that need it the most.”

Brisbane’s suggestion that the resistance to testing is populated by people who have no stake in the matter is evidently an attempt to make the protest seem less legitimate than it actually is; it is, however, an accusation that is demonstrably untrue, as reports of just who is opting out make clear. New York principal Carol Burris, for example, has written about her district, Brentwood, which had a 49% opt-out rate for ELA tests, and a 57% rate for the math tests administered the following week. Burris notes that,

“Ninety-one percent of Brentwood students are black or Latino, and 81 percent are economically disadvantaged. Brentwood is not unique – Amityville (90 percent black or Latino, 77 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate of 36.4 percent; Greenport (49 percent black or Latino, 56 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate that exceeded 61 percent; and South Country opt outs (50 percent black or Latino and 51 percent economically disadvantaged) exceeded 64 percent.”

Those numbers clearly run counter to the narrative that the movement is exclusively white and middle-class. And while new data analysis from the New York Times reveals that districts with the highest opt-out rates had 50% or fewer students receiving free and reduced lunch, the opt-out numbers were higher this year in nearly every district where data is known. Critics of testing also point out that there are a number of factors making it harder for low-income families to refuse, from language barriers to a lack of educational options.

“Families who are struggling financially are in even more difficult situations because they’ve been pressured to raise the scores to keep their schools open,” parent and teacher Jia Lee says. “High stakes standardized tests are a distraction when we already know what the problems are. That is why families, especially in the shrinking middle class, are realizing more and more that the only way to push back against policies that deepen inequities, is to refuse the tests.”