The Truth about Students of Color and Standardized Tests: In Order to Understand the Black-White Achievement Gap, Hearing from Students of Color, Especially about Standardized Tests, Can Be Extremely Beneficial
Thompson, Gail L., Leadership
Each year, when standardized test scores are published for California students, the same message tends to surface: In general, the scores of blacks and Latinos trail those of other groups, especially whites. This pattern emerges so often that it usually doesn't surprise educators or researchers, especially those such as myself, who have studied the achievement gap for many years.
Educators can draw several conclusions about the test scores. First, they can assume--as many do--that blacks and Latinos simply aren't as smart as whites and Asian Americans (Thompson, 2004). They can also assume that social conditions, particularly factors associated with poverty, are responsible, since many students who perform poorly on standardized tests are from low-income families (Barton, 2004).
A third option is to blame the cultural biases and measurement flaws that all standardized tests contain (Gould, 1981; Kohn, 2000; Popham, 2004).
A fourth and more common explanation is that the students should try harder, because many educators believe that black and Latino students are lazy, apathetic and unmotivated; and if they weren't, they would do better on tests (Thompson, Warren & Carter, 2004).
A fifth and equally common explanation is to blame parents, for countless educators believe that most black and Latino parents don't care about their children's education and if they did, the achievement gaps would be eradicated (Thompson, 2003, 2004).
School factors related to achievement
In the current high-stakes testing era, a sixth explanation has begun to receive more attention in recent years: school factors that are linked to high achievement. Among the 14 factors that Barton (2004) identified that are correlated to achievement, six pertain to school: school safety, technology-assisted instruction, class size, the rigor of the curriculum, teacher preparation, and teacher experience and attendance.
Other researchers have focused specifically on how leaders in high-performing, high-poverty and high-minority schools improve test scores. These administrators create a culture of high expectations and inclusiveness that is built on mutual respect for parents, teachers, staff and students; they use test data to improve instruction; and they help teachers increase their efficacy (Carter, 2000; Comer, 2004; Council of Chief State School Officers, 2002; Denbo & Moore Beaulieu et al. 2002; Simon Jr. & Izumi, 2003; Yau, 2002).
In my own search to better understand the black-white achievement gap and the schooling experiences of students of color, particularly African Americans, I realized that little attention has been given to the "voices" of a very important--but often ignored and discounted group--black students. Consequently, in much of my research I have attempted to gather feedback from them.
Listening to what black students have to say is necessary, because the black-white achievement gap continues to perplex educators, researchers and policy makers. At a time when improving black students' standardized test scores has become a priority for school leaders throughout the nation, hearing from those students, specifically about standardized tests, can be extremely beneficial. In this article I attempt to fill this niche.
The article is based on a larger study that I conducted at a low-performing high school in Los Angeles County, after the principal asked me to find out why so many black students were doing poorly on standardized tests. Student participation was voluntary and the study consisted of two parts: the completion of an original questionnaire that I developed, and focus group discussions.
The questionnaire was completed by 102 black ninth-twelfth graders; 62 participated in the focus groups. Forty-two percent were in college preparatory or honors classes, and 71 percent planned to attend a four-year postsecondary institution. …