Show Me the Numbers: Here’s why standardized tests don’t tell the whole story.
by Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., Journal of Negro Education
(The Root) — “What about to be seen as a person with a name, then POOF a statistic and to many a shame … ” Asa Fludd, an African-American 11th-grader, wrote this for an essay contest that I judged. I reprinted this statement in my second Breaking Barriers (pdf) report, recited it during at least 50 speeches and repeat it here to reinforce the point that behind every statistic, there is a human spirit — a spirit that is as fragile as it is resilient.
The mission of Show Me the Numbers — The Root’s monthly series published in association with Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education, of which I am editor-in-chief — is to break down national data to dispel common myths and challenge conventional wisdom about education in black America. However, the articles are not only about examining the statistics on black education; they are also about how we use statistics. Do we use them to shame, criticize or pity black learners — or to strengthen, support and empower them?
At the end of the summer, the journal will release a special issue on testing and assessment in the black community, co-edited by Donna Ford at Vanderbilt University and Janet Helms at Boston University. In the issue, my colleagues and I will examine issues of fairness and racial bias in achievement tests, which ubiquitously shape the experiences of millions of black children and adults — more now than at any point in history.
In the U.S., black and Hispanic students carry the burden of scoring lower on essentially every known measure of achievement or aptitude than whites and Asians. These tests often serve as gatekeepers to specialized schools, gifted classes and elite colleges — or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, as determinants of special education, grade repetition and emotional-support classes.
Some parents, who may have a low-scoring son or daughter, often recoil from any attempts to challenge the merits of tests and instead blame the schools for inadequately preparing their children. The schools respond by blaming the parents. When explaining the “achievement gap,” test companies blame social inequities and cultural depravation (e.g., single-parent households and poverty). And the cyclical blame game continues, with solutions for black students’ progress almost an afterthought.
For this entry in the series, we examine a national assessment of reading, as well as the finding that black people are less proficient in reading. What is behind black students’ pervasively low reading scores, and are tests that have been designed by our nation’s experts the best assessment of black reading skills?
Failing Black Students
When reporting on the achievement gap, the media have largely ignored the more complex issues regarding the merits of testing, such as bias and fairness, choosing instead to accept the tests at face value. To illustrate, let’s examine how and why, over the last two years, many media outlets have been reporting that nearly 90 percent of black children from elementary school through high school graduation lack reading proficiency.
Late last year, researchers at Harvard released the report Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete? (pdf) which highlighted gaps between races within the U.S. as well as between the U.S. and 65 countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment. For one section of the report, the team of four white research scholars removed all minority participants from their analysis because they found it “worth inquiring as to whether differences between the United States and other countries are attributable to the substantial minority population within the United States.”
The report inspired coverage from black media outlets, including BET.com, which published an article with this telling headline: “Report: Only 13 Percent of 2011 Black Graduates Proficient in Reading.” The Harvard study found that less than half of white graduates were proficient in reading (40 percent), but this low percentage may matter little to those who consider white students to be the nation’s benchmark.
Similarly, in 2010, the Council of the Great City Schools found that only 12 percent (pdf) of black fourth-grade boys were proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, as reported in this New York Times article. More disconcerting, however, is a tacit approval of measures concluding that almost 90 percent of black people lack reading proficiency.
Who’s asking questions like, “How are they measuring reading proficiency?” “Are the tests valid and culturally fair?” “How, and in what conditions, are they administering the tests?” and “How is it possible to have any black publications if almost 90 percent of the black population can’t read?”
Instead, these tests seem only to reinforce something we think we already know about black people. We’ve all heard the adage, “If you ever want to keep anything away from a black person, hide it in a book.”
Separating Tests From Test Takers
Imagine that your fourth-grade son is randomly selected to take a test of reading proficiency. He is given little information about the purpose of the assessment but can reasonably conclude that the test will not influence his grades or grade promotion at his current school.
To test his level of reading comprehension, he is given a two-page passage about bees. Although he can read every word, the passage is extremely boring to him. Because the test is timed, he has to use a particular style of reading that feels contrived. At the end, he has to answer a series of questions, which have many plausible answers. In general, attributes like imagination and creativity work against him because the test requires him to be literal and deductive.
Such is the experience of children who take the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Both the CGCS report and the Harvard study used NAEP assessment data to find that 88 percent of fourth-grade black boys and 87 percent of all black 12th-graders lack reading proficiency. One can replicate their analyses by using the NAEP website.
Hopefully this background will lead you to be at least somewhat skeptical about reports that present highly inflated percentages of black people who lack reading proficiency. We cannot deny the literacy problems in the black community; however, I’m convinced that the problem lies less with children and more with the lack of understanding among adults of multiple literacies.
Although I have never been formally diagnosed, I am certain that I met the diagnostic criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child, and ADD as an adult. When I was in the fourth grade, I was assigned to a “slow readers” group, based on tests and my teacher’s subjective ratings. Today I clearly remember the shame of being relegated to a small group, with small, dumbed-down textbooks — a clear demarcation of the class based on ability.
Neither my mother nor I could make much sense of the deterioration of my academic progress and behavior at the time. I was making D’s and F’s on my report card and being paddled for reasons that I honestly can’t fully remember. I do remember often being in my own mental space, making up stories in which I gave numbers a gender and personality during math class, and making human figures and characters from basically any object (e.g., pencils and paper) I could manipulate.
I passed the fourth grade, but I was broken. I had just left a teacher who clearly saw me as academically inept, and started in a new class with a new teacher who seemed to feel the same way. It was a private school that my mother determined was not worth the cost.
I transferred to a public school, where I joined Ms. Law’s fifth-grade class. Admittedly, my behavior became much more subdued at the public school. But early on it became apparent that Ms. Law believed I was smart — genius smart, which perplexed my mother and me.
Notwithstanding Ms. Law’s impression of my aptitude, I continued to have severe problems with boredom and drifting off when reading or paying attention in class. However, she certainly gave me the confidence to try my best. Throughout middle school and into high school, I used a combination of academic, social and survival skills to maintain grades that were usually slightly above the average of my peers.
My experiences are related to those of rising Louisiana fifth-grader Le’Brandole Green. His story is different because, unlike me, Le’Brandole made nearly all A’s in the fourth grade. However, when he sought admission to Faith Academy through a voucher program, the school administered a test that determined that Le’Brandole should repeat the fourth grade. I’ve determined, through my analysis of the High School Longitudinal Study, that 18 percent of black male students have had to repeat a grade by the time they reach ninth grade — apparently even those who make straight A’s.