Educational inequality in the United States is an obvious, growing, and well-documented crisis¹. Individual students have unequal and insufficient access to quality education, districts are underfunded, and the generational effects of redlining have resulted in de facto segregation that continues to define disparities in educational access in major metropolitan areas. Urban and rural schools alike lack the resources they need, and underinvestment in teacher training and compensation further harms the schools that have the least and need the most.
What are the consequences of unequal investment in education? What are the implications for students? How can we understand the problem so that we begin to work to remedy it?
Standardized tests present the best available tools for assessing learning on a state and national scale. Fair, reliable, and valid exams provide an essential mechanism for quantifying the problem so that resources can be allocated and investment made in the schools and districts with the greatest need.
Historically, standardized tests have been misapplied in those instances where they created unintended perverse incentives for teachers and administrators. When we directly link pay or funding to the outcomes of standardized tests, we distort their value and purpose by making them the ends rather than the means. Tests should be used to understand what students and schools need, but too often they are used as a blunt instrument, which results in teachers teaching to the test, too many days of in-school testing, and a repeated pattern in which the same schools fall short. The tests themselves (and teaching to the test in particular) are not the solution to educational inequality and underperformance, but the tests are essential to shining a light on where we stand and what our students need.
When we blame tests for our educational shortcomings, we deflect blame from the truly insidious forces while compromising our ability to understand the problem we seek to solve. Testing provides some measure of accountability in a decentralized system, enabling districts and states to track student progress relative to standards. Only by understanding where and how students are struggling can we effectively channel the resources needed to begin to close the chasm that bifurcates access to educational opportunity according to wealth, class, and race. The data we glean from testing is also essential to making a compelling case for reform, both in and beyond the sphere of education, on a district, state, and national level. We cannot move forward without knowing where we are.
Standardized tests are an important tool for understanding where we stand as a country. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a standardized achievement test that is used to understand academic achievement internationally.² It reveals gender gaps and socio-economic gaps in reading, math, and science, and it speaks to the desperate need for investment and reform in education as we see the United States falling further behind on the world stage. Without standardized tools like the PISA, we lack a yardstick for understanding our failures, and we have little way to recognize the extent of the challenge we face.
We are at the crux of a national debate on the role of standardized testing. Testing detractors argue that standardized tests are racist and classist, but in doing so they miss the mark: the tests themselves are not racist or classist but instead reveal racism and classism in our society. When we blame the test rather than the underlying social structures at play, we are choosing to ignore a symptom while the underlying disease continues to fester. There is a meaningful debate to be had about how testing should be used in an admissions context, who should be required to submit standardized test results, and what those tests can predict about a student’s future performance, but if our shared goal is to create a brighter academic future for all students, then standardized tests remain an essential tool for understanding the challenge and evaluating our progress.
Broadly administered standardized tests are also a way to identify students who are performing well in spite of their context. Scores themselves provide valuable information, but they also require context, much as the College Board attempted to provide with the environmental context dashboard.³ The same score from two different students in different contexts may reveal thriving in spite of one’s material conditions, or it may reveal languishing in spite of privilege and opportunity, both of which are important for helping to evaluate applicants more accurately and holistically. While tests like the SAT and ACT provide a common yardstick by which to evaluate students, they must not be viewed in isolation – the same score may reveal very different information about two students.
We cannot improve, or even begin to understand, that which we cannot measure. Standardized tests are not the solution to educational inequality – funding, community organizing, effective lobbying, voting, and a meaningful national investment in teacher training and compensation are the components of the solution. Well-intentioned calls to do away with standardized tests have misidentified the culprit: the tests themselves do not create the inequality but rather reveal it in unequivocal terms. Reform is needed in how they are used, but doing away with standardized tests will not solve the problems our education system faces but rather drive them into the dark.