The Truth About Students of Color and Standardized Tests

By Gail L. Thompson

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. Most believed they would graduate on time, and 80 percent said they had earned enough academic credits for their current grade level.

In the remainder of this article I describe the students’ views about standardized tests, whether or not they believed their teachers had adequately prepared them, and their recommendations regarding how teachers can better prepare students for standardized tests. I conclude with a summary and my own recommendations for school leaders.

What the survey asked

At the time when I conducted the study, students were required to take two state-mandated tests, as well as quizzes and exams in their academic courses. During the previous year, they had taken the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT9). The following year, when I collected data from students, they had just taken the California Achievement Test (CAT6), the SAT9’s replacement. Students who hadn’t already passed the California High School Exit Exam were also required to take this test.

I have divided the results into four sections: students’ views about the state-mandated tests; the connection between poor reading and math skills and test scores; students’ beliefs about how well teachers had prepared them; and students’ recommendations to teachers.

Students’ views about the tests

Several questionnaire items permitted students to describe their views about the state-mandated tests, such as how serious they were about them. The majority (62 percent) said they were very serious about passing the SAT9 and CAT6, but nearly half said that in the past, they hadn’t done their best because they believed that taking the SAT9 was a waste of time.

For students who didn’t take these tests seriously, numerous reasons surfaced. For example, many thought they were required to take too many tests, they hadn’t been adequately prepared for the tests, and they wouldn’t benefit from investing more effort into doing well on the tests. Females were more likely to say they had been very serious about doing well on the SAT9, and that during the current year, passing the CAT6 was important to them. Conversely, nearly 60 percent of males believed the tests were a waste of time.

Although many of the students admitted that in the past, they hadn’t taken the SAT9 seriously, a higher percentage said that they were serious about the CAHSEE, and more students had a favorable view of it than the SAT9. Seventy-two percent of the questionnaire respondents said that passing the CAHSEE was important to them, and 75 percent believed they would pass it. In fact, during the discussions, many said they had already passed it.

Focus group participants made it clear that they saw an obvious benefit of doing well on the CAHSEE. That benefit was graduation. Nevertheless, most felt that they were required to take too many tests.

In explaining why he didn’t take the tests seriously, a male student said: “I didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t have anything to do with me as an individual. The school gets points, so the school won’t get shut down. But it’s like, sometimes, you feel that the school don’t care about you, so why you gonna care about the school? By the time the state does come in, you gonna be gone anyway. It doesn’t have anything to do with your grade.” Another participant said, “I read some of the test and then, I started getting tired. So, I started thinking, ‘The test is not going to do anything for me. So, I might as well just mark any answer and then go to sleep.”

Reading and math skills and test scores

The majority of the students said that during the previous year, they could read and understand most of the information on the state-required test; however, more than 20 percent said they could not. Only 43 percent of the students said they could understand most of the math problems on the standardized test during the previous year, and a higher percentage of males compared to females said they could understand them.

What students said about teachers

Fewer than half of the questionnaire respondents said that most of their teachers had done a good job of preparing them for the SAT9 and CAT6, and females were a lot less likely than males to agree that this was true. Furthermore, nearly half of the students said that during the previous year, their SAT9 scores weren’t very high because they hadn’t been taught most of the information on the test.

In the case of the CAHSEE, only 44 percent of respondents agreed that most of their teachers had done a good job of preparing them. Again, females were less likely than males to agree.

Recurring themes among focus group participants were that some teachers made an effort to prepare students, but even those teachers who did, didn’t devote enough time to test preparation. Another theme was that some teachers made no attempt whatsoever. Therefore, many students inferred that if the tests weren’t important enough for teachers to devote adequate time for test preparation, the students didn’t have to take them seriously either.

In fact, several students stated that some of their teachers said they didn’t care if students did well on the tests or not. Some students also complained that the noisy classroom environment wasn’t conducive to doing well on the tests.

Another recurring theme was that the tests were so different from the curriculum that some students said they’d never been exposed to any of the test content. This caused some students to become resentful. For example, a senior exclaimed, “I don’t think our teachers have adequately prepared us for this test because when I look at those tests, I’m like ‘Dang! I didn’t get none of it; I didn’t understand it.’ ... So, I basically decided, ‘Well, I’ll just guess, ‘cause I don’t know none of this. So, I must be stupid.’”

Students’ recommendations

When asked how teachers can prepare them for state-mandated tests, nearly 60 percent of the questionnaire respondents said that if before- and after-school tutoring were available to help them prepare for state-mandated tests, they would attend.

However, the most commonly cited recommendation from focus group participants was that teachers should spend more time on test preparation. Many participants also said that the test preparation needed to include information that is relevant to the tests, and “more and better examples from the test.”

The need for teachers to exercise patience was underscored by the focus group participant who remarked, “Some people don’t get it as quickly as other people, so we need more time;” and the student who said, “They should actually go over the stuff and answer questions. Some of them, if you ask a question ... they get irritated, and they just don’t want to answer your questions.”

Drawing conclusions from the feedback

Several conclusions can be drawn from this study. First, the fact that so many students said that they hadn’t been serious about doing well on the tests, hadn’t done their best, and viewed the tests as a waste of time suggests that educators, parents, policy makers and the media should interpret test scores with caution.

Adults should be wary of assuming that the scores are an accurate reflection of what students know and an accurate reflection of their skill levels. Furthermore, if teachers imply through their attitudes, behavior and the lack of time devoted to test preparation that they don’t take the tests seriously, it appears that many students will adopt the same attitude. When adults assume that test scores reflect what students know and are capable of, they may be overlooking the relationship between test scores and the amount of time that teachers have actually spent preparing students for tests.

Moreover, students must see a direct benefit to doing well on tests. Students were more inclined to take the CAHSEE seriously, because they saw that it was directly linked to graduation. The converse was true of the SAT9 and CAT6, which they saw no personal benefit in passing.

Basic skills at the secondary level

The number of students who said they weren’t able to understand the SAT9 and the number who said they couldn’t do most of the math problems on the test raises several additional points.

Obviously, improving students’ reading comprehension skills should become a top priority for high school teachers and administrators. If students can’t comprehend what they’re being asked to do, it’s impossible for them to do well on tests.

Moreover, math teachers should ensure that students have the basic skills that they need before they are tested on higher-level math concepts. Because of grade inflation and low expectations, many students — especially low-income students and blacks and Latinos — are passed through the K-12 system lacking basic reading and basic math skills. Often, students do poorly in math because they lack knowledge about math fundamentals.

In other words, it’s not only the job of elementary teachers to teach basic math and reading skills; secondary teachers must also do their part. Once the “missing pieces” are provided, it becomes easier for students to learn higher-order math concepts.

Long before tests are given, teachers should also devote an adequate amount of time to familiarizing students with the format and purposes of various types of tests, and provide them with specific strategies to do well on specific types of tests, especially multiple-choice tests.

Recommendations for school leaders

Most of the research on high-achieving, high-poverty, high-minority schools emphasizes that effective school leaders can narrow the achievement gaps and successfully reform schools. In sum, in order to be effective, school leaders must begin with the “right attitude” about students, parents, teachers and the leader’s own role in improving student achievement.

The “no-fault” mind-set that Comer (2004) and others have described as essential to school reform, as well as positive relationships, inclusiveness, providing support for teachers, the creation of a community of learners that is built on high expectations, and the wise use of test data to improve the curriculum and instruction are all key ingredients school leaders must include in the recipe for reform that results in improving student achievement.

Some administrators have used the feedback from test data to create tutoring programs. Others have offered nutrition programs during testing periods to ensure that hunger doesn’t prevent students from doing their best. Administrators should also offer ongoing professional development workshops to teachers that focus specifically on test-taking strategies, test anxiety and stereotype threat (Aronson, 2004; Steele, 2003).

Schools should establish uniform test-preparation policies for the entire school, and hold teachers accountable for devoting adequate time to test preparation. They should also offer parent workshops and inform parents about how they can help their children with tests.

Administrators can improve test scores

With a strong action plan and adequate funding and support from policy makers, administrators can improve black students’ test scores. Unfortunately, in a high-stakes testing environment, many teachers and students will feel that there is little room for creativity in the classroom and for interesting, inclusive and engaging lesson plans.

Although I believe that it is possible for teachers to learn ways to make the curriculum interesting and inclusive and still do a good job of preparing students for tests, principals must understand that many teachers don’t know how to do this. They need help in these areas through modeling, mentoring and other types of professional development.

Although more research is needed to address unanswered questions and the limitations of the current study, including the fact that it was based on results from one school, three messages are clear from the data: In addition to the biases that are inherent in standardized tests, additional reasons for the achievement gap might be:

• some black students aren’t adequately prepared to do well on the tests by their teachers;

• some black students may not be exerting their best effort on the tests; and

• the tests definitely may not reflect the full scope of the students’ knowledge and capabilities.

Until these problems are addressed and further research is collected from black students, President Bush’s goal of reforming the nation’s high schools through additional testing is, undoubtedly, destined to fail.


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Gail L. Thompson, associate professor at Claremont Graduate University, has written several articles and books, including “Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know About African American Students” and the forthcoming “Up Where we Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in Schools and in Life.”