Race, class, and standardized tests explained

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook is examining standardized testing this month. The topic is the focus of our upcoming December-January edition.

What is the so-called achievement gap?

This gap manifests itself in test scores; in the vast majority of standardized tests, scores for African American and Latino students are, on average, significantly lower than scores for White and Asian students. Many object to calling it an “achievement” gap, citing vastly different resources available to students in different circumstances. The gap has shrunk over the last few decades, but is still wide and persistent, as is the gap in resources.

How large is the Black-White test score gap?

The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national test often called “the nation’s report card.” This year, on reading and math tests, 43 percent of White 8th graders scored Proficient or above, compared to 13 percent of African Americans.

On the 2015 SAT taken for college admission, the combined score for Whites was 1576; for African Americans, it was 1277.

On the 2015 Pennsylvania Keystone exam in algebra, 57 percent of White Philadelphia 11th graders scored Proficient or advanced, while 30 percent of Blacks met that mark.

How about Latinos and Asians?

On the 2015 NAEP reading and math tests, 19 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of Asians scored Proficient or above.

On the 2015 SAT, Hispanics’ scores ranged from 1343 to 1347, depending on their nationality. For Asians-Americans, it was 1654.

On Pennsylvania’s 2015 Keystone exam in algebra, 26 percent of Hispanics tested and 72 percent of Asian Americans in Philadelphia scored Proficient or above.

What are the reasons for the gaps?

Many researchers say that an “opportunity gap” leads to an “achievement gap.” Socio-economic factors including income levels, educational attainment, employment rates, housing options, crime rates in neighborhoods, and resources available to schools, are worse for African Americans and Hispanics, on average, than for Whites. These circumstances often lead to fewer opportunities for African American and Hispanic children to access a wide range of activities and experience an enriched educational environment from birth onward.

African Americans and Hispanics often do not have the educational advantages that more wealth brings. More White students than Blacks and Hispanics have parents who went to college – the mother’s education level is a major predictor of test scores. For tests like the SAT, more affluent students can pay for private coaching and test prep.

Some researchers and advocates say that African Americans and some Hispanics, because of the legacy of segregation and the persistence of discrimination, on average attend worse schools in more troubled neighborhoods than Whites, even if they are not poor. And many Hispanic children live in households where English is not the first language, complicating their educational situation and sometimes giving them access to fewer educational resources.

As for the higher scores, on average, by Asians, a recent study concluded that “Asian and Asian American youth are harder working because of cultural beliefs that emphasize the strong connection between effort and achievement. Studies show that Asian and Asian American students tend to view cognitive abilities as qualities that can be developed through effort,” rather than inborn.

How great is the correlation between poverty and scores on standardized tests?

There is a strong relationship. A 2015 statewide study of school results on the 2012-13 PSSAs and Keystone exams by the Philadelphia-based Research for Action showed this clearly: “Exceptions are rare,” it said. For the reading score, “of more than 2,200 schools in this sample, 187 post proficiency rates of 90 or above. Of these, just seven schools (3.7%) have economically disadvantaged enrollments of 50 percent or higher; five of the seven are Philadelphia magnet schools.”

Countless other studies show the same results. One researcher wrote that the surest way to predict a student’s test scores, on average, was by looking at the amount of poverty in their zip code.

Do lower income students score far below their middle- and upper-income counterparts?

On the 2015 NAEP, 18 percent of 8th grade students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, an indicator of poverty, scored Proficient or above on math, while 48 percent of those whose family income priced them out of lunch eligibility scored Proficient or above.

A 2014 Wall Street Journal article said that according to calculations from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (also known as FairTest), “students from the wealthiest families outscored those from the poorest by just shy of 400 points.” On the 2015 Keystone test in algebra, 58 percent of Philadelphia students who were not economically disadvantaged scored Proficient or above, while 33 percent of economically disadvantaged students achieved that benchmark.

Some widely cited research asserts that the testing gap between wealthier and poorer students is growing. One study found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree increased by 18 percentage points over a recent 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students grew by only 4 points.

Is there race and class bias in the tests themselves?

Some advocates and researchers point to cultural biases in the tests – for example, expecting test takers to know some aspect of a test question that more affluent students are more likely to have encountered than poorer children.

Testing expert Jay Rosner says that the SAT shows a pattern of discarding possible test questions that Black students get right more often than White students in field tests because they are seeking to maintain the reliability of the test, which means taking into account the relatively higher scores of White test takers.

The makers of the SAT, the College Board, say that the questions that make it into the test are and should be race neutral and undergo a statistical “fairness review” before their inclusion.Test developers say that they are constantly screening potential tests questions and monitoring tests for signs of bias and work hard to eliminate any that they find.

The core of what makes the tests inequitable, many researchers and advocates say, is not mainly the tests themselves, but the circumstances, from birth onward, of the children taking them.