Minorities support 'racist' tests

Last week, a group called the New York Collective of Radical Educators staged a protest against standardized testing.

Responding to recent reports about substantial gains for fourth-graders on citywide reading and writing examinations, the group argued that the improved scores reflect "drill-and-kill" test-preparation activities rather than real learning. Worst of all, protesters maintained, the entire testing enterprise discriminates against racial minorities. For blacks and Hispanics especially, they said, standardized tests inhibit academic achievement and increase the dropout rate.

The only problem is, blacks and Hispanics don't see it that way.

Over the past decade, public opinion surveys have demonstrated overwhelming support among racial minorities for high-stakes testing. In a 2003 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, for example, three-quarters of Latinos said that standardized tests "should be used to determine whether students are promoted or can graduate." Two-thirds agreed that the federal government "should require states to set strict performance standards for public schools," as mandated under President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

Likewise, African-Americans favor high-stakes tests by large margins. To be sure, activist groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have criticized NCLB and state graduation exams. But the black rank and file tell another story.

According to a 1998 survey by Public Agenda, nearly 8 of 10 African-American parents want schools to test children and publicize black-white achievement differences, just as NCLB requires.Only 28 percent say that standardized tests are "culturally biased" against black children, as critics often maintain. Many of these critics work at schools of education, where the standardized test serves as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American teaching.

According to the Ed-School Gospel, as I call it, schools should reflect student interests, not the sterile demands of "the curriculum"; they should employ a wide variety of classroom materials, not just the district-approved textbook; they should promote group learning and cooperation; and they should evaluate each student based on her or his own progress, not on district or statewide norms.

In every way, the argument goes, standardized testing harms these goals. It ignores the interests of the individual student; it promotes needless competition and anxiety; it turns learning into a lock-step exercise, inhibiting exploration and imagination; and it measures students against an arbitrary standard, ignoring their idiosyncratic abilities and attributes.

As a professor at an American school of education, I share many of these concerns. But I also worry that the Ed-School Gospel blinds us to the concerns of American racial minorities, who simply don't see the world the way we do. They want classrooms that stress discipline, that follow a strict curriculum, and that help children succeed on - gasp! - standardized tests.

Especially if students live in chaotic or dangerous home environments, minority parents argue, they need the order and structure of a traditional school.

That doesn't mean minority parents are right, of course. But it does mean that the people who run our schools - and, especially, our schools of education - need to take these opinions into account. We can no longer dismiss high-stakes testing as "racist" when so many racial minorities want it.

Unfortunately, we also have a rich tradition of ignoring popular sentiment. Even John Dewey, the greatest tribune of modern American democracy and education, questioned whether citizens should influence school policy. "Are the schools doing what the people want them to do?" he asked in 1901.

"The schools are not doing, and cannot do," he continued, "what the people want until there is more unity, more definiteness, in the community's consciousness of its own needs; but it is the business of the school to forward this conception."

In other words, educators should tell the people what they really need. That's fine, so long as we listen to them as well.

Ed-school professors love to talk about "hearing the voices" of blacks and Hispanics, who are too often excluded from America's educational dialogues. But when minorities express an opinion that we don't like, we turn a deaf ear. That's a lousy model for education, and an even worse one for democracy.

Whatever we think of America's current testing craze, American racial minorities clearly endorse it. And if we dismiss their views out of hand, we'll be demeaning the very people whom we claim to defend.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and is author of "Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools."

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