“Education is the great civil rights issue of our time.”
—Former U.S. President George W. Bush (2002)
“[The educational achievement gap] is the civil rights issue of our time.”
—Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige (2004)
“Education is the Civil Rights Movement of our generation.”
—Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010)
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”
—Former U.S. President Barack Obama (2011)
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”
—U.S. President Donald Trump (2017)
Starting with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the logic has been this: There are race-based gaps in standardized test scores. Closing those gaps should be the goal for achieving racial equality in education. Connected to clear punishments for failure, we can use those tests to achieve this goal.
Since then, politicians from both parties have repeated the mantra that educational achievement gaps are the “civil rights issue of our time.” This is one of the reasons why a number of mainstream civil rights organizations in May 2015 spoke out against the movement to let students and parents opt out of high-stakes testing. Their argument: Without the data, we can’t hold schools and teachers accountable for racial inequality.
The problem is that high-stakes standardized testing has not only failed at achieving racial equality, its proliferation has only exacerbated racial inequality and worsened the education for students of color.
But we are in a moment of profound resistance and change as the movements to bring Ethnic Studies to classrooms across the country and make Black students’ lives matter in schools are gaining traction. And it is critical we understand that high-stakes standardized tests do not serve students of color. They support white supremacy.
The Faulty (Bio)logics of Testing for Racial Justice
The logic of high-stakes testing for racial justice is simple. Standardized tests produce data that we can look at and identify “achievement gaps.” Then, if we don’t see the scores of low-performing racial groups increase to close these gaps, teachers, schools, and students are held “accountable” to punishments like funding cuts, charter school conversion, or withholding diplomas, among other consequences. The idea is that these threats will lead to higher test scores for students from low-income families and students of color.
The arguments for using high-stakes testing for racial equality all assume that our standardized tests provide accurate measurements of teaching and learning. This presumption does not hold true. Test scores correlate most strongly with family income, neighborhood, educational levels of parents, and access to resources — all factors that are measures of wealth that exist outside of schools.
This is not to say that schools and teachers are not important in student learning and achievement. However, it is to say that while teachers are central to how our children learn and experience education, the tests offer such narrow measures that they miss most of the processes, experiences, and relationships that define teaching and learning. Further, it is also to say that, as we have seen in so many “miracle” schools, a rise in test scores is rarely connected to genuine improvements in student learning and instead has typically been produced by gaming the system, being selective about who is enrolled in a school, or losing low achievers through attrition or expulsion.
It is also important to recognize that high-stakes tests are not race-neutral tools capable of promoting racial equality. At their origins more than 100 years ago, standardized tests were used as weapons against communities of color, immigrants, and the poor. Because they were presumed to be objective, test results were used to “prove” that whites, the rich, and the U.S.-born were biologically more intelligent than non-whites, the poor, and immigrants. In turn, the tests provided backing to early concepts of aptitude and IQ, which were then used to justify the race, class, and cultural inequalities of the time.
For instance, in 1916, based on standardized test scores, Stanford Professor Lewis Terman (one of the founders of standardized testing in U.S. schools) argued that certain races inherited “deﬁcient” IQs, saying that “No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens.” He further asserted that “feeblemindedness” was “very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes [sic],” and suggested that “Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction that is practical . . .” Terman reasoned that while these students were unable to “master abstractions” they still could be made into “efﬁcient workers.” This testing was then brought en masse into the growing public school system (in large part due to Terman’s work), and standardized test scores were used to justify educational tracking for kids of color, immigrants, and the poor.
This kind of test-informed inequality stems in part from the design paradigm of our standardized tests themselves: They were — and are — built on the assumption that human intelligence is based on biological aptitude that is “naturally” distributed across populations on a bell curve. This bell curve logic decrees that, if a test was given to a large population, some would score high, a lot would be in the middle, and some would do very poorly.
The bell curve underlying the construction of high-stakes standardized tests means that they will always produce high scorers and low scorers. Put differently, the assumed unequal distribution of intelligence built into the tests makes it impossible for everyone to pass and be deemed successful. This reality paints all discussion of closing the achievement gap in test scores in a new light. It does not mean everyone succeeds on the tests. Rather, “closing the achievement gap” in test scores means proportionate success and failure between groups, such that we have equal numbers of rich and poor students passing and failing, equal numbers of Black, white, Asian, Native, and Latinx passing and failing, etc. — all neatly and equally distributed along the bell curve.
In addition, the test-and-punish logic of using a high-stakes standardized test to hold schools, teachers, and students “accountable” for race-based score improvement has failed miserably. While it is true that a 2011 National Research Council report indicates that test scores in math and English/language arts for Black and Latinx students have generally risen since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the report also points out that the test scores of white students have risen even more in the same time period. So, after more than a decade of the punitive policies, the threats against and disciplining of teachers, students, and schools have exacerbated racial test score gaps instead of closing them.
High-Stakes Testing and the Disciplining of Black and Brown Bodies
The idea of discipline is at the heart of policies and practices aimed at holding students, teachers, and schools “accountable” for raising test scores. There is physical discipline: Students are bound by a set amount of testing time. They must remain silent. Their movements are restricted and generally must stay seated. They also are taken out of their regular classrooms and are required to sit in test-specific rooms. They either cannot access resources beyond the assessment or are limited to only using specified resources (e.g., calculators). Testing happens under the disciplinary gaze of an authority (a proctor) watching for transgressions.
There is also the discipline of enduring the stress and physical limits placed on students for hours at a time, as well as the emotional discipline of handling the stress of the high stakes. While this is problematic for all kids, it is especially damaging to young children who are expected to endure testing experiences that are developmentally inappropriate for them.
High-stakes standardized tests also discipline curriculum and learning: They determine what knowledge and content is considered legitimate for teaching in the classroom. They also discipline teachers’ pedagogy because they compel teachers to teach to the test and place restrictions on depth and breadth of subject matter. Further, the tests discipline educational resources, as money gets used on test-aligned textbooks, teaching materials, technologies, and professional development.
While high-stakes standardized testing disciplines all students, non-white and low-income students are disciplined with disproportionate intensity because the tests concentrate failure in their schools and communities. This means that low-income kids and kids of color are tested more; experience the greatest loss of time spent on non-tested or less-tested subjects like art, music, science, and social studies; don’t have multicultural, anti-racist curriculum made available to them because those areas are not on the tests; and lose opportunities for culturally relevant instruction because the tests tend to inhibit process-based, student-centered instruction in favor of rote memorization.
Further, because of the increased intensity of testing and more restrictive curriculum and educational environments, high-stakes tests acculturate children of color to a norm of being disciplined by state authorities — they are tested more frequently, have their performance scrutinized more closely by educational officials and policymakers, are punished more often for test performance, and are subjected to more drastic “corrections” in curriculum and pedagogy than their white counterparts.
The disciplining of Black and Brown children by high-stakes standardized testing also manifests in very concrete and material ways. A 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that in one state having a high-stakes graduation exit exam correlated with a 12.5 percent increase in the rate of incarceration. Again, given that these tests fail kids of color disproportionately, this study suggests that high-stakes standardized tests are a conduit for the school-to-prison pipeline.
High-Stakes Testing as Retributive Justice
Ultimately, high-stakes standardized testing, with its focus on surveillance, discipline, and punishment, represents a form of retributive justice. Built around the concept of “retribution” for a crime, retributive justice seeks vengeance for a wrongful act, and it is the cornerstone of our entire system of criminal justice in the United States. Howard Zehr, Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University, explains that retributive justice operates along three questions:
• What rule has been broken?
• Who is to blame?
• What punishment do they deserve?
Educational “accountability” based on high-stakes testing is an expression of retributive justice. Our systems of accountability criminalize test failure, and instead of trying to fix the problem, policymakers use the results to punish students, teachers, schools, and communities.
Can we test our way to racial justice? Currently, we cannot. The paradigm of test and punish does not promote justice in any form. Indeed, looking at its impact, high-stakes standardized tests serve to promote injustice and inflict acute damage on kids of color. However, there are other models beyond retributive justice.
Restorative justice has become an increasingly popular alternative to models of disciplinary, retributive justice that are all too common in schools. According to Zehr, models of restorative justice ask a different set of questions:
• Who has been hurt and what are their needs?
• Who is obligated to address these needs?
• Who has a “stake” in this situation and what is the process of involving them in making things right and preventing future occurrences?
Following this, a model of assessment aimed at racial justice would begin by recognizing that students of color have been hurt by institutionalized racism and white supremacy in our schools and that our current assessments have perpetuated this hurt. Further, a restorative assessment model would then need to explicitly name who is obligated to address the institutionalized racism and white supremacy faced by our students in their schools. We would also need to attend to who has voice and power in determining the assessment, as well as their role and responsibility in making things right.
Restorative assessment would also take seriously the idea of healing our kids and communities. Imagine the possibility of an assessment that would be a part of a process of healing the hurt caused by white supremacy and institutionalized racism. Imagine an assessment that was culturally responsive in form and content, one that assessed students for identity development, knowledge of self, cultural knowledge, and confronting internalized oppression/colonization.
Aspects of restorative assessment exist in some places. For instance, much of Linda Christensen’s work, which asks students to write powerfully through pain, or to consider race, class, and the power of language in their lives, begins to point the way toward forms of restorative assessment in the classroom. Her lessons often urge students to express their identities through language, in the process humanizing them while opening pathways toward healing. The practices and pedagogy of the formerly banned Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona, also orient us toward restorative assessment, as they engaged their students in deep learning that sought to decolonize curriculum and their cultural selves.
One example at the elementary level is La Escuela Fratney, a two-way bilingual elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where students have used gallery walks and student-led parent conferences to demonstrate knowledge of their own cultures, skills for working in diverse groups, strategies to fight racist experiences, and reading and writing in languages other than English in order to meet district goals and performance indicators for anti-racist and anti-biased attitudes.
Restorative assessment also invites a conversation about the very forms our assessments take. For instance, as opposed to numerical scores generated by the typical high-stakes standardized test, process-based portfolios and performance assessments allow for more nuanced, human, and complex expressions of student learning, growth, and development that could more accurately embody restoration and healing. It also puts the very idea of A–F and decimal grading systems into question since those singular grades and decimal scores perform the same functions of surveillance and punishment as standardized tests.
The public New York Performance Standards Consortium schools have produced evidence that this kind of restorative assessment is more effective, particularly with students of color. In the consortium, in order to graduate high school, students are required to produce a series of portfolios across multiple subject areas to demonstrate their skills and learning, and are then also required to defend that portfolio to a panel of teachers, their peers, and community members. The consortium schools have significantly lower dropout rates and higher college attainment rates for their low-income students, students of color, and English language learners than other comparable public schools.
However, because restorative justice focuses mainly on individual wrongdoing and individual events, many activists see it as just a small step toward something bigger: transformative justice — which recognizes the conditions that contribute to and shape wrongdoing. According to Zehr, transformative justice asks a set of distinctly different questions from both retributive and restorative models of justice:
• What social circumstances produced the harmful behavior?
• What structures exist between this structure and others like it?
• What measures could prevent further occurrences?
If we applied these to thinking through what transformative assessment might look like, then it suggests a series of skills and a knowledge base that we want to make sure our students are learning. For instance, we might assess students on their understanding of what historical and socioeconomic circumstances produced the institutionalized racism and white supremacy we see in our schools. Given the continued focus on high-stakes testing in education policy and practice, transformative assessment could also check for student understanding of how testing itself reproduces inequalities and maintains white supremacy.
As is implied by the name, transformative assessment could also assess students on their understanding of and capacities for institutional and community transformation. This could include assessing their knowledge of strategies for challenging institutional racism in their schools, districts, and communities. From an activist and transformational perspective, there are concrete skills, understandings, and forms of resistance that we want to foster and develop in our students as potentially powerful individuals and collectives. If we want to assess those skills, then we are forced to consider forms of assessment that are not retributive and ways that are not connected to our current norms and assumptions about standardized testing and accountability.
For instance, in May 2016, students at Forest Grove High School outside of Portland, Oregon, protested a Trump-inspired “build a wall” banner that was hung at their school. Hundreds of Forest Grove students walked out and rallied against the act of racism. Soon, as word spread through social media, they were joined by students from six other high schools in the area. In the following days students from Portland high schools and Portland Community College joined for a rally in the city of Portland itself. It was a powerful moment for student organizing in the Portland area that helped sharpen people’s consciousness about anti-immigrant racism in the region.
The Forest Grove High School students offer just one example, and we’re seeing even more effective organizing by young people, for instance, in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida. There are basic skill sets for organizing that we could see in student learning through transformative assessment. There are also forms of consciousness and political orientations that are anti-racist (in the case of Forest Grove) and oppositional to structural authority, helping students understand and act on their collective power in transformative ways. Indeed, student activism also points to the important relationship between restorative and transformative assessment: Restorative assessment, with its focus on healing, cultural self-knowledge, and decolonization, can help foster the kinds of critical consciousness that can contribute directly to student involvement in mass mobilizations and movements for social justice we might connect with transformative assessment.
Further, student organizing in Forest Grove, Parkland, and elsewhere suggests the possibility that we can create and wield restorative and transformative assessments to foster this kind of activism as a central aspect of public education. Such assessments would have to challenge racism and white supremacy with a focus on cultural and community healing and radical institutional transformation. Such assessments would also have to be constructed to openly challenge hegemonic power and require a complete break from our current system and the faulty logics of high-stakes standardized testing.
The possibility of restorative and transformative assessment is a call for educators and students to reclaim the very idea of “assessment” from the high-stakes standardized tests and corporate education reformers using them for profits and privatization. It invites us to see the very act of assessment as both a tool of healing and as a means to fight the white supremacist legacies of public education in this country. Further, this reclaiming of assessment is also critical for activists and educators working to reform the disciplinary practices of schools. The simple fact is that you can’t practice restorative and transformative justice in schools that rely on retributive forms of assessment like high-stakes standardized testing. The healing and hopefulness of one is smothered by the punishment and pain of the other.
Right now, there are real fights in the streets about police killings of Black people, about xenophobia, nationalism, white supremacy, native sovereignty, Islamophobia, gentrification, poverty, health care, and the protection of the environment. Students are struggling with these issues in their lives and are out protesting in the streets. Our students need restorative understandings to help them make sense of their lives and times, and they need to know about transformative strategies and skills that they can use in these fights. The possibility of restorative and transformative assessment is a call for educators to create forms of schooling and assessment that are liberatory, partisan, and in the interest of justice.
Wayne Au (Contact Me), a former public high school teacher, is a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington–Bothell, and is a longtime editor of Rethinking Schools. He is co-editor of the Rethinking Schools book Teaching for Black Lives, in which a version of this article originally appeared.