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Privilege, Test Scores, and High Expectations

March 11, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Test scores, once seen as a way to force schools to have higher expectations of their students, have instead placed a ceiling and walls around what many schools expect of their students. A reevaluation of this approach is overdue.

For one perspective on this, we can look to the recent Education Week commentary by Michael McGill, the superintendent of the Scarsdale district in New York, who criticizes the current overemphasis on testing. Scarsdale is, by pretty much any measure, a privileged community. As McGill describes it, “Median income here is somewhere in the nation's top 100, depending on which source you use. Over 80 percent of residents hold a bachelor's degree. Students are among the country's top performers.”

Why do we care what the Scarsdale superintendent has to say? Largely, it’s because few can accuse him of self-interest when he criticizes the overuse of testing in education policies. His district doesn’t suffer from a “failed status quo.” When he argues for narrowing the use of testing, it seems unlikely that he’s trying to cover his own failures. He may just honestly believe that the way testing is currently used in New York hurts students by pressuring their teachers and schools to focus more on the limited range of topics and lower levels of thinking that show up on those tests. The experience of privileged education is, in McGill’s paraphrase of his school board, “Give children a deep, rich education, and let the numbers take care of themselves.”

A deep, rich education is the goal of most people with a stake in the education system, and I suspect it’s what many reformers had in mind when they called for higher expectations. They saw too many cases of teachers or schools writing children off because of race or background. The stories of this treatment have piled up (and, perhaps unfortunately, been joined by melodramatic portrayals of uncaring teachers in certain movies), and there is a need to ensure that teachers and schools treat all children as capable of learning at the highest level.

As we can see in McGill’s article, however, over-testing can be antithetical to the highest expectations. The testing movement once promised to ensure children from under-resourced backgrounds had access to the same quality of education as their peers from more privileged backgrounds, but the limits of that approach are now apparent.

Veteran educator Deborah Meier reflects on a different vision of reform in a separate Education Week article. Her descriptions of schools in the middle of the 20th century sound notes that would be familiar to anyone following education reform today. Describing her experience as a teacher in Harlem, she writes, “the media and many schools of education taught us to think about poor (especially black) children as not yet fully ‘ready’ for higher-order thinking, or for self-discipline.” Later, as a Head Start teacher in Philadelphia, she found, “The one difference, a much-welcomed one, was the focus on including mothers in the educational process, although it wasn't always done respectfully. There were also more black teachers. But parents were still seen as the problem, not the solution.”

Finally, back in New York, she grew tired of, “the same talk about ‘deprived’ children in the largely orderly school in central Harlem” where she worked. By then, she had enough background and support to start a school-within-a-school that rejected the pathologization of poverty she’d encountered elsewhere. Eventually, she was asked to start new, self-governing schools in East Harlem that followed similar principles. “For a time,” she writes, “there seemed no limit to the possibilities—if we were willing to make do, scrounge, and depend on the energy of the new young teachers attracted to these newer approaches.”

The rise of the testing movement in the 1990’s, though, took the wind out of those sails. Tied up in this narrative, she saw not a focus on high expectations, but rather, “The pejorative narrative about the poor returned with a vengeance—focused again on ‘pathologies’ of poverty that led to poor discipline, lack of language, limited intellectual capacities, and the need for step-by-step instruction and unremitting sternness.” As an opponent of this mindset, she was branded a defender of the “failed status quo,” despite the fact that her mindset is in many ways similar to those of today’s young reformers.

Considered together, these two testimonies -- that of the superintendent in a privileged district and that of a long-time educator of students from under-resourced backgrounds -- suggest that somewhere along the way, the focus on high expectations was replaced by something else. By focusing so relentlessly on that final test score outcome, we have begun to neglect much of the rest of what makes school worthwhile.

Ultimately, we want all children to have an excellent experience of school, one that leaves them excited about learning and about their own futures, as well as prepared for the road ahead. These experiences are so much broader than test scores, and focusing too much on those scores limits how high our expectations can be. It’s time to rethink that approach.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    March 17, 2014 at 8:50 am

    The then-mayor of New York, along with those of Chicago and Los Angeles, were eager participants in the movement to replace public schools with publicly-funded but privately operated charters.  High-stake testing and closure of schools in poor neighborhoods are components of their desired change and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan buys into and pushes the privatization dream.