For the Sake of Racial Justice and Equity, Time to Eliminate Standardized Testing

Daniel Laroche, an educator, President of Advance Eye Care of New York, and a specialist in treating glaucoma, examines the widespread effects of standardized testing in maintaining racial inequality in the United States. Dr. Laroche is affiliated with the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

The America that we have today has inherited an infrastructure of discrimination due to the historical legacy of lawful segregation and racism. Therefore, not all laws are just. The racial and economic segregation created by the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage lending and redlining practices persist to this day. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional. However, the funding of schools through property taxes has, unfortunately, only fortified educational segregation in America. Train tracks continue to signal the wealth and opportunity gaps between neighboring communities.

Within a single zip code, one school district readies its affluent pupils for careers providing six-figure salaries; the other recruits inmates to the school to prison pipeline. The students who avoid the pipeline and desire to cross the train tracks must face down standardized exams. But how can they?

We cannot reasonably believe that outdated textbooks and underpaid, under-resourced teachers in crumbling schools can provide the same instruction that affluent students receive from private tutors and test prep courses. The racial and ethnic differences in performance on standardized exams are irrefutable. Standardized exam performance has been shown to be more a function of the examinees’ parental wealth than their cognitive capabilities. Yet, standardized exams continue to be used in admissions and scholarship decisions across every stratum of postsecondary education.

If a Black student from an impoverished neighborhood wants to become a physician in this country, he or she must perfectly negotiate the SAT, the Medical College Admissions Test, and the United States Medical Licensing Examinations. Noncompetitive performance is met with fewer scholarship dollars and thus a financial penalty for dreaming or refused admission and thus deferral to an imposed reality. Ample evidence demonstrates that standardized exam performance does not predict an examinees’ effectiveness or professionalism in their chosen field. Yet admissions committees throughout the country continue, unwittingly, enforcing America’s pervasive wealth and education inequality.

How do you eliminate the segregation reinforced by standardized testing?

Subsequent to Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of rulings, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that made school integration voluntary. The result, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, has been the expansion – rather than elimination – of racial segregation in schools nationwide, with segregation having more than doubled from 2000 to 2014.

For example, Brooklyn Tech High School and Bronx Science High School in New York City are magnet schools that train future doctors, lawyers, and engineers. To gain entry into either school in 2019 a student would have to score high on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Blacks make up 6 percent of the student body at Booklyn Tech even though the Blacks make up 33.8 percent of the population in Brooklyn. At Bronx Science, Blacks are 3 percent of the student body but 43.6 percent of the population in the Bronx. This inequality in school versus community diversity is due to the testing criteria used to admit students. A prep course for the SHSAT exam is $2,295, which is out of reach for many Black families in these areas. The standardized test scores are highly correlated with a family’s ability to afford preparatory classes and similar educational resources and have no reflection of how good of a surgeon, lawyer, or engineer the examinees will be. This ongoing practice of utilizing standardized testing as a major component of admissions decisions use will continue to exacerbate health and wealth disparities.

How do we fix this? What can we do?

If the magnet high schools changed their admissions criteria to accept the top 10 percent of students from middle schools throughout the city, they would immediately diversify their student bodies to reflect the diverse nature of the city. This is important in addressing the wealth, health, and class disparities that exist along racial lines in NYC and our country. Failure to do this will allow the economic, health, and legal disparities, disproportionately affecting Blacks and poorer individuals, to continue compounding.

Across the educational spectrum classroom grades, student interest, and even teacher recommendations are only reviewed once the related standardized test score has been deemed competitive. Given the high correlation between standardized exam performance and race and socioeconomic status there are increasing calls to replace or mitigate their use under the disparate impact provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI states “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. As public schools funded by the New York City Department of Education, the magnet high schools are subject to this provision.

Standardized examinations simply identify the students that have had all the advantages: the resources; the instruction; the textbooks; safe home environments; quality nutrition; restorative sleep; freedom from racism, poverty, and prejudice. Admission practices in New York City and beyond guarantee that only these students have access to elite training resources.

Standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy. An example is the SAT, which was created in 1926 by Carl Brigham, a eugenicist at Princeton, who believed that white people were intellectually superior to darker-skinned people. The original purpose of his Scholastic Aptitude Test was to manufacture a scientific (now recognized as pseudoscientific) justification for racial superiority. However, just four years after creating the SAT, Brigham abandoned his assertions of the intellectual superiority of the Nordic Race. Eighty five years later, the SAT and the SHSAT continue to restrict educational opportunities and resources from non-white students.

Black students account for 16.7 percent of all students nationwide. If all things were equal, you would expect them to be in a similar percentage in advanced placement (AP) classes, specialized magnet high schools, and colleges. However, Black students account for only 9.8 percent of students in gifted and talented education classes. In many areas, this number is even lower.

In New Jersey, the disparities were so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In their complaint, they stated that racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” Seventy percent of the students in the advanced classes were White and while 70 percent of those in the lower classes were Black.

Unfortunately, this is legal because too many people want it that way. When you see a list of the best schools in the country, they are usually a result of a wealthy local tax base in combination with a large number of poor and minority students being kept out.

Any strides we take toward health equity must include educational equity. The data are clear, healthcare disparities persist in large part due to lack of diversity in the physician workforce and social determinants of health. Continued educational segregation by race and socioeconomic status will only bar Black students from entering medicine – and other professions – in numbers consistent with their constituency of the broader population. Broad exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities from the professional workforce only relegates their children to under-resourced educational districts, in unsafe home environments, and food insecurity.

We must remove the public schools from the current property tax funding models and invest in our schools so that all children can have what they need to be successful. This must also include an emphasis on social justice. The lives of Black children matter. It is impossible for any parent to earnestly support health and educational equity and while seeking to maintain privilege for their children. The lives of Black children are not disposable.

Being gifted, talented, or advanced should no longer be reduced to a score on any standardized test that clearly does not identify or predict gifts or talents. This should be completely eliminated. Larger steps toward educational equity include: abating housing segregation, inequitable school district funding, dismantling the school to jail pipeline, expanding access of all learners to specialized programs. We cannot ignore the bias many White teachers have about their Black students. We have to dismantle the systemic racism that persists in our educational institutions and infrastructure.

Integration is very important. All of our students must have the opportunity to go to school together, not just in the same buildings, but also in the same classes. Thus, we must end standardized testing and advanced placement courses as we know them.  We cannot continue to allow standardized testing to be the unspoken bias gatekeeper of opportunity.

We must repair the centuries of systemic racism that we inherited that keeps Black children down. This includes housing segregation, policing inequality, a lack of resources, and exclusion from specialized programs. Using standardized testing as a gatekeeper will exacerbate disparities and lead to the continuing educational apartheid condition that exists today.


Comments (12)

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  1. James E Thompson, MD says:

    According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the black-white score difference is NOT due to differences in socioeconomic status. For example, children from black households with a high income still underscore poverty-stricken whites. At every socioeconomic tier, blacks badly underscore whites and asians. We may need to ignore standardized scores if we want to include more blacks, but we should not promote the idea that socioeconomic status is the reason blacks underscore their white or asian counterparts. Were that the case, we could simply take socioeconomic status into consideration for admission. See here:

    • Daniel Laroche MD says:

      Hello Dr. Thompason, Data directly from the College Board – the organization behind the SAT – shows that students from families making less than $20,000/year averaged a combined score of 1,326 compared to 1,714 points for students from families making more than $200,000/year. Some of this can be explained by wealthier families’ access to test prep and tutoring. Magnet schools need to take the best students from each high school in our segregated nation to fully diversify magnet schools to prepare the next generation of future educators. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Steven Smith says:

    Excellent article, the time is always now…

  3. Hazel Arnett Ervin says:

    As a person of color who earned an undergraduate degree in English Education and who was determined to bring an influential black perspective to standardized tests when recruited for assessment work at ETS, College Board and NAEP – i.e., The Nation’s Report Card, I am convinced that such tests remain the best way for parents of color – despite their socioeconomic standings – to identify how well their children have mastered foundational skills – foundational skills which are the foundational skills for any discipline. Such tests also identify how well children have learned to advance and to integrate foundation skills beyond general education or common core courses.

    For several summer months, I proved that low-income students could improve their SAT scores by at least 100 points. First, we identified the foundation skills which students had not mastered. Hence, it is difficult to do geometry if you have gaps in mastery of foundational math skills, or it is difficult to determine the main idea in a passage if you have not mastered foundation skills for analytical reading or writing and supporting a thesis. What I did with the students is what is done in privately paid preparation sessions: Identify which foundation skills the students know and do not know – correct, advance and integrate; orientate students to timed test taking; and time management, to name few.

    You ask, how do we achieve racial justice and equity in assessment? My suggestions are implied in my comments above, but also: 1) Have communities create a strategic goal (as we at J. H. Publishing Company) to assist underrepresented families and communities ensure their children have strong foundational skills BEFORE first grade; 2) Encourage more low-cost preparatory programs that go into underrepresented communities and help parents and children identify weaknesses of foundation skills – then correct, advance, and integrate; 3) Encourage more discussions in City Planning about segregated neighborhoods which prompt segregated schools; and (I agree with you) Remove property tax funding models that keep poor schools poorly equipped in leadership, instructions, and supplies.

    While I have moved beyond my profile of academician, administrator, and consultant in higher education, clearly I feel compelled to engage myself occasionally in a relevant conversation. Thank you for the conversation.

    Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ph.D.
    President and Publisher
    J. H. Publishing Company

    • James E Thompson, MD says:

      Thank you Dr. Ervin! And I personally feel strongly that prep courses should made available free to underprivileged students. That’s a much better solution than suggesting that we eliminate standardized tests b/c of any testing advantage privileged students get by accessing prep courses….

    • Daniel Laroche MD says:

      Hello Dr. Ervin, Thank you for your comments. I fully agree with you, however many of the suggestions you make will take a long time to change the structure. An immediate change to taking the best students from the schools in various segregated communities will diversify magnet schools overnight to more rapidly diversify the next professional generation of leaders.

  4. James E Thompson, MD says:

    One issue I see is that, if we decide we should not enforce the use of standardized tests such as the SAT, institutions will still use them to rank their white and asian applicants, but let black students opt out. And the perception will be permanently embedded that black professionals are inferior because “they don’t make them take any tests since they can’t pass them.”
    This becomes a disaster for race relations.

  5. Prof. Joseph A Soares says:

    Completely agree. I wrote this piece, in June of 2020. Colleges that use high school grades would reduce the racial disparities that are amplified by standardized tests. The University of California rejected the SAT/ACT as racist tests, and they are test free institutions now. Students scores cannot be even looked at for any reason in the public higher education system of California.

    • Daniel Laroche MD says:

      Thank you Professor Soares, This should be used across the country and even at the middle school magnet level were many of us are being cut out.

  6. Daniel Laroche MD says:

    The SAT has no correlation with how good of a professional you will be. I as an elite eye surgeon know that many of my colleagues whom had great standardized test scores are not good surgeons or clinicians and are better off in administration or research. Thanks for your comments.

  7. José S says:

    Interesting article and informative point of view. Fixing foundational discrepancies are without doubt the golden solution. However implementation of such approaches will likely prove difficult due to institutional barriers and once implemented, would require a whole generation (12+ years) to see the results. Thus, it is important to also consider approaches that offer more immediate results such as the ones describe in this article

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