Standardized testing as social injustice

I am currently reading a book by Steven Pinker called “the blank slate“.  In this book, Pinker argues against extreme forms of social constructionism (ie: everything is nurture).  He is sure to point out that much harm has been done in the name of “innatism”, but that we cannot deny some innate traits in human beings.  To summarize my understanding so far, he claims that some portion of our learning ability must be innate. In his book (as he makes clear the need to hold ourselves to high moral standards), Pinker distills racism to treating individuals within a group of people as though they were the perceived average of that group. Pinker notes the need to treat people as individuals and that tremendous violations of human rights have been carried out because of stereotype/average views.

The use of averages to denote racism got me thinking about standardized testing – where all individual students are held against an average.  Where students are lumped into a group instead of dealt with as individuals.  This continual expectation that every students ought be like the “average” student negates student individuality and likely keeps teachers from encouraging students to excel in their individual areas of strength.  Instead, all of our time is spent trying to make up for student “weakness”.

This thinking also leads me to believe that social promotion is an unjust practice. We look at a group of 8th graders and assume they all belong in the same place.  If this practice was applied to a group of a particular skin color or ethnic background, we would immediately realize how problematic the thinking is.  Yet, we continue treating kids as averages instead of as individuals.

My school has been toying with the idea of having a fluid schedule in which students are able to be in 6th, 7th or 8th grade classes depending on needs.  The students might be in a 6th grade math class and then an 8th grade science class.  This is a step in the right direction, but as I said, it is only being toyed with.  I have a feeling logistics will get in the way….again.

Anyway, just some food for thought.  I’m sure others have a much more nuanced stance on the injustice of standardized testing, but I found this to be an interesting insight.  I hope to see some comments, questions, links, and divergent views in the comments!

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6 Responses to Standardized testing as social injustice

  1. Olaf says:

    There is a big difference in treating people according to an average and measuring them against the average.

    The case that all students are individuals is true, but I’ve yet to see the teacher who creates individual materials for every student in a class. Some freedom and some choices are still a ling way from individual treatment.

    Standardised tests are not the problem. It is the obsession over standardised tests which is the problem.


    • jerridkruse says:

      thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I see the “big difference” between treating people according to an average and measuring them against the average. Both are dehumanizing.

      While I do not make individual materials for my students, I do treat them as individuals. If a student wants to defend their knowledge in an interview, I let them, I encourage my students who struggle with English to draw pictures, and hold my brightest students to higher expectations for comprehension. We can treat people as individuals without making completely separate materials for each.


  2. Jeremy Egner says:

    I think that both individualism and student achievement are worthy goals, and a balance needs to be struck between the multiple goals we are trying to obtain. It is entirely possible to address student weaknesses and strengths at the same time. Furthermore, schools may also need to address different concerns – your school may need to increase the level of student empowerment, while another school may still need to increase the comprehension level of their readers. Neither need is more enlightened or necessary than the other, and both should be pursued. Although injustices do occur, it is hasty to create a causal relationship between averages and injustice such that the purpose of a tool (the test) is obscured. I am reasonably certain I could find the average number of boys in a classroom and assure you that no injustice has occurred. The test is not to blame if I choose to put better computers in the rooms with more boys.

    Had we seen a dramatic increase in school quality as a result of testing, a lot of this criticism would be non-existent. It’s our continuous struggle to find a resolution that makes people become defensive and reactive.

    You will probably experience similar opposition in trying to implement your individualized schedules — Why is my child being held back? What’s the cut score to get into 7th grade math? How is this not tracking? This bears a lot of resemblance to measuring students against an average, and parents may mention that you merely changed the average from age to math score. How will you justify your decisions?


  3. I have to agree with Olaf that measuring against an average is different from treating someone as if they are average. Sometimes the results of the standardized tests are used to support racist views, but that’s a problem with the person interpreting the results and not inherent in the testing. A test can be biased, but the fact that the tests gives averages isn’t what makes it biased.

    On the positive, I love your summary of Pinker view of racism, and I think it can safely be extended to all isms. “[*ism is] treating individuals within a group of people as though they were the perceived average of that group” is a brilliant observation. My anti-prejudice/discrimination mantra is “Remember: averages tell you *nothing* about individuals”.


  4. Olaf says:

    I can’t agree that measuring someone against an average is dehumanising – quite the reverse. It it telling that individual where they stand according to a common benchmark (the average). And although averages can be misused, they are still a useful tool.

    Given that it is *very* difficult to devise a program which fully covers the needs of every child in a class, it is inevitable that there will be some grouping. I hope that if you look at the makeup of your class you will see that most kids fit the prerequisites of the class in most subjects. Dealing with the exceptions is the tricky part of the job!

    The idea about different levels for different subjects is good. I have introduced a similar system (just in English) where the subject is taught in parallel. That means that kids from Yr 5 to Yr 7, and from Yr 8 to Yr 10 are mixed together according to ability. A change in Level is possible twice a year. What this has shown us is that the best child in the school in English is in Yr 7 and that we have a few in Yr 10 who cannot master the material for Yr 5.

    Interestingly, the kids like the system and recognise that they are getting a fair challenge. There are however, a few teachers who see the failure of a kid to pass their course as a reflection on the teacher, and there have been attempts to massage the results (which of course damages the kid when they land in a course that is too difficult for them).

    My view is that child who is good at the subject will pass any fair test. I really don’t focus on the test at all during my teaching. If a kid has a confident grasp of the materials then they will do OK. Teaching to the test may get a weaker kid through the test, but it isn’t doing them any favours. Incidentally, in such a system, standardised testing is very important. Without it there will be no transparency in the results.


    • I was in a similar program in 3rd-5th grade math. We had month-long classes on specific topics that you were placed in by a pretest and got out of by a posttest. I loved it, but I don’t know how it was for the students who were less inclined toward math.


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