High-Stakes standardized testing has been shown to be ineffective at improving the educational experiences of students (Knoester & Au, 2017). In their articles, Matthew Knoester and Wayne Au take this critique a step further and assert that high-stakes standardized testing not only negatively impacts overall education, it also functions as a racial project of the neoliberal agenda, recreating and perpetuating structural inequalities.
Origins and Initial Goals of Standardized Testing
Standardized testing became prevalent in the US with the eugenics movement, which is centered around the idea that there is a scientific basis that explains class, race, and gender-based inequality (Knoester & Au, 2017). The movement used standardized tests to “prove” the inferiority of Black people, among other marginalized groups (Au, 2016). Put simply, standardized testing was intended to maintain the social order of the time (Au, 2016). From its origins, testing has been used to further a racialized agenda rather than to improve the quality of education for all students, despite its claim to provide an accurate, unbiased, scientific assessment. It did not take long for capitalist entities to take the opportunity to market these tests as a scientific, objective assessment of students to schools in the US. Soon after, standardized testing in schools took off and increasing weight has been put on these tests to determine resource allocation in our schools, especially after the No Child Left Behind Act, which required increased standardized testing and punished schools if scores did not improve (Au, 2016).
High-Stakes Standardized Testing and Meritocracy
The use of high-stakes standardized tests is centered around the ideology of meritocracy. Au explains that ideological meritocracy, the belief that students make it to where they are based on their ability rather than any other societal factors, is ultimately the root of structural educational inequality (2016). Since standardized tests supposedly are an objective measure of a student’s ability or merit, they can be used to sort students by test scores and structure their educational experiences accordingly (Au, 2016). In general, standardized tests uphold the American ideology of meritocracy, blaming underprivileged students for their own failures rather than recognizing systemic inequalities that work against their success.
Testing Today as Neoliberal Project
Neoliberalism is rooted in the denial of continued structural inequalities—it celebrates meritocratic, capitalist competition (Au, 2016). Modern neoliberalism functions to promote capitalist ventures around education and to increase meritocratic competition within and between schools for access to resources (Au 2016). With this modern neoliberal agenda, education has reoriented itself towards capitalism. The goal of public schooling used to be to prepare students to be active, educated citizens in our democracy—now schools focus on preparing students to join our capitalist workforce (Knoester & Au, 2017). Standardized testing is the metric on which all major decisions are made for this modern, neoliberal, racial project (Knoester & Au, 2017). The standardized tests we use today are created within such a framework and, therefore, cannot be objective.
Standardized Testing and Educational Experience of Students of Color
The neoliberal agenda discussed above most negatively impacts students of color and standardized testing is the most important meritocratic tool used to inform decisions that forward this agenda. High-stakes standardized testing identifies students, teachers, and schools as “failures” if they do not meet proposed standards (Au 2016). This label is supposedly fair because standardized tests are described as objective by those who promote them. In reality, these supposedly objective tests are historically racist and continue to produce racist outcomes—as Knoester and Au describe, “standardized testing converts segregation, and its white supremacist impulses, into an ‘objective science’” (2017). High-stakes standardized tests along with systems of school choice have been instrumental in the re-segregation of our public schools since Brown v. Board of Education (Knoester & Au, 2017). Integration in schools has been shown to have a positive educational impact for nonwhite children, mostly through increased access to resources (Knoester & Au, 2017). Effectively, high-stakes standardized tests function to segregate; narrow curriculums; and decrease recess, art, music, science, and social science time for underprivileged students of color (Knoester & Au, 2017).
Knoester, M. & Au, W. (2017). Standardized testing and school segregation: like tinder for fire?. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(1), 1-14, DOI:10.1080/13613324.2015.1121474
Au, W. (2016). Meritocracy 2.0: High-Stakes, Standardized Testing as a Racial Project of Neoliberal Multiculturalism. Educational Policy, 30(1), 39-62, DOI:10.1177/0895904815614916