Why Is There a Racial Difference about Standardized Tests?

I just don’t get it. Why do African-American parents and white parents have such a big difference in their attitudes toward standardized testing? The new poll out from Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup reveals some puzzling trends. In general, more white parents would pull their kids out of tests than would African-American parents. Why?

In my new book, I argued that Americans in general retain fairly traditional ideas about schooling and teaching. For many parents, I argued, tests are a common-sense way to measure the effectiveness of schools. In spite of all the attention paid to progressive educational theorists, traditional ideas about testing dominated.  At least, that’s what I argued in my book.  This year’s PDK/Gallup poll makes it harder for me to sustain that argument.Gallup_Q4

This year’s poll asked parents lots of questions about standardized tests. In spite of headlines about families opting out of big tests, most parents do not think that the tests themselves are the most important educational issue.

Black parents, however, tended to value high-stakes tests more than white parents. In one question, pollsters asked parents if they should be allowed to pull their kids out of tests. More than half (57%) of black parents said no, compared to only 41% of white parents. When pollsters asked parents if they themselves would pull their kids out of tests, a whopping three-quarters of black parents said no, compared to only 54% of white parents.

Why the difference? We might be tempted to look at this in ideological terms. Perhaps more conservative people in general value testing in general. But that doesn’t fit with the poll numbers either. According to the poll, more Democrats (63%) than Republicans (55%) said they would not excuse their own kids from the mandatory tests. Similarly, more Democrats (50%) than Republicans (40%) thought that parents in general should not be able to excuse their kids from tests.Gallup_Q7

What are we to make of all these confusing results? Of course, we know that “Democrat” doesn’t equal “liberal” any more than “Republican” equals “conservative.” We also know that these majorities are only tendencies, not hard-and-fast rules. But there does seem to be some significant differences in attitudes toward testing between Republicans and Democrats, and between white parents and black parents.

In general, African-American parents seem to value testing more than white parents do. And African-American parents seem less likely to pull their own kids out of big tests.

How can we make sense of this? Is it fair to conclude that African Americans in general have more traditional ideas about schooling than white parents do?

This poll would not be the first evidence of such a trend. As scholars such as Lisa Delpit have argued, African-American children often thrive in fairly traditional, fairly authoritarian classrooms. And, as Theresa Perry and others have argued, African-American culture venerates traditional education.

Hard to say for sure, but it seems as if high-stakes testing is part of a long American tradition. Unlike progressive ideas about building on children’s experiences and making classrooms student-centered, traditional education suggests that children should imbibe knowledge from an authoritative teacher, then demonstrate their mastery of that knowledge on an authoritative test.

Different people have different opinions, of course, but it seems as if African Americans in general value this tradition more than other racial groups do.

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  1. We might be tempted to look at this in ideological terms.

    It looks ideological to me.

    Perhaps more conservative people in general value testing in general.

    I’m not sure why you would think that. We must remember that today, “conservative” is often linked to “fundamentalist Christian”.

    What I appear to be seeing in those charts, is that people who value being part of the larger community want to go along with the testing. Those who have rejected the larger community in favor of a more isolated private religious community are opposed to the testing.

    This does not seem surprising.

  2. Thinking aloud: Perhaps standardisation offers a sense of equality (or equity) to which minorities are more sensitive and, thus, more reluctant to eschew. And perhaps it is white privilege that contributes to the I’ll-take-my-kid-out-if-I-want-to spirit.

  3. Other than testing, how would the effectiveness of a school be evaluated? And, should we eliminate college exams?

  4. Agellius

     /  August 25, 2015

    I think it’s ideology too. Whether it’s true or not, under a liberal Democratic administration implementing nationwide standards, conservatives have a perception that liberals are in control of education and therefore adopt an attitude of resistance. Blacks tend to be Democrats by a wide margin, and are therefore comfortable buying into the Common Core testing regime.

    • Common Core was not implemented, or even drawn up, by the Administration. The standards were determined by educators. People just don’t get this. Local schools are free to develop curriculum to bring those standards in. Jeb Bush is correct.

      • Agellius

         /  August 25, 2015


        I’m talking about how it’s perceived.

      • Got it. The perception drives me nuts. My daughter teaches math at a charter high school in Philly, and she’s all for common core. She was talking about the concept of such standards before common core was released.

  5. Good points, but I’m still skeptical. I have to believe that most parents put their kids’ educational future above ideological commitment. Not all, of course, but the large majority. I’m a progressive Democrat. If the Party made a commitment to terrible educational thinking–as I think it has done under the leadership of Arne Duncan–I would not hesitate to do everything I can to protect my child from the negative consequences of such short-sighted data fetishism. I think African-American parents who say they wouldn’t pull their kids out of high-stakes testing (as a broad-brushed general statement) are doing something different than simply supporting one political party. I’m not sure what that “something different” is, but I think it must have something to do with teaching their kids to value an authoritative school, an authoritative test.

    • Agellius

       /  August 25, 2015


      Not sure if you’re responding to me, but I don’t mean necessarily that people are consciously making decisions based on ideology, but that their underlying ideology colors how they perceive things. It can also color how things are portrayed in the media. The media outlets that one trusts may portray things differently from how they are portrayed in other media outlets.

      Of course most parents would say that they want what’s best for their kids regardless of ideology, but what they perceive as being “best” may vary depending on the lens through which they view it.

  6. I would guess black parents are more often “traditional” in your sense. They believe in the system or see no way around it but through, by doing your best. It’s the “put my kid in the game!” impulse white parents will share in athletics, but when it comes to testing, white parents are much more likely to try to “game” the system because they know others are. Getting extra time for a learning disability, taking special classes that prep kids on how to game the SAT, etc. This is all associated with helicopter parents and affluenza who are willing to do the parenting equivalent of writhing on the soccer field exaggerating (or faking) an injury. Working class people have less time to learn how this works and to take it upon themselves to exploit; they’re also more likely to see it as shameful than, say, a family with some JDs and MBAs in the mix. So maybe if you income levels you’d see greater parity in the testing behavior among black and white parents.

    Sadly not opting out of testing may run against minority students’ self-interests since they often perform less well as a group on these tests. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that — isn’t it usually attributed to standardized tests reflecting the assumptions, biases and cultural literacy of white middle-upper class cultures plus other environmental variables?

    Personally I have a very dim view of almost all testing, including time-based quizzes. I would pull certain kids out of it based on their suitability. Some kids test well, and for others it is just a panic and stress-induced death spiral that can do lasting damage. I would like to see more project-based evaluations and get rid of grades and test altogether. For certain kids, it really means a lot. This is partly why I’m unschooling two of our girls now.


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