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.

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Some conservative commentators these days swing school tests around like bludgeons.  Testing and more testing is often the conservative answer to school woes.

William J. Reese reminds us that school testing has a much longer history than most of today’s school culture warriors tend to recognize. (Full disclosure: Bill was my PhD director and is still a good friend.  But I’d still want everyone to buy his book even if I didn’t know the guy.)

testing wars in the public schools

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In an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Reese offers a reminder from his new book that testing wars have a history as old as public education itself.

In the 1840s, it was the conservative side that opposed standardized, written tests, according to Reese.  Progressive reformers such as Horace Mann hoped to undermine the power and authority of stuffy school masters.  Traditionally, those masters administered oral exams to each student.  Reformers claimed written tests could abolish prejudice and subjectivity.  Written tests, progressives promised, would shake the cobwebs out of conservatives’ school power.

To be fair, there are plenty of thoughtful conservatives around today who echo this nineteenth-century anti-testing conservatism.  But we still often think of testing as a typically conservative notion.  Those tests, after all, are often sold as a way to hold left-leaning teachers’ unions’ feet to the fire.  Bill’s essay and book remind us that testing itself has long been used as a club to beat up conservative education curmudgeons.