Testing and Civil Rights

K-12 Testing

A new book from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Raising Standards or Raising Barriers? Inequality and High-Stakes Testing in Public Education, concludes that the current overreliance on high-stakes testing threatens to deepen America’s educational inequities.


Most of the contributors to the volume, edited by Gary Orfield and Mindy Kornhaber, report evidence that policies which focus on high-stakes testing corrupt educational reform and undermine achievement, especially for at-risk students.


George Madaus and Marguerite Clarke from Boston College review the adverse impact of testing on minority students over the past 100 years and consider evidence that testing will not necessarily motivate students to learn more or better. Linda McNeil and Angela Valenzuela from Texas find that when high stakes are attached to tests, efforts to raise test scores often replace sound teaching.


FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill reports that states without high stakes tests are more likely to show gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than are states with such tests. Henry Levin of Columbia University rejects claims that testing will produce an improved national economy and argues that using tests for job selection would be massively inefficient and unfair. Several articles report that high-stakes tests lead to higher dropout rates and more grade retention.


The book concludes with several chapters that propose safeguards to test use and suggest proper uses of exams.


"Unfortunately, there is simply no evidence that efforts to raise test scores will provide poor, minority, and bilingual students with the kind of high quality education that their more affluent counterparts receive,” said Kornhaber. “Instead of devising testing schemes, which frequently lead to more retention and dropping out, policymakers should focus on providing all students with appropriately certified teachers, challenging curriculum, high quality facilities, and ample supplies of up-to-date books and materials.”


• Century Foundation; (800) 552-5450 or (202) 797-6258; $12.95.
• Drafts of many of the papers are at http://www.law.harvard.edu/civilrights/conferences/testing98/drafts.html