And It Is Not About Equity Either

Part III of the Series:  Testing as a Civil Rights Strategy is Not about Achievement

The best way to talk about equity is to use runners racing on a track as a metaphor.  Equality would suggest that for fairness, all runners need to start at the same place in the race.  But, equity would mandate that for true fairness, runners should be staggered based on their in-field advantage.

This is what justice attempts to do.  It acknowledges that while it appears as though all the runners are at the same starting line and striving for the same finishing line, they in fact do not all have the same distance to run.  It acknowledges that those runners toward the inside of the field actually have a shorter distance to run, giving them an in-field advantage.  It is for this reason that runners in the outer field are placed closer to the finish line and those toward the inside of the field are placed farther away. This staggering is just.  It is equitable.

The Case for Inequity

Very few people would argue against the runners on a track metaphor as a way to explain the inequities facing underserved children—particularly not civil rights advocates.  I believe many civil rights advocates know that white, affluent, heteronormative, able-bodied students have the in-field advantage than those who do not fit that description.  I believe many civil rights activists would argue, and I would be one of them, that schools need to be used as a way to adjust for social structural inequities that disadvantage many students before they ever enter into a classroom.

But this is the extent to which some of us agree.

While we acknowledge that quality education is a civil rights issue… or, as I like to call it, a civil rights strategy, we don’t agree on what we define as quality.  We don’t agree on the finish line.

It is my position that the true race is not about test performance because (as many of us already know) children’s zip codes have a greater influence on their quality of life than their test score.

Frankly, I don’t even believe disenfranchised children have a problem with performance.  I believe that they have a problem with schooling.

While I believe that marginalized students face an opportunity and expectation gap (two other frameworks that explain the achievement gap), I think that the problem with schooling is greater than what happens at the micro level. Instead, it is ultimately what happens at the macro level (see Brofenbrenner to learn more).

According to conflict theorists (explained by Ballantine & Spade), students that belong to the dominant group are expected to be autonomous and are expected to be critical thinkers.  In contrast, students from the non-dominant group are expected to belong to a subordinate class that functions off of basic skills and follows rules. This differentiation goes beyond an expectation gap, where teachers simply have lower expectations for some of their students. And, it goes beyond the opportunity gap where students come to school with access to resources and experiences that others do not have.  The perception gap is a gap in attitudes and beliefs at the macro level that maintains current distributions of power.  It is this maintenance of the status quo that influences how schools are structured.

More in line with what Alexander talked about in her book, The New Jim Crow, our society has a set underclass and our treatment of schools have functioned to serve this end.  As Waks and Gee argue, students from disadvantaged communities get stuck in remedial based learning, learning that can only be captured on standardized tests. And then, they are denied access to learning that is critical for the 21st century, learning that helps them develop “the capacity to sort through, make meaning out of, and utilize massive amounts of rapidly changing information; to transfer and apply recalled information to new situations; and to work collaboratively and autonomously” (Dye, In Progress).

This form of schooling is not just about opportunity or expectations.  It is about need. There needs to be an underclass and low-income students of color (and other disadvantaged learners) become prime candidates.

So arguing for a staggered starting line as a means for equity within the race falls short when we have created an ill-conceived construct of the race.   The test is not the finish line because the race is not about developing test-based skills.  And truthfully, college acceptance and employment are not the finish lines either because scholars (Alexander and Patillo) have shown how college degreed minorities still have trouble accessing gainful employment, accessing fair lending practices, and accessing a criminal justice system that sees them as more than just a market for the prison industrial complex.

The race is about positioning underserved children to access life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When we make the achievement gap be about a gap in test performance (as is the case with test-centered accountability), we then reduce achievement to only what can be measured on those tests.  Even if we believe that tests are universal with no cultural biases or advantages, it would be hard pressed to argue that they measure all of the traits necessary for successful living in a democratic and capitalistic society.


We don’t need to place the burden of justice on the backs of children.  Just as though it was unreasonable to make children carry the responsibility for integration, so is it unreasonable to do so with our fight for equity.   And that is what a test-based accountability system does.  It reduces disadvantaged learners to objects and then makes them compete against each other without any regard for their full humanity… without any regard for the true barriers that impede their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It doesn’t count for the in-field advantage that some of their peers have.  Instead, it negates their right to be in the true race—the human race, where they can be treated as fully human, fully capable, and fully valued.

It is this issue of value that serves as the impetus of this series.  If test-centered accountability is not about equity and it is not about equality, why then do we keep hearing that it is a civil rights issue?  As I stated in part one, I believe it is about something more intangible.  Please come back for the next post where I will finally talk about test-centered accountability as being an issue of worth and not one of achievement!

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