Editorial: Standardized testing and income inequality

In the age of Common Core, standardized testing has taken on a renewed sense of urgency. Success on the tests increasingly determines the rest of one’s path through education and opportunity. Even earlier on than the dreaded SAT, students who are deemed faster learners are separated into separate classrooms where they receive more challenging coursework and, in theory, more enriched learning experiences. This practice has taken on a few different names: “gifted learning,” “tracking,” or as in the case of Boston Public Schools, “Advanced Work Class.”

The idea of separating students based on ability and performance stems from a pedagogical truth: students learn at different paces. Yet, the current implementation of tracking programs in public schools, especially elementary schools, separates students more by income than by academic ability. In many large cities like New York and Boston, admission into a gifted learning program is based solely on standardized tests. The system of standardized tests replaced a previously holistic admissions process, which was based more on teacher observations and less on exams. While basing admissions on standardized testing was intended to make the system fairer, it has instead demonstrated the exact opposite effect.

It has been consistently proven that higher-income students perform better on standardized tests. Wealthy students are provided with a much broader range of resources than their lower-income counterparts. They are much more likely to have access to extracurricular activities, summer camps, tutoring and most notably, preschool. Preschool provides children with a greater level of preparedness as they enter the schooling system, giving them a boost up when it comes to being tested and placed into gifted programs.

Despite all of this, gifted learning and tracking programs continue to be utilized by many school systems. Some teachers claim that tracking actually makes them better at their job. An article by The Atlantic showed that 43 percent of teachers feel, to some extent, that their classes are too mixed in terms of their ability for them to properly teach. While this is a legitimate concern, it is exacerbated by the fact that many teachers are faced with classrooms of more than 20 students. The issue of student manageability could thus be better addressed by allocating more money to the American education system, thereby creating smaller classes that are easier to administer.

The problem with tracking programs is that they are contributing to a widening achievement gap. Tracking programs begin in elementary or middle school, but the selected students carry the benefits of these programs well into high school and college. Often, lower income students and students of color get the short end of the stick. In one New York district, for example, Black and Latino studnts together composed 70 percent of the population, but they were only offered 15 percent of the seats at specialized high schools. These high schools are a gateway to college for many students.

If lower-income students are less likely to go to college, they are also significantly less likely to get a job. The unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma is almost double the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree. In this respect, standardized programs are not only contributing to the achievement gap but also to the income gap as well with grave consequences.