Williams: On Testing, Meritocracy and Educational Equity: How Exams Forced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s School to See Beyond Stereotypes
Examinations. They’re dreadful. They induce perspiration on your palms and lead you to chew on your fingernails. They occupy time that could be better spent on more engaging activities, such as cutting those nails or emptying the dishwasher. They take everyday tasks like adding two-digit numbers or parking a car and incorporate just the right amount of monotony and anxiety to spoil what would have otherwise been a perfectly delightful Tuesday. (Assuming, of course, that you cannot rely on your parents to hire someone to correct your answers before the graders inspect them.)
Unsurprisingly, tests, especially when the outcomes are tied to accountability consequences, carry a heavy burden in the realm of politics. Nevertheless, the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations have consistently emphasized the value of these assessments. Why?
This past weekend, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York provided a brilliant response. At an education forum in Queens, she explained how her teachers viewed her as a struggling student until she had an opportunity to prove herself through a test.
"It was only when I took a high-stakes test and scored in the 99th percentile across all subjects that they realized I did not require remedial education," AOC proclaimed to the audience. "They needed a test instead of truly understanding the child in front of them."
In this regard, like many other matters, the freshman Democrat gets straight to the point. Tests may not be enjoyable, but they serve as an important tool to counteract the inherent biases that prevail in the U.S. public school system. In a country where over three-quarters of public school teachers are white, while more than half of the students belong to minority groups, biases such as the ones AOC mentioned are widespread.
The congresswoman specifically highlighted how her bilingualism posed a significant obstacle in her schools. This problem is pervasive. In numerous communities, students learning English are frequently marginalized by educators who perceive their native languages as hindrances to academic success instead of valuable assets.
Schools should not treat any child in this manner. So, what can we do?
It would be ideal to instill equitable mindsets throughout the U.S. public education system, encompassing all schools. This way, teachers would not view historically marginalized children of color, English learners, or low-income students solely based on their demographic backgrounds, but rather acknowledge their true skills and potential. It would be preferable if schools did not sideline children who possess both the ambition and academic abilities to eventually become congresswomen. Additionally, schools should recognize bilingualism as the valuable gift that it is, irrespective of whether students are native Spanish, Hmong, Korean, or any other languages spoken by English learners.
If you happen to know of a way to drastically, swiftly, and comprehensively eradicate the systemic biases deeply ingrained within thousands of American schools, please step forward.
Meanwhile, millions of children will wake up on Monday and head off to school. Many English learners will enter English as a Second Language classes where they have limited exposure to rigorous academic content. Numerous children of color will traverse through hallways filled with uninspiring instruction while their white peers venture into honors and enrichment programs. Children from low-income families will dutifully attend schools lacking meaningful and engaging academic challenges.
And they will repeat this routine on Tuesday. And on Wednesday. And every day throughout their mandatory thirteen years of schooling. All of them eagerly await for someone within their schools to truly see them, to recognize the academic powerhouses they can become.
No test, or battery of tests, can fully resolve all of these issues. Testing alone cannot solve any of them. The results from these assessments must be made public, and educators must adapt their expectations and approaches towards their students in response. Furthermore, tests cannot solely determine what matters in education. They should not be the sole criteria dictating who gains access to high-quality (or highly prestigious) educational opportunities.
Numerous assessments also suffer from their own biases. As we navigate through the aftermath of Operation Varsity Blues, the FBI’s uncovering of an elaborate scheme used by privileged families to manipulate assessment systems, it becomes evident that tests are an imperfect measure of children’s skills and knowledge.
Conor P. Williams, currently affiliated with The Century Foundation, is an esteemed professional. He has previously served as the inaugural director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. Commencing his career as a first-grade educator in Brooklyn, Williams has cultivated a deep understanding of education. His academic achievements include a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. Presently, his two children are enrolled in a public charter school located in Washington, D.C.