Standardized Tests Are Racist. So Are You

We Are A (Black and Brown) Nation at Risk

Too many Black Brown, and low-income students are further behind in their pursuits of their God-given potential – for many of our youth, they are behind more than ever.  

None of this was inevitable.  Leaders chose this path for students. As researchers from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research put it, “the widening racial gap happened because of negative shocks to schools attended by disadvantaged students” including lower-quality remote instruction and longer closures of school buildings. 

But if you listen to some voices in education policy, especially those who claim to be the closest allies of Black and Brown communities, we shouldn’t pay attention to these gaps.  Measuring, even mentioning, these gaps just reinforces inequality–these “allies” claim.  

I want to be clear: Far too many of our children can’t read or do math. Observing this fact and finding it unacceptable is not racist. Indeed, to excuse it away with some virtue-signaling waving of hands is racist.  To ignore the impact that it will have on the lives of young Black and Brown students and on our communities’ future, that is racist. To turn and run from the very real and often deadly barriers, challenges and threats that Black and Brown children inhabit daily because it’s a cleaner fit with your intellectual project to do so rather than to do the hard work of improving our public education system is dishonest and lazy.  Worse still, it is premised on racist notions of the helplessness of our Black and Brown children and communities.  

We must recognize and act upon the idea that citizens within their communities are able to simultaneously contribute to their communities. Stripping Black and Brown communities of their agency is the foundation and height of racism and injustice.  By contending that any type of standardized academic measurement–imperfect as any human-created system will be–shows nothing of use for Black and Brown children does just that.  It conceives of their individual abilities as insurmountably swallowed up, drowned out, or obfuscated by the “whiteness” of the tool being used to measure those abilities. 

Ignoring the very real progress made on improving the cultural relevance of academic measurement tools, these advocates would have us just go off “vibes” to know if kids are ready and prepared to pursue their aspirations. And, yes, expanding and improving how we measure our students’ success is an imperative, but some will just wring their hands and fret, while others will say the only thing necessary to erase the centuries of racism and low expectations in our school systems is more funding.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have state leaders who, it would seem, are just fine with Black and Brown children learning less.  They are the ones who have said these children, our children, are destined to “flip pizza crusts” and so should expect less of themselves, their leaders, and their society.  

On all sides, Black and Brown children are being told not to worry about the fact that other kids are learning more.  Meanwhile, it’s our youngest children who may be the most injured. Some of the worst declines for Black and Brown students are among nine year olds–a critical age group. 

Research shows that the end of third grade must be the point at which students go from learning to read to reading to learn.  Those who read proficiently by that time are four times more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who struggle to read beyond third grade. Similarly, learning to do mathematics is a cumulative effort–losing out on the basics early makes learning more challenging content much more difficult. 

We are, in the end, a Black and Brown nation at risk.  Far-right elected officials telling us Black and Brown communities should expect less, social justice allies telling us to ignore the quantifiable injury suffered by our children.  The only way out of this downward spiral is to be clear-eyed about where our children are currently and flood our schools with the research-proven academic and social interventions we know they need.  

Our children deserve honesty and candor as much as they deserve educational equity and justice. Excusing away the accelerating achievement and opportunity gaps that they face robs them of that and in so doing, diminishes their agency, their very personhood. We must see our children for who they are and level with them about where they are. That will ensure we are transparent about who we, the adults, actually are. 

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Super article Sharif! Thank you for your insights! We can and must raise our educational game especially for our children of color. That means improving our professional practices, content knowledge, and assessment skills!

    Raging against the thermometers will not help us address the disease of massive lack and alignment if our professional practices!

    Almost 50 million fourth graders are illiterate in math and reading over 20 years aa measured by NAEP.

    We can and must do better!

    Si se Puede!


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