Black Boys in Crisis: Testing and Social Promotion

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

 The current hot-button issue of testing is yet another factor that has created racially tiered classrooms since the 1960s. School leaders engaged in the systematic use of intelligence tests to determine the placement of children into high-, medium-, or low-ability groups. The children then entered homogeneous classrooms, based on their ostensible ability. School leaders insisted that this was a democratic way to proceed with schooling and that each child would be able to work up to his or her capability level. The use of tests to determine innate ability, it was claimed, would aid educators with vocational guidance, provide an avenue for identifying unusually capable (as well as “retarded” students), and help diagnose learning problems.

In 1967, Hobson v. Hansen determined that a standardized test in fact unjustly favored white students. The court found that “because the test was standardized to a white, middle-class group, it was inappropriate to use for tracking decisions.” Despite other, similar, court cases, and despite the growing evidence of inequality, testing became the norm over the next decades and led to streaming, and to a culture of social promotion and retention.

Eventually, these factors led to the separation of children by social class, with many children who lived in poverty receiving placements in the lower classrooms. Because of their normally lower socioeconomic status, black boys were heavily represented in these classes. Studies labeled children from various racial and ethnic groups innately deficient, based on their performance on intelligence tests. People ostensibly committed to managing the veracity of test results ignored social inequities and how they likely contributed to testing bias based on differences in social class and the oppression experienced by racial and ethnic groups.

School leaders believed they had found a solution to issues that threatened to disrupt the age-grade schooling process, albeit one that resulted in equating school failure with mental deficiency. The ability to promote children unable to pass exams geared toward “normal” children would alleviate the horrendous failure rate and the costly and disruptive crowding of students at the lower grades. No one considered the long-term implications of this strategy, however, and educators simply grouped the “abnormal” students together in an informal way. They were allowed to move through the school system with a consistently substandard education offered to them, without an active effort to teach materials in such a way as might engage these students. We now recognize that many of these students were atypical learners who had behavioral or cognitive needs.

Despite the criticisms and problems with social promotion, the practice remained common through the 1970s, and many schools still use it today. African Americans began to demand that schools stop labeling children as “defective,” advocating for the better adaption of schools and the education system as a whole to meet the learning needs of children. By the 1980s, in fact, the practice of homogeneous grouping and the associated practice of tracking were also under fire, with the criticism that not only did ability grouping reflect class- and race-based inequalities, but that such practices actually perpetuated them.

In 1983, the report of Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, caught the attention of the American public. The report was largely pessimistic, suggesting that American education was watered down and not up to the standards of the rest of the developed world. By the mid-1980s, in line with the report’s recommendations, most Americans believed that promotion should be based on students’ mastery of grade-appropriate content and knowledge. By 1998, the Clinton Administration was overtly calling for the end of social promotion. In the era of No Child Left Behind that followed, many states passed legislation that explicitly prohibited promotion of children who did not reach specific levels of performance on state-mandated assessments.

Even though we know that testing and social promotion are contributing to the education crisis in America, these practices still exist. Also, we know that these practices disproportionately affect people of color. Why on earth do we still use them?

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