One of my early test prep meetings was with a group of mostly Haitian and Jamaican kids. The question was about tax on lift tickets for skiing and calculating the total cost. Having never skied or heard the term “lift ticket” they had given up on the problem. Even the decontextualized idea of a sales tax needed explanation. “You know the 99 cent menu at McDonalds, does it ever cost 99 cents?”
Point was, just on the basis of background knowledge, and cultural frames, these kids were at a huge disadvantage. Test scores matter though, and reducing the achievement gaps would do massive good for Black and Brown and disadvantaged folks. As the above Brookings article stated, “Closing the black-white test score gap would probably do more to promote racial equality in the United States than any other strategy now under serious discussion.”
Real Test Reactions
It’s a capital crime to discuss test items, so, let me share some hypothetical feedback on the tests in a hypothetical state, from the mouths of the kids.
This year the test was “long and boring” as it is probably every year. “I didn’t give up,” was a standard sentiment, which is a resilient, though depressing statement. Student success and even engagement with the test really depended on where kids were coming from more than where they could be going. Case and point—the refrigerator repair question.
Should you fix your refrigerator or buy a new one?
The answer to this question depends on what your experience is. The test posed a set of short and long- term costs to either keeping your refrigerator, or buying a new one. The long-term math pointed towards buying a new fridge, but most every kid’s personal experience said to fix it.
Our kids don’t have a couple thousand for a new fridge that will pay off down the road, many are living month to month, week to week, day to day. They may not have access to credit—or if they do—it is rent and repo scams. So yeah that’s a stupid question—of course you fix the old fridge.
And they are correct, but that’s the wrong answer.
It is always troubling and encouraging to hear the real stories of standardized testing. The challenges our kids face, alongside the critical importance of them performing well. There was a passage about rural life they struggled relating to, though a poem on happiness engaged many, and one passage was quite similar to a prep item (which they appreciated).
These tests matter, and other tests matter more. Despite the fact that they are biased, sometimes fail to measure what they claim to, and disproportionately hurt Black and Brown children, we still need to master them. The SAT or ACT counts in many cases as much as your high school record for getting into colleges, and the LSAT, MCAT, GRE and all other manner of standardized tests are similar gatekeepers to higher education.
By and large we aren’t living the felicity Huffman life, and buying our kids into school. Only one way we are going to get there is by earning it, even in a rigged game that conspires against us.
We should push for better tests and better preparation, and we need to expose the bias that exists.
But these clowns who want to pretend tests don’t matter, ask them whether they bought their kid a prep course for the SAT.