Assessment Issues in the Underrepresented Student Community

This article explores some of the issues pertaining to the relationship between K-12 standards and assessment as they pertain to minority student achievement. Considering the importance of assessment in the matriculation process of students intending to attend post-secondary institutions, this paper recognizes some of the disparate forces that make achievement in the academic arena difficult for students already burdened by negative externalities and an historic conundrum of stilted educational access and low achievement. It seeks to place these realities within the context of the standards reform movement, and the problems faced by the general population in regards to assessment and standards alignment.

The correlation between standards and assessments is problematic in general and pernicious in particular (Cofresi and Gorman 2004; Flores and Clark 2003; Olson 2002; Stiggins 1999). The gap between classroom instruction and assessment has been noted by many researchers (Olson 2002). Standards set by professional organizations and governmental bodies have languished in some disciplines, while others have been quick to implement the recommendations of their academic cohorts. Assessment of student knowledge has also been problematic and alignment between the standards and the methods of assessment continue to be of primary concern to many educators (Plitt 2004). High-stakes tests have come under increasing attack (Bettis 2001) as ‘teaching to the test’ has become prevalent in some states, the result being an increase in student test scores that reflect basic knowledge and skills but that “…does not result in a transfer of knowledge and skills to other similar measures…” {Flores and Clark 2003, 2). Clifford Hill (2004) makes the point that, “…high-stakes testing is of limited value in maintaining high standards in American education.”
For underrepresented students, assessment issues play an historic role in the educational marginalization process (Rose 2004). The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)(2002), in particular, is seen by some researchers as exacerbating preexisting problems regarding student assessment, by population, and issues of fairness and equity in outcome. The provisions of the NCLB Act virtually guarantee failure, according to Rose (2004), since they don’t measure student achievement from ‘where they are’ academically. Rather, they hold students to an artificially high standard that is generalized above and beyond disparate populations, requiring 100% proficiency in a 12-year period (2001-2013). For many educators, goals of this sort seem unrealistic, at best. With unrealistic goals of this sort threatening school districts across the country, the graduation rates and retention of underrepresented student populations might well remain problematic for some time to come, while districts and schools struggle to achieve assessment results that reflect test priorities, rather than those set by the pertinent standards.

Standards and Assessment

Standards, in the context of education (K-12 and post-secondary), outline what a student is required to know and be able to demonstrate, serving also as a model for achievement and excellence. Assessment, in the context of testing procedures, refers to the act of appraisal; of student knowledge and comprehension. Standards writing and assessment procedures are integrally connected, in that the standards for a particular discipline represent the epitome of knowledge to be acquired by aspirants to that discipline, or, in reference to K-12 schooling, to the general, subject-specific knowledge that must be achieved upon graduation from High School. Standards set by educational institutions, by professional organizations, and by governmental bodies are subject to assessment procedures that attempt, with varying degrees of success, to correlate student attainment with the standards. Anderson, Brown and Lopez-Ferrao (2003) state that, “the implementation of reform-oriented policies such as the use of standards-based curricula and instruction, strengthened and increased course offerings, and increased graduation requirements have been associated with improvements in classroom practices and student learning.” Geography, Physics, English, all subject areas within American primary and secondary schools possess standards that have corollary assessment tools associated with them (Marran 2001). Aligning these assessment tools with the standards from which they are derived is of paramount importance for all student populations in general and for underrepresented student populations in particular.
Systemic reform has been a clarion call that has had proven results (Anderson et al. 2003, Marran 2001). James Marran (2001) categorizes the elements of systemic change thusly:
• “a system of goal-based state content standards in core subjects (of which geography must be one) designed to be the driving force in curriculum development;
• an on-going series of state assessments based on the standards that will provide diagnostic and trend data on student performance (and increasingly eventuating in a high school exit exam);
• an expectation that staff development and the allocation of each school’s financial resources align with both the standards and the results of student performance on the state tests;
• a process for a regularly revisited and updated internal review structured on a standards-directed school improvement plan” (271).

The problem with assessment techniques as they pertain to the measurement of student progress is that they do not adequately measure students’ ability to comprehend and interpret subject matter beyond the need to respond to selected-responses test strategies that do not necessarily challenge or motivate students to perform (McMillan 2000; Stiggins 1999).

The Underrepresented Dilemma

For underrepresented students, these problems are seriously exacerbated. According to Anderson et al. (2003), “the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (2001) has cautioned that it is not enough o call for high academic standards without also demanding that an investment be made in curriculum, programs and other activities designed to foster student success.” Many researchers have found that college-oriented standardized testing procedures are problematic for underrepresented students populations (Flores and Clark 2003; Freeman 1997; McMillan 2000; Rose 2004). High standards notwithstanding, there are aspects of high stakes testing procedures that seem to be culturally determined, which is problematic for students who do not come from the majority culture unless there are additional, and supporting, political and educational frameworks in place to counter these cultural remnants (Flores and Clark 2003; Polinard et al. 1995). In the contest of high-stakes testing, Mickelson (2003) finds that “…state actors make policy decisions that generate, perpetuate or ameliorate conditions and structures responsible for racial disparities in education”(13). She further states that:
“State policies of concentrating public housing for low-income, largely minority families in central cities (as opposed to scattered-site public housing or mixed income communities) affect the racial composition of schools. State policies of establishing or permitting resource inequalities within and between districts exacerbate educational disadvantages facing the minority and poor children who are concentrated in these resource-poor schools. Such policies compound neighborhood disadvantages with school disadvantages”(12).

Lowell Rose’s (2003) NCLB article, discusses his experiences in the calculation of NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) calculations, and the sobering results, as they pertain to NCLB-measured success standards within states and school districts. He found that 1) 269 of 293 school districts would not achieve AYP, that 2) the schools that did achieve AYP had, on the whole, an average minority enrollment of 1.7%, 3) that all of the districts (30) belonging the Indiana Urban School Association’s (IUSA) would not achieve AYP, 4) that 68% of the IUSA schools would individually fail, and that 5) these failing schools would include 95% of all secondary schools within the 30 districts, 92% of all middle schools, and 57% of all primary schools. He goes on further to explain:
“Those results reflect a particularly pernicious consequence of the way AYP is to be calculated…larger schools test more students, which means more breakouts and a greater chance of failure to achieve AYP. Larger numbers tested also mean that less relief will be gained from applying the test of statistical significance, a test used to guarantee that differences are real. In addition, NCLB applies a single goal without concern for where a group starts or how much improvement it demonstrates. Therefore, when diversity adds more students who start far from the goal, the odds of achieving AYP diminish. At the school district level, achieving AYP in Indiana is almost beyond reach “(124-5).

Breakout groups, are those populations that can be categorized according to specific traits such as ethnicity, economic attainment or special educational needs. The enactment of the NCLB Act is but a reenactment of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (121). Each reenactment since the original has sought to increase the educational attainment of students that achieve poorly, and with the reauthorization of the 1994 Goals 2000 program, high-stakes testing became the assessment tool of choice by national and state political and educational policymakers (122). By the time of NCLB (2001), high-stakes testing had become the order of the day, with all of its attendant contradictions and inadequacies intact (Vogler 2004).
The examples presented above are indicative of a disquieting trend that is apparent the country across: that of increasing levels of racial re-segregation (Eaton 2004) and continuing efforts to reverse the progress made by affirmative action (Garrison-Wade and Lewis 2004; Zwiep 2004). While it has become clearly beyond doubt that all people, regardless of ethnicity or economic station, are capable of achieving educationally (Flores and Clark 2003; Grantham 2004; Marran 2001; Sanders 1997), continuing inequities solidified by decades of institutionalization have yet to be fully exorcised fully from American education (Grant and Breese 1997; Rose 2004; Stiggins 1999).

African American and Hispanic Achievement

The assessment of underrepresented populations is problematic at best (Cofresi and Gorman 2004; Flores and Clark 2003; Grantham 2004). According to Cofresi and Gorman (2004), some of the issues faces by Hispanic students include “…assessment validity, the use of inappropriate norms, ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism, cultural stereotypes and prejudice, acculturation, and language barriers” (99). In addition to these hurdles, the teachers who must teach English classes in schools with substantial non-English speaking populations in preparation for state-mandated testing, face terrific pressures as well (Flores and Clark 2003).
According to Rosylyn Mickelson (2003), “…racially correlated disparities in K-12 education are present in grades, test scores, retention and dropout rates, graduation rates, identification for special education and gifted programs, extracurricular and cocurricular involvement, and discipline rates”(5). The race variable intermingles with social class, but, also according to Mickelson, recent studies have found that approximately 33% of the racial gap in education is explained by socioeconomic background. For many minority students (Hispanic and African American), their ability to do well on standardized tests is increased by the presence of a teacher from their particular underrepresented subgroup (Polinard, Wrinkle and Meier 1995). The percentage of individuals within these communities with high school diplomas also contributed to the success of underrepresented students achievement on standardized tests. Community income level also displays significance in the outcome of standardized testing. Another factor in the validity of assessments for populations that speak English as a second language are concerned with whether the tools demonstrate: a) “conceptual equivalence, b) equivalence in the definition of a construct, c) equivalence in the way that the test items are perceived across cultures, and d0 measurement of the construct using the same metric means” (Cofresi and Gorman 2003, 103). The wide variety of factors that contribute to the achievement or lack thereof of underrepresented students is the subject of intensive study and, when viewed in light of high-stakes testing and problems of standards alignment, the question as to what is really being taught arises almost effortlessly. In reference to the gains that have been made by underrepresented students since the Civil Rights era, Mickelson (2003) states that “the gains, however, conceal an important story…minority children have mastered the basics but not higher level skills”(5).
Cofresi and Gorman (2004) say that “the majority of assessment tools have been standardized using a Caucasian population and do not accurately represent culturally diverse populations”(103). For minority students whose cultural lives exist outside of this “Caucasian norm”, different strategies are required in order to successfully navigate through the maze of educational attainment. Differences in cultural capital – referring to social investment in high-brow cultural activities – explain part of the problem that underrepresented students face in taking culturally-biased tests, for instance. The lack of exposure to abstract and intellectual cultural activities such as museums and music may factor into the inability of culturally-deprived students to succeed to the extent that those students exposed to these opportunities might. Kalmijn and Kraaykamp (1996) found that African American cultural capital – and exposure to Euro-American cultural capital – has been increasing steadily, while Euro-American cultural capital has been declining. They attribute this to disparate factors, including higher levels of schooling for African Americans and a gradually decreasing emphasis on the part of Euro-American s upon culturally-specific events and objects.
The idea of cultural capital leads directly to the inclusion of peer networks and group identity, and their effect upon the test-taking practices of underrepresented students in general. Peer group bonding among disaffected populations produces a mirror effect, within which oppositional identities form that decry identification with the majority culture (Datnow and Cooper 1997; Duncan 1996; Freeman 1997; Sanders 1997). The culture derived from this juxtaposition of inequity and opportunity result, in many cases, in a disdainful attitude toward high assessment achievement. The situation of individual members, and small groups of advantaged minority populations, within majority European population settings, however, have resulted in the opposite (Datnow and Cooper 1997; Grantham 2004) Even within predominantly minority populations, students excel in significant proportions for reasons related to cultural and ethnic pride and service, as well as a sense of duty and commitment to their community (Duncan 1996; Sanders 1997).

Discussion and Conclusion

The current and continuing emphasis of governmental, corporate and education professionals upon high-stakes testing has revealed some of the systemic and underlying flaws in the educational system (Cofresi and Gorman 2004; Rose 2004). The disparities between students of the majority population and students of minority populations continue to amass, despite the best intentions and efforts of some of the brightest minds in the United States of America (Mickelson 2003). Current trends indicate that, to some degree, the most pernicious challenges to the implementation of fundamental reform within the educational system are systemic, and bound inextricably to both social and institutional forces that are vested in inequality and the continued elevation of some populations above others (Rose 2004). The backlash against high-stakes testing continues, as does the exploration of new and better methods of assessing student knowledge and comprehension (Flores and Clark 2003; Anderson et al. 2003). Different schools and disciplines will continue to mark the times, pedantically measuring and arguing, haranguing and berating those agencies and institutions tasked with the duty of ensuring the equitable progress of all against the remorseless drive toward aggregation and unity that underlies curricular standardization and the mass consumption of assessment packages by states, districts and schools consumed by the fear of failure and inevitable labeling.
And yet, through it all, students continue to achieve (Grantham 2004; Marran 2001). Measurement tools continue to measure progress, as slow and painful as it may be. Educational and economic disparities remain, but shafts of light shine down upon islands of achievement within vast morasses of mediocrity and reduced expectations. It is only against the backdrop of history and geography that today’s problems stand tall and proudly, proclaiming progress and success measured against the mores and disgraces of the past. Given the opportunity to succeed, people will. Given the chance to achieve their dreams, if offered in sincerity and upon the condition of equitable outcomes, people will rise above their circumstances, as has been proven time and time again. Within this context, educational standards and assessments are but expressions of the deeper and abiding human will toward didactic attainment and the expression of individuality and accomplishment that exponentially broaden the parameters of human achievement. Student learning and teacher effectiveness are continuous processes, as is the gradual honing of educative instruments designed to rarify procedures and practices within classrooms across the country (Anderson, Brown and Lopez-Ferraro 2003; McMillan 2000; Plitt 2004). Continued vigilance on the part of academics, parents, teachers and other educational watchdogs, is required. The stakes are high, but, perhaps, the reward is worth the cost.


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