Changing Mechanisms that Maintain Structural Racism and Societal Inequities

Note: These are the remarks I made during a panel titled Changing the Mechanisms that Maintain Structural Racism and Social Inequities at the National Art Education Association Conference in New York, NY on March 4, 2017.

There are numerous political and research-based rationales for a racial and ethnic diversification of the teaching force in the United States. One of these rationales focuses on the mismatch between the racial makeup of the students attending public schools in the U.S. and the racial makeup of those teaching in public schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 50% of the student population in U.S. public schools is white and 82% of the their teachers are white.
I may not be able to convince you in the five minutes that I have that this disparity in demographics is a problem. What may be easier for you/us to accept as a problem is that there are talented and intelligent students of color in the teacher education program that I coordinate who want to be teachers, however, becoming a teacher often costs them more money, time, and emotional energy than I see it costing many of their white peers.
I am here to talk about a mechanism that maintains structural racism and societal inequities in teacher education: standardized tests, in the form of exams that must be passed in order for teachers to be licensed. In Pennsylvania, my home state, teacher candidates must pass five exams that cost over $400. Students of color disproportionately fail these exams.
In the fall, a student asked to talk to me after class in my office. “Should I just give up now?” she asked. Her lip started to quiver and tears started to pour down her cheeks. “Give up what?” I asked, confused. I soon found out that she had failed the first round of tests, which cost her $150. This single mom wasn’t sure she had the stamina or resources to get through the rest of the program. Failing the tests made her question whether she had what it took to be a teacher.
Another student found out while she was studying abroad that she hadn’t passed the first round of tests and would thus be ineligible to register for her next semester of coursework. Passing the first three of the five tests are required to advance at a certain stage in the university’s teacher education program. She was delayed for a semester and took the tests multiple times that semester until she passed.
When I asked these students about their experiences taking the test, one reported that the test administrator looked at her and asked, “Do you speak English?” and then proceeded to check her body to ensure she didn’t have any devices that would allow her to cheat.
The other broke out in hives, anxiety building with every re-take of the test. “If I don’t pass this time, I won’t be able to afford to go to the conference,” she said.
Both students were scanned with a wand-like metal detector. “I was treated like a criminal,” one said. I remembered back to a few weeks earlier, when a group of white students in my class described how easy the test was and how “silly” the wand was. I was struck again by my own privilege and the privilege of the students who laughed off the wand, the laugh coming from white bodies who had likely not experienced racial profiling, unaware of the way the policing of the tests triggered anxiety in some of their classmates.
Now in the midst of a research study to investigate how the tests are affecting students of color, my concern deepens.
The Educational Testing Service, the company who writes and produces the tests for our state, offers vouchers to waive test fees based on family income but this information is not advertised. Furthermore, when a student registers for a test and is asked if they have a voucher, ETS’s need-based voucher isn’t listed among the reasons one might have a voucher code to input.
One of my students who took the same test three times found out a few weeks following her exam that the state had lowered the score required to pass the exam. I am still collecting data on the changes made to the cut scores over time. However, for someone like this student who failed the tests only by a couple points on each attempt, you can imagine the exasperation of students who have spent hundreds of dollars trying to hit a moving target.
There are many of these issues.
Let me talk for a moment about the one most concerning to me: these tests do not provide our field with valuable information about teacher quality or retention. One of the five exams assesses teacher candidates’ art content knowledge — as if earning at least a 3.0 and taking 60 credits of studio art and art history courses at the university that are taught by people with terminal degrees in their field isn’t sufficient for demonstrating their content knowledge.
In summary, these tests discriminate, place undue financial burden on students, cause emotional and professional distress, and they don’t give us any information we don’t already have about our students.
I have raised this issue on campus and have drafted a list of ways to begin changing this mechanism of structural racism by first attempting to better support teacher education candidates of color in their attempt to take and pass these exams, and second to continue to advocate for a teacher education free of standardized tests as one of many barriers students of color face en route to teaching.