Public Comment

Commentary:School Testing and the Achievement Gap

By Rick Ayers
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:09:00 AM

In pursuing the 2020 plan proposed by United in Action, that is up for adoption by the school board and City Council, the community of Berkeley will be taking on the admirable campaign to stop our schools from failing the majority of black and brown students. Such a campaign, however, requires that we examine the fundamental goals and practices of education before we charge off for a solution. Specifically, we need to be smart about the uses and limits of testing. 

Twenty-five years ago, it was important to use the new capacities of computers to quickly disaggregate data on grades and test scores in order to reveal what everyone knew anecdotally—that our schools were successful for many white kids but were a disaster for many African American and Latino kids. But these assessments are crude measures at best, markers of school failure. 

And the term “achievement gap,” like educational touchstone phrases of previous eras such as “culturally deprived” and “linguistic enrichment,” has come to be a code word for labeling black and brown students as deficits. What began as a rallying cry for equity has become, at the hands of state bureaucracies, another way to blame the poor. We cannot propose to “attack the achievement gap” without examining what is being taught and how it is being taught. The reliance on testing only leaves the deeper questions, about our educational mission, unexamined. 

In recent years, the testing mania has spread throughout the nation and it is common to hear administrators brag that they are “data driven” and they need “measurable standards” to be able to tell if schools are successful. Berkeley is no exception when it comes to talking about the Berkeley Unified School District scoring lower in comparison to similar schools statewide. The reaction is to focus more on test preparation so we can get better rankings in state API scores. 

The problem with this approach is that it can drive us into a true disaster, the dumbing down of our schools with little chance of success in the state goals. For the chase after test scores is simply working on the symptom, not the actual illness. There are so many flaws with standardized testing that it is hard to limit a critique to a short opinion piece, but just to highlight a few: 

• Berkeley students have lower API scores than expected because, being Berkeley kids, huge numbers reject and scorn the test, choosing not to show up or to try, in spite of sincere pleading from teachers and administrators. 

• Standardized test scores are most resistant to teaching, as they don’t measure knowledge gained as much as family privilege and social capital. The greatest predictor of the standardized test score of a student in 12th grade is her score in first grade; and the greatest predictor of that score is family income. Schools that show great leaps in test scores have generally changed their core population. 

• A mania for testing drives staff to drill and kill, to boring review of factoids, and to the abandonment of deep projects, critical thinking, community building, field trips, arts and physical activity, and fun in school. It tests student compliance and endurance more than their minds. 

• Standardized tests value short term memorization over deep structures of understanding, problem solving, and creativity. 

• Testing, correlating so closely to family income, allows our education system to pretend we have a meritocracy, rewarding those who are “smart,” which really masks passed down privilege. 

• School can be mad boring for kids today and the testing bandwagon will only make for twelve years of cruelty to young people. 

For data and details on the failure of testing, check out or The evidence is overwhelming. But administrators who want numbers simply can’t turn away from testing. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you are likely to go around pounding on things. 

If we actually put kids and their deep education first, and not polishing up our résumés, we would have the courage to change schooling in deep ways, ways that would make Berkeley the vanguard in innovation instead of an “also ran” in this fixed game. A few steps we could take: 

• Create schooling that allows the brilliance, skills, and capacities of all students, from all cultures, to be spotlighted and honored in the classrooms. 

• Develop school programs that foster community and deep buy-in from students —so they are committed to the school and their own educational project. Reject the Social Darwinist approach to individual success and cutthroat competition. 

• Enrich curriculum with cross discipline projects, community involvement, and powerful public performances and exhibitions. 

• Transform assessment to reflect real learning, real academic and personal development, that students demonstrate. Use assessment to drive school planning, not to punish individual students. 

• Talk back to the state testing scolds such as State Superintendent Jack O’Connell by defending the educational goals and vision of Berkeley. 

We will not be able to test our way out of the achievement gap. Nor can we punish our way out of it. The only way to get rid of the achievement gap is to reject the faulty measures, transform our schooling to be engaging and inclusive, and create our own authentic and powerful assessment tools.  

Will the powers that be, the gatekeepers, recognize our assessments and our successes if we go this way? There is no question that they will. College admissions offices all over the country know the strength and insight of Berkeley kids. And if we present them with students who have shown commitment and deep work instead of evidence of endurance, colleges will surely admit them. Right now, admissions folks, and most educators, recognize that the testing game is simply the “emperor’s new clothes.” More and more colleges are rejecting SAT and ACT tests for admissions since they are not good predictors of success in college. Even the UC’s are considering dropping some of the current testing requirements. Will we have the courage to speak the truth, and to get down to the business of actual education? 


Rick Ayers is a PhD candidate in education at UC Berkeley, and adjunct professor of education at University of San Francisco, and a former Berkeley High School and CAS teacher.