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Yohuru Williams: Malcolm X and the Problem of High-Stakes Testing

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Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at Fairfield University, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Malcolm X by revisiting the cultural and racial biases that robbed him of his dreams.

Williams argues that black students today are labeled and stigmatized by test scores as surely as Malcolm was labeled and disparaged because of his race.

Williams writes:

“It is the kind of racial determinism that many students of color have become accustomed to. Proponents of high stakes testing resurrect such determinism, presumably without the racial overtones, by reducing students, their hopes and dreams for the future, to test scores. Effectively, they close the door to the hope of achievement through hard work and academic engagement…..

“In shrinking students’ lives to test scores, the opportunity for them to dream and achieve beyond the arbitrary measures of intelligence offered by standardized tests will be lost. Coupled with punitive disciplinary policies, high stakes tests narrow the pathways to success for poor and minority youth even as they come neatly wrapped in the language of colorblind assessment.

“More significantly, testing will continue to feed, not eradicate the real great civil rights issue of our time; the growing school to prison pipeline, which like a malignant cancer, continues to eat away at the fabric of many inner cities by robbing students of their future…..”

“Rather than acknowledging the potential dangers posed by the adoption of high stakes assessments, testing’s proponents press forward heralding such evaluations as the best hope for a level playing field. In the same way that segregation laws limited opportunity under Jim Crow, high stakes testing has become one of the primary instruments of exclusion in support of what legal scholar Michelle Alexander has termed the New Jim Crow…..

“We are saddled with an education system that transforms believers in fairness and equality into staunch critics of a system that reduces the hopes and dreams of future generations to a score.”

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