How Standardized Tests Are Rigged Against Poor Schools

Ethan Corey

Critics of high-stakes testing often argue that it leads to a single-minded focus on “teaching to the test,” emphasizing not general knowledge or understanding of a subject, but mastery of the very specific set of skills and knowledge that will show up on the exam. But as Meredith Broussard writes in The Atlantic, for many schools, teaching to the test isn't even possible. That's because that specific set of skills and knowledge measured by standardized exams happens to only be available in textbooks written by the same companies who make the tests. If your school can't afford those textbooks? Well, you're out of luck. As Broussard reports, the tests that states use to measure students’ progress (and often to set teachers’ pay) all come from one of three companies: McGraw-Hill, Pearson or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Not-so-coincidentally, these three companies are also the three largest manufacturers of textbooks, a fact which is reflected in the content of their tests: If you look at a textbook from one of these companies and look at the standardized tests written by the same company, even a third grader can see that many of the questions on the test are similar to the questions in the book. In fact, Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook. The result is that schools that can’t afford to buy the right textbooks are bound to see their test scores suffer. And according to Broussard’s research, this is an all-too-common problem in America’s chronically underfunded public school districts. Focusing on Philadelphia Public Schools—the eighth-largest district in the country—Broussard found that the average school had only 27 percent of the books recommended by the district’s curriculum, and as many as 10 schools had none of the recommended books at all. Making matters worse, many of the schools that did have books didn’t use them, due to mismanaged inventory systems and inaccurate records. As Broussard notes, this is largely a money problem. During the 2012-2013 school year, the district allocated $30.30 per student for middle-schools to buy new textbooks—a mere quarter of the price of just a single textbook. And in 2013, the district eliminated funding for textbooks completely after a $300 million budget shortfall. If that’s not depressing enough, consider this: Even when schools have the money to buy new textbooks, they become obsolete fast. According to Broussard, state testing standards change nearly every year, requiring schools to buy new textbooks to meet the new standards. In other words, textbook companies profit while underfunded schools suffer.

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Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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