Math and NCLB… No Child Left Behind's High-Stakes Testing has particularly adverse effects on the math teaching and learning of low-income students of color

[Written as part of a program at the Illinois Institute of Technology. April, 2007. Carol Caref also teaches at Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School in Chicago]


NCLB has made high-stakes testing ubiquitous. Its supporters claim that accountability, made possible by testing, is of particular benefit for the low-income students of color that schools have vastly underserved. The preponderance of research, however, shows otherwise.

Instead of improving their education, the implementation of national high stakes testing policies has made matters worse for these students. Their education has been watered down, they are dropping out in higher numbers, and programs and policies that had narrowed the achievement gap in the past are being dismantled. African-American and Latino students are less likely to take advanced math classes in high school, often because of tracking. High stakes testing (college entrance exams) had previously narrowed opportunities for poor students of color.

The current high stakes testing policies make it even less likely that these students will be prepared for college.

African-American, Latino, and Native American students, whose “education debt” (a term coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings) includes years of no schooling, minimal schooling, and substandard schooling, are at an unfair disadvantage in the high stakes ranking system. Math has historically been a “gatekeeper”, preventing students from going to college or obtaining certain jobs. That gate is more tightly locked due to the consequences of high stakes tests.

African-American and Latino students score lower in math than whites and Asians on all of the major standardized college and graduate school entrance tests as well as the low stakes National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS). It is not necessary to mandate more testing to determine whether inequities in the education of children of color exist — clearly, they do.

Family income has turned out to be the best predictor of standardized test scores. The following table shows that income group correlates very closely with average SAT math scores. (Data developed from “The New SAT and Trends in Test Performance”, Sathy, Barbuti, & Mattern, 2006.)

Because low-income students tend to score lower on high stakes math tests, they suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of these tests.


Standardized testing has an ignoble history. Early test-makers, such as H. H. Goddard, were among the leaders of the American eugenics movement, which called for sterilization of the “feeble-minded”. Lewis Terman developed the “Stanford-Binet” test and used it to declare, “...among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families...and also among negroes. their dullness seems to be racial...”. More information about this can be found in Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man.”

The current emphasis on high stakes testing has a dubious history as well. Texas businessman H. Ross Perot was appointed to head school reform for Texas in the 1980’s. He ushered in a plan that reflected a business philosophy of establishing accountability. The businessmen did not ask the educators what was working, did not ask the teachers what they needed to be more effective, nor did they consult educational research. Ross Perot summarized his plan as “We’ve got to drop a bomb on them, we got to nuke them — that’s the way to make changes in these organizations.” No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was based on the plan the businessmen developed in Texas, in spite of educator opposition.

High Stakes Testing and the Re-Widening of the Achievement Gap After 1988

Researchers, including Jaekyung Lee, David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan found that from 1971 to 1988, the black-white achievement gap in math and reading narrowed. During this period, Civil-Rights-Movement-inspired programs to equalize opportunity, such as Head Start, school desegregation, affirmative action and expanded social welfare, led to a shrinking of the gap. After 1988, around the same time states started implementing high stakes testing, the gap began to widen.

Reasons for the Gap

Some current researchers still try to blame “heredity” or “poor home environment” for this achievement gap. These “analyses” do not stand up to the test of truth. As David Berliner argues compellingly, the best way to improve academic achievement is to attack poverty. Health insurance would allow the poor to get early and effective treatment for ear infections and vision deficiencies, which negatively impact learning, for example. In the 1970s to mid-1980s, poverty and health care were at least partially addressed, and the result was a shrinking of the black-white achievement gap. Economic issues are nowhere to be found in the testing and accountability policies now in place. A logical approach to decreasing the gap is Berliner’s: “increase the income of poor people so that they are less poor”.

*The education debt of African-American students is exacerbated by segregation, poverty, and poor health care. High stakes testing addresses none of these issues. Public policy had shifted from implementation of proven measures to improve black and Latino student achievement, such as pre-school, smaller classes, and social services, to disproportionate testing and accountability of these students.***

NCLB Funding Takes Money Away from Poor Students

Funding for low-income students is decreasing. The government appropriated less money for Title I in 2006, and two-thirds of Title I school districts received less funding in 2005-6 due to changes in allocation formulas. Also, because NCLB requires states to use 4 percent of Title I funds for school improvement statewide, states had to take money away from high poverty districts to comply with this requirement. Money that was previously used to improve achievement of low-income students is now being used to fund NCLB requirements.

Linda McNeil and Angela Valenzuela have reported widespread pressure under TAAS (the Texas state test) to spend instructional dollars on test-prep, including the consultants and management systems that are replacing pedagogical professional development. The pressure is felt most in schools with large poor, African-American and Latino populations. These historically under-funded schools now have even less money for worthy instructional purchases, because all of the money is going for TAAS prep. This contributes to the widening of the gap between the quality of education offered poor vs. wealthy children.

In a study of what happened to Houston’s magnet schools after TAAS, McNeil found that over time, the rich and varied curricula that had been such a positive feature of the schools was displaced by test prep. The mandate for teaching to the test was not subtle. At one school, a teacher had assembled (using her own resources) a collection of historical and literary books of importance in Latino culture. Students were enthusiastic about reading and discussing the books. One day the teacher walked into her classroom and found test prep books in the center of her desk with a note from the principal saying “use these instead of your regular curriculum until after the TAAS”, which was three months away. The school had spent $20,000, almost the entire budget, on these test prep materials.


Because of the civil rights movement, the black white math academic achievement gap narrowed considerably from 1971 to 1988. Since the several- hundred-year-old education debt encumbering children of color needs to be eliminated before the gap closes completely, the job was not finished in 17 years. Instead of continuing successful programs, states began to implement high stakes testing and accountability programs. As these programs became more widely implemented, the math achievement gap widened and leveled. Funding for low-income students was redistributed to NCLB accountability and high quality programs begun as part of school desegregation were dismantled. Based on no evidence, high stakes testing and accountability are promoted as solutions to closing the achievement gap, much to the detriment of children of color who might otherwise have continued to benefit from policies and programs that work.*

High Stakes Testing Negatively Influences Curriculum and Instruction

Teachers in low-income black and Latino schools and classrooms are pressured to use didactic, skills-based methods at a higher rate than schools with high test scores. For example, Pauline Lipman described the effects of Chicago’s high-stakes testing and accountability policies on teachers, school administrators, and students in her study of four Chicago public elementary schools. Three of the schools were predominately poor students of color with low test scores. The fourth was multi-racial, fewer than half of its students were low-income, and tests scores were relatively high.

Lipman found that at the first three schools, it was common for teachers to use test preparation booklets for most of the curriculum and use ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) items as guides to lesson planning. Instead of developing curricular and pedagogical strengths, these schools responded to accountability pressures by promoting a narrow focus on skill-building and test-taking techniques. The poorest schools in her study were most dominated by the tests.

At one school, teachers stopped using a conceptually rich mathematics curriculum after being pressured to focus directly on test preparation. The only school in her study not significantly affected by test pressures was, not surprisingly, the multiracial, mixed income school with higher scores. This school’s classrooms were more interactive, with teachers encouraging independent thought and in-depth conversation. In contrast, the other three schools, low-income with African-American or Latino students, focused narrowly on specific skills and test-taking techniques.

Furthermore, there is evidence that “teaching to the test” is rampant across the country. Jaekyung Lee compared student achievement on state tests vs. NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). He found that the percentages of students meeting or exceeding proficiency were on average twice as large on state assessments as NAEP. The discrepancy was especially great for black students, about four times larger. Estimates of the black-white achievement gap based on state test data is about half that estimated by NAEP. Teachers are being pressured and mandated to use state tests as the curriculum. Students may be scoring higher, but they are being deprived of a real education.

High Stakes Tests Exacerbate Other Issues

Because low-income students tend to score lower on high stakes tests, they suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of these tests. One consequence is that high stakes testing subjects low-scoring students to low teacher expectations. Robert Rosenthal’s famous study, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” demonstrated that teachers with more favorable expectations teach more. Low scoring/low income students are not subject to these favorable expectations.

Not just teachers are influenced by expectations. A whole body of research exits showing that students’ attitudes about their ability to do mathematics is related to their ability to do mathematics. Standardized high stakes tests reinforce negative attitudes about math abilities.

In addition, these same students are subject to stereotype threat. Claude Steele conducted an experiment where 114 black and white undergraduates were randomly assigned to different groups, but all took the same test. One group was told they were taking an ability test. In that group, whites outscored African-Americans. Another group was told they were taking a non-diagnostic laboratory problem-solving test. In this group, African-American students performed the same as the white students. Steele concluded that stereotype threat, what a student feels when he or she thinks a test will confirm racist stereotypes, has a negative influence on performance.


One use of high stakes testing, tracking into low-level classes, combines low teacher expectation with low student expectations. Many researchers have documented the over-representation of African-Americans and Latinos in special education or other low-level classes and their under-representation in the high level classes they sorely need. Research has also shown that tracking is detrimental to all and that heterogeneous classes raise achievement. Yet, according to the Center on Education Policy (2006) report on NCLB, many districts that had been grouping children heterogeneously so that students would benefit from working with each other, went to homogeneous groupings so that they could focus on test skills.

Affective Concerns

Jo Boaler reported on the negative effects high stakes testing has on the psyche of students. Boaler studied a California school which, while poorer and more colorful than another school in the study, outscored them on every test the researchers developed. Yet, these same smart students scored poorly on California’s standardized test. Why? The questions were wordy, convoluted, and set in unfamiliar contexts. However, because of the attention given to these tests, the students had begun to question their own abilities and to believe the “underperforming” label put on their school by the state. Teachers are thinking that perhaps they should spend more time on test preparation skills, even though they know this will not improve students’ mathematical understanding.

High Stakes Tests Are Associated With Higher Drop Out Rates, Particularly Among Low-Income, Students of Color

Walter Haney and his colleagues showed that high stakes testing has increased the number of dropouts. Since the early 1990s, when high stakes testing started to become the norm, graduation rates have fallen steadily. The rates went from 77 percent in 1990-1991 to 67 percent in 2000-2001. They also found that three times as many students “disappear” between grades nine and ten as they did 30 years ago, due to retention policies. A study by Sharon Nichols and colleagues takes this a step further. She proves that the more pressure a state exerts on accountability, the less likely it is that students will progress to 12^th grade.

Among these increased numbers of dropouts that Haney documents and Nichols links to accountability pressures, disproportionate numbers are African-American and Latino. Gary Orfield and colleagues provide graduation rates in the table below. [Chart is from “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” Orfield, et al., 2004:

As the figure shows, only around 50% of the nation’s black, Native American, and Latino students graduate, and for males the numbers are even lower. Orfield argues that the demands of NCLB give states an incentive to push out low performing, disproportionately black and Latino students. Orfield and Haney both cite the case of Steve Orel in Birmingham, Alabama, who was fired for reporting that the Birmingham schools withdrew what turned out to be 522 (overwhelmingly African-American) students because they had low test scores. None of these students had voluntary left school.


Researchers have come up with virtually no evidence that high stakes testing and accountability have done much good. The state departments of education glow about their rising state test scores, but no academic researchers take those scores seriously. The countless horror stories uncovered by qualitative researchers expose the enduring harm being done by NCLB testing. Finally, the racism that plays itself out in the high stakes test context is clear. From tracking, to didactic teaching, to missed opportunities, to dropouts, African-American and Latino students get the short stick.

The evidence clearly indicates that

* Efforts and resources are going into high stakes testing in place of effective policies and programs..

* Teachers at schools under pressure to improve scores are more likely to teach to the test, use didactic rather than constructivist methods, and let the test determine the curriculum, usually at the direction of the administration.

* Schools with low test scores, which tend to have large numbers of poor and/or African-American or Latino students, are under the most pressure and therefore suffer disproportionately from the problems described above.

* Low scores on high stakes tests reinforce negative attitudes of both teacher and student about the student’s ability to learn, which are known to adversely affect achievement.

* Dropout rates are increasing because of testing and accountability policies, particularly among students of color.

*More tests are not needed to determine whether schools are providing equitable education. They are not. One may question whether equitable education is possible in an inequitable society. In any case, constructivist teaching methods, high-quality teachers, strong early childhood education, and smaller class sizes are known to positively affect instruction. If the goal is better education, then the starting point should be these strategies. Instead, ubiquitous standardized tests have widened the achievement gap their proponents claim to want narrowed.


— Berliner, D. (2005). “Our impoverished view of educational reform.” Retrieved December 26, 2006, from Teachers College Record, ?contentid=12106

— Boaler, J. (2003) “When learning no longer matters: Standardized testing and the creation of inequality.” Phi Delta Kappan, 84(7), 502-506.

— Center on Education Policy (2006, March). “From the capital to the classroom; Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act”. Retrieved January 1, 2007, from

— Gould, S. (1981). “The mismeasure of man” (pp. 146-233). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

— Grissmer, D., Flanagan, A., & Williamson, S. (1998). Why did the black-white score gap narrow in the 1970’s and 1980’s? In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), “The black-white test score gap.” Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

— Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I.

(2004). “The education pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000.” Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College.

— Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). “From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools.” Educational Researcher, 35 (7), /3-12.

— Lee, J. (2002). “Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity?” Educational Researcher, 31 (1), 3-12.

— Lee, J. (2006). “Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth look into national and state reading and math outcome trends.” Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

— Lipman, P. (2002). “Making the global city, making inequality: The political economy and cultural politics of Chicago school policy.” American Educational Research Journal, 39 (2), 379-419.

— McNeil, L., & Valenzuela, A. (2001). “The harmful impact of the TAAS system of testing in Texas: Beneath the accountability rhetoric.” In M Kornhaber & G. Orfield, (Eds.), “Raising standards or raising barriers? Inequality and high stakes testing in public education “ (127-150), New York: Century Foundation.

— McNeil, L. (2000). “Contradictions of school reform”. New York: Routledge.

— Nichols, S.L., Glass, G.V., & Berliner, D.C. (2005). “High-stakes testing and student achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act”. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Research Unit.

— Orfield, G., Losen, D., Wald, J., & Swanson, C., (2004). “Losing our future: How minority youth are being left behind by the graduation rate crisis”, Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Contributors: Advocates for Children of New York, The Civil Society Institute.

— Rosenthal, R. (1997). “Interpersonal expectancy effects: A forty year perspective”. Paper presented at American Psychological Asssociation Convention, Chicago.

— Sathy, V., Barbuti, S., & Mattern, K. (2006). “The new SAT and trends in test performance.” New York: College Board.

— Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797—811. 


December 21, 2011 at 7:15 PM

By: Bill pryor

About 2 lines.

If it is poverty causing the education gap why do the poorest whites ($200k) on the SAT?

January 27, 2013 at 10:10 AM

By: Sajada Syed

Education PreK-12

Fist, I would like to pay my gratitude to Carol Caref for such a insightful research of horrified machinery for racism in the education system. Please Carol update with more of your researches on education and continue writing. Thank You.

Second, I would like to say Bill Pryor, please don't close your eyes from Color's Poor students as well. I agreed with you that poverty is the major problem to achieve better score in testing even for white poor, though then why to segregate the white poor, from color poor, black, brown, Native-American,and Latinos. Poverty, and Racial, both discrimination are institutionalize in education system, and exactly what Carol Caref's research is about.

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