How tests can help us overcome the "soft bigotry of low expectations"

In a 2000 campaign speech, George W. Bush famously said:

Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.
It turns out that there are also some pretty deep, possibly unconscious, biases at work that manifest themselves through the way we praise students.

It was a powerful turn of phrase that ended up emerging as the signature phrase of Bush’s reform agenda. There has been evidence around for some time that students of color or those from disadvantaged backgrounds have not been exposed to the same rigorous content as their white, middle class and affluent peers. But it turns out that there are also some pretty deep, possibly unconscious, biases at work that go beyond exposure to rigorous content and that manifest themselves through the way we praise students.

For a new study recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Rutgers-Newark psychology professor Kent D. Harber and his team gave a poorly written essay to 113 white middle and high school teachers. The teachers were told that the essay was written by a black, a white, or a Latino student and that their feedback would be given directly to the student to help him/her improve. According to one article:

The results showed that the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias.” The teachers provided more praise and less criticism if they thought that the student who wrote the essay was Black or Hispanic.

If we had to invest a phrase to describe this kind of pattern, I’m not sure we could do better than “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

How can we ensure we hold the bar equally high for all students?

The standards movement is grounded in the idea that children benefit from clear and high expectations. But this research suggests that, even when students are exposed to the same content and given the same assignments, the expectations we have for study work may be very, very different. So how can we ensure we hold the bar equally high for all students? Yes, we need to adopt and implement rigorous standards and/or curricula. But, what if teachers are systematically adjusting their feedback to praise children of color for meeting a lower bar?

We actually are all too familiar with how this plays out in the real world, and these findings would be unsurprising to the many minority students who graduated from high school at the top of their class, but who’ve had culture shock when they matriculated to elite colleges and universities. One such student, Darryl Robinson, recently penned a piece for the Washington Post detailing how far behind he was when he started at Georgetown. He explained:

Even though I attended some of the District’s better schools…the gap between what I can do and what my college classmates are capable of is enormous. This goes beyond knowing calculus or world history…My former teachers simply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.
Since the third grade, my teachers told me I was exceptional, but they never pushed me to think for myself.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until Robinson pushed his way into Advanced Placement courses that he felt like he was being really pushed. “Suddenly,” Robinson explained, “I was expected to think about concepts, such as public policy’s cause and effect, and apply these ideas to real-life situations.”

But, what was the difference? Robinson was seen as an exceptional student. He clearly had the aptitude and the drive necessary to achieve at high levels. So why did it take until late high school to ask of Robinson what teachers had no doubt been asking of his white, middle class and affluent peers for years?

There are no doubt multiple explanations, but it’s hard for me to ignore that, in AP classes, there are not only rigorous standards and quality curricular materials, but there are also assessments to which all students will be held, regardless of their background, prior knowledge, or experience. And these assessments set a clear bar for where all students should be. Such clarity makes it more difficult to allow personal biases—whether deliberate or subconscious—to subtly lower standards for students from whom you don’t expect quite as much.

It’s become popular in many education circles to decry “teaching to the test,” but this latest research provides one more reason why these independent checks on what students have actually learned are a critical element of an effort to close America’s achievement gap.

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