“Whose Standard?”


Starting in 4th grade, we began taking standardized tests. These continued every two years in grade school. Then in high school we took first the PSAT test, then the SAT test. Before graduate school we took the GRE test. Before I could teach in Connecticut I had to take the Praxis test. While there are now many courses available to help prepare students for these tests, I had no preparation for any of them. I just sat down and filled out the little answer spaces with my pencil.

But how was I at an advantage even back in 4th grade? I grew up in a white upper middle class home surrounded by books with college educated parents. I was a voracious reader. My parents spoke “Standard English” as it was called then. And the Iowa Test was designed for “Standard English.” I remember finding some of the choices comical, though I had no idea why. For instance was it proper to say “they were” or “they was?” Who would make that “mistake” I wondered. The vocabulary section of the SAT tests was also slanted in my favor. The words to be defined were used all the time in my household and in the books I read. The grammar and usage questions were similarly positioned to my advantage since they were the way people around me spoke.

Remember that I was in school before television was a common source for most children to hear language. Most kids when I was in 4th grade only heard their parents and neighbors speaking. If they heard “ain’t” they had no reason to doubt its correctness. If they hadn’t been surrounded by books, their vocabularies would be much smaller than mine.

It wasn’t until I was grown that I understood the problem with standardized testing. It really separated out kids more by socio-economic reasons than by aptitude or even accomplishment. When I taught “remedial” English to college students I was careful to say that there were many dialects in America. The one called “Standard English” was the one to use in formal writing. I told them that I had had the benefit of learning it growing up. They had the challenge of mastering what was, in essence, a foreign language. I hoped to equip them with this second language since it was still seen as “superior” and the mark of an “educated” person. But I encouraged them to never think their dialect was inferior. If the “standardized” test had been in their dialect, I would have flunked.

26 thoughts on ““Whose Standard?”

  1. Is 4th grade age 9? Excuse my ignorance, but we have a different system here.
    If is is age 9, then we didn’t have such tests at that age, in my youth. We didn’t start to face examinations until the age of 11, and that was pressure enough.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  2. Ah yes! I remember those tests year after year. Having to use number 2 pencils and the warning, ‘STOP! Do not go on to the next page!” I remember very little else about the content other than not doing well on anything with abstract diagrams.


  3. When I did volunteer training for a social service agency where I worked, I would try to help participants look at their unconscious bias and often used these kinds of tests as an example. It’s not like the folks who designed these tests were looking for a test that upper middle class white kids would pass and black or Latinx kids would flunk, I explained. The problem was the creators of these tests didn’t even realize they were biased.


    1. Excellent example. I shared this with my husband who agreed that it conveyed the idea of implicit bias without blame and shame. Much needed in any conversation about implicit bias.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I suffered from the school system before standardisation. I moved from an inner London primary school to a suburb aged ten and found myself faced with tasks in class that I had never been introduced to in Hackney – mostly in English classes (Grammar? What’s grammar?).
    The National Curriculum began to reach schools in 1989 and has since been amended several times in an attempt to slim down and otherwise amend its requirements. However unpopular its ramifications have been (especially the SATS, with the pressure to perform that teachers and parents transfer to children) I can vouch only for the pressure of finding yourself in a class of your peers with their heads down and pencils moving, having not understood a word the teacher has said.


    1. I can see that would have been dreadful. I think standardization of curriculum is helpful for kids as long as we understand that different kids start at different places when they arrive at school.


  5. Standardized tests were one of the few negative things in my entire teaching career. In California, we began all this nonsense in 3rd grade (It was even at 2nd grade for a few years). Some of my administrators put a lot of pressure on the teaching staffs and insisted that the students do well on these tests. This pressure purposefully or inadvertently was passed on to students by stressed out teachers. What particularly frustrated me was the amount of importance that we attached to these tests. I had students whose families struggled to meet their children’s basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter) and yet we expected the kids to care about some test which had no bearing on their lives??? It was so messed up and out of proportion.


    1. Here the more focus there is on testing, the less time there is for things like p.e. art and music. Sadly, many kids thrive in these classes and get a very warped sense of themselves as being valued only for the test score.


  6. I do believe standardized testing did what it was supposed to do: teach a standardized and formal way or communicating. Without it, it’s hard for people who speak English as a second language to understand us or each other. I have that problem speaking to people in French or Spanish when they switch to a dialect. I don’t understand them. I only understand the standard language.

    That said, I grew up in a household where neither of my parents were college educated. My parents had some tertiary education and certifications, but not college degrees. I was the first one to go to college. Still, I grew up around English in the family, mostly British English because we had a lot of family from there who came to visit. I actually had a British accent as a child, but made a conscious effort to outgrow it because I was tired of being teased about it, ironically by the White kids. That was because OUTSIDE of my family, everyone around me spoke country bumpkin levels of patois, which can be difficult to understand even for locals. I grew up in German Town, so just imagine the German and Jamaican accent converging. Very aggressive!

    Mom hated it so she was pretty adamant about us speaking only standard English in the home and I was homeschooled in English classes from her on top of my regular public school education. I thought it was really annoying back then, but I’m grateful for now it now. What might surprise you even more is that my mom does not speak Standard English. She did her best, but her English is actually mixed with patois, so she taught me using newspapers and books.

    Put simply, one does not need college educated or middle class upwards parents to have that advantage. When a parent is dedicated, that can make all the difference.


    1. I agree that one doesn’t need to have college educated middle class parents to have an advantage, and I didn’t mean to imply that. My concern is for all the kids who don’t have that and do poorly on these tests because they haven’t had the chance to learn the standard dialect. It is less true now, I think, since television is so pervasive and American kids are less isolated. Motivated parents are invaluable. Sadly, many kids don’t have them.


      1. Oh, I didn’t think you were trying to imply anything. Just sharing an experience that doesn’t fit the general mould. I don’t really know many other people who had a similar experience to what I did.

        I don’t think TV really teaches Standard English, unless they’re watching the news or documentaries. Movies all seem to mirror dialects now to have more natural language. But, it does help to expose different subcultures to each other and maybe help them understand each other a little better.


  7. Like Pete, there were no tests for me until the age of 11. In the UK now, the pendulum has swung several times in recent years, with testing at age 7 and informal assessment even before formal schooling begins at 5. We seem unable to determine a system and stick with it at the moment. I don’t approve of tests at such an early age, but I have to concede that my grandsons, aged 9 and 6 are receiving an execellent education.


  8. You were fortunate, Elizabeth, and so was I. I had read all the children’s books in our local library by the time I turned 10 and I moved on to the adult section. I was enjoying Dickens by the time I was 12 with a dictionary by my side so I could look up any words I didn’t know. I have never forgotten the word countenance which he uses extensively in his writing.


    1. I remember “countenance” from the blessing in the Book of Numbers that my grandfather often quoted. Did you need permission to go in the adult section as I did?


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