“Painting is to easel” South High students unearth racism in standardized testing


This documentary, put together by students at Minneapolis South High School, takes a critical look towards the cultural bias that has been integrated into standardized testing. Often times standardized tests cater to a small demographic that is the white middle class. In the film, the students unearth overt racism with deep roots in standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT.



“High-stakes standardized testing is a form of child labor, because you’re using children to make profit,” said Vichet Chhuon, associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.

This video was directed by Nasir Abdulkadir, Ezra Bergmann, Asher Franicola, Alex Mathison and Sam Stroup, students in the South High VOICES class of 2015-16. VOICES stands for Values, Options, Issues and Choices Explored in Society. Students in the VOICES class create social issue documentaries with the guidance of teachers Delainia Haug, Laura Lanik and Teaching Artist/videomaker John Akre. To see all of this year’s VOICES documentaries, visit this link.

All of this year’s VOICES films will screen for free at the Riverview Theater on Monday, Feb. 1 at 4:30 p.m.

25 thoughts on ““Painting is to easel” South High students unearth racism in standardized testing

  1. This video is a failure because it simply builds a case without sufficiently considering the issue. The fact that no UMN professor of educational measurement was interviewed demonstrates that the goal of this video was simply to prop up existing beliefs and therefore the video fails as a learning activity. Is is really a good idea to have students, who understand nothing of assessment, choose their assessment method? This video actually just supports feeling like a victim and blaming performance on testing rather than on the student taking the tests. Educational testing provides information for judgments about what a person knows or their ability to learn, not their value or essence. If students don’t like their test scores, they need to work harder, not stop taking tests.

    • They weren’t advocating for the cessation of testing but rather that forms of assessment take into account the markedly different experiences people have growing up and rather than test vocabulary, instead evaluate an individual’s ability to learn. The way to do that is not to see if, by some chance, someone has come across a certain word or concept but rather, when presented with new information, can they make sense of that information, make connections and communicate that information. That is the direction testing needs to go in order to account for the incredible diversity and disparities among different demographics. You can’t honestly say that someone who has grown up in a family where they struggle to put food on the table, been educated in incredibly underfunded schools where art programs are among the first to be cut, should be expected to know the word easel as can be expected of a child whose parents can afford luxuries like art supplies and can afford to have a parent stay at home to raise the child rather than work. The reality is that statistically, the first child is far more likely to be African American than white and in that way, racism is prevelant in standardized testing. It’s likely not intentional but there nontheless.

      • Current testing already does that. Tests can address knowledge (achievement) like the MCA or they can test reasoning or cognitive ability. Any test is going to have use concepts and terms that are understood by the tested to be valid (and so cultural differences can affect the content of the test). Some tests, however, are testing knowledge of concepts or terms and must use concepts and terms of different difficulty. How or why students differ in knowledge is irrelevant when you are trying to measure knowledge. Target learning outcomes are the same for all students and require the same conceptual knowledge.

    • Rob Czar, I disagree that a title or specifically a ‘UMN professor’ has the first, final, or boldest statement in education (if that is what you are getting at). I did terrible at tests as a youth in school, yet I am doing amazing as an adult. I knew I would do better and feel better the further I got away from those standardized tests. You (the system) cannot test for all aspects of the human mind on such a grand scale. Standardized tests are claustrophobic to many people with creative minds. Test ARE however great for checking out all the basics. Works great for people with minds set up for math or rigid word identification. Think about those few kids who make it to national spelling bees. Their minds are set up for that from the go, so a standardized test will benefit them. Also, from what I can tell, tests are also great for seeing which school gets specific funding allowed or funding cut. I knew, as a young student, where I would fail and where I would succeed. That self-assessment is still true. Have you ever tried asking kids how they should be tested or how the school system should be set up?

  2. This is such an outstanding video, power to the people to all the people, not just the high earning white privileged class.

  3. This is a topic that I would love to have a community discussion about. I walked out of high school thinking I was pretty dumb compared to other students and wouldn’t have even dreamed about going to college, except that I failed the Army physical and stumbled into going on to higher ed after all.
    When I finished my Masters with a set of perfect grades, I began to think I was not so dumb after all. Then a guy who went to my high school and was considered the smartest student they ever had (1964 Presidential Scholar) with a full ride to Harvard and a Doctorate from Stanford spent a week with me and said I was one of the smartest people he ever met. Ever sinse then, I’ve not put that much stock in standard testing.

  4. If you do not know the definition of a word (i.e. such as easel) – they you simply do not know it. It simply indicates that you never read any books that contained the word “easel”. If you had read a book that contained the word easel – you would have looked it up in a dictionary – and then come to an understanding as to the definition of easel. Very few kids (probably less than 1%) in this country have an easel at home – regardless of location or ethnic background or economic background. Very few kids have “space ships” too – but somehow most kids know the definition of a “space ship” through reading etc.

    • It is worth noting that tests must include more difficult items. Knowing what an easel is may be a valid way to distinguish students with more knowledge. Not because of their culture but because they have read more books or visited art museums. Finding out that what people do not know is an important part of instruction regardless of why student know or don’t know things. The goal is not to ask student questions they know the answer to. As far as I know, easels are not specific to a culture.

      • You clearly have no understanding of the fact that greater access to books, having parents read to you as a child, and being able to visit art museums is directly correlated to poverty rate and that those living below, or near, the poverty line are disproportionately minorities. Children growing up in poor households often have a lack of parental interaction from a very young age, as parents in such households need to be working multiple jobs in order to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Spending more time at work means they spend less time with their children, which means they have less time to read to their children, less time to take their children to museums, and because a much larger proportion of their income is spent on food and housing, they have less money to spend on books and other educational activities for their children. All of this boils down to less exposure to words like easel for children of poorer households (which are again disproportionately minority). Unless the question is “What is the definition of the word ‘easel’?”, the same information about what a student does or does not know could be gleaned from a question that includes a more common word.

        • Wow, you know what I know from one post. That would be the envy of the testing world. Why students vary on knowledge is not as important to an instructor as the fact that they do. Instructors need to know what you know and don’t know to effectively instruct you. The fact that student differ in prior knowledge is a key factor in determining what and how to teach them.

  5. Asking the opinion of a university professor of education who specializes in testing about testing is like asking a car salesman their opinion about cars – professor of testing is to testing…

  6. Funny to hear Senator Patricia Torres Ray speak here since she seems to be a close friend of the corporate education reform movement which seeks to both monetizes students and break teachers’ unions in order to help privatize public education and funnel public monies to private interests. She is a slick politician who listens to well funded lobbyists. I don’t think she believes schools should have unionized employees. I once attended a Drinking Liberally event featuring Torres Ray, she told the teachers in the audience that they need to come to her with ideas, expressed disgust for the teachers’ union, and when many said that they worked during thus couldn’t easily get to her office during the day she seemed to not like that response. She said that the other groups, like MinnCan (corporate funded education reform lobbyists ) have all the ideas and come to her. She is willing to listen to MinCann as well as attend another corporate education reform group, Educators for Excellence, events. http://www.educators4excellence.org/news/2014-02-storify-e4e-mns-2014-legislative-preview And then there’s this: http://www.brightlightsmallcity.com/the-road-to-rigor-for-minneapolis-multilingual-department/ And here is Torres Ray, again working with a corporate funded lobbying group, this time SFER: https://www.studentsforedreform.org/spotlight/resources-for-college-and-career-readiness/

  7. Great to see students tackling the issues of the day in real time. This is practical application and full immersion into a very adult conversation. Anecdotal or otherwise the reward is in the effort. The pay off for these students will be down the road. They now have an experience and a memory to carry with them as they move forward in their lives and with their education. They have the instantaneous feedback from other teachers, friends, family and commenters here to carry on this experience. Their efforts do not end with the creation of their documentary. Congratulations for their teachers for having that foresight. This is an effort only creative instructors with lots of energy and imagination can commit to. I commend their willingness to take on deep study a much more difficult task than proctoring a test.

    • Other factors beyond being current and real time matter for an effective learning activity. Students should experience some conceptual conflict about the issue (there are many sides to most current, real time issues). The project should expose students to alternative ideas and views–then reach a conclusion. Simply promoting students current, unexamined beliefs by creating a video will only help students learn how to make videos. Nothing valid will be learned about the many issues of standardized testing.

  8. I applaud these students for their excellent work. They took on a topic they care about, interviewed relevant experts, and communicated a point of view, using significant writing, research, filmmaking, and technology skills in the process. Bravo to them and to their teacher! As someone who has served as an expert reviewer for items on high-stakes tests, I can tell you that bias is built in, sometimes without anyone noticing. For example. I read an entry about a young woman just out of college who took a job as a journalist for a magazine that she and her parents did not respect. She took the job without her parents’ approval and learned a great deal about journalism in her year with the magazine. She then quit the job — although she had no other job lined up– because she realized that she had learned all she could learn and needed to search for a position with a more respectable magazine or news outlet. The correct answer to a set of multiple choice questions after the passage required that the reader agree that the young woman had made a good choice to leave the job — that this was a reasonable thing to do. Do I need to delineate the middle class assumptions that underlie that interpretation of the passage? Why would anyone turn down a job in these economic times? Why weren’t her parents pleased about the job? Why would anyone leave such a job without another position waiting? Didn’t this young woman have any school loans to pay? As part of the review panel, I pointed out the bias in this passage but it was not tagged for revision. Anecdotal, perhaps, but these are the kinds of assumptions that are overlooked when white, middle class perceptions and experiences continue to be the standard for what is right and normal.

  9. Congratulations to the students and their teachers! This documentary is a wonderful example of a performance-based assessment. Over 800 colleges and universities have become test-optional for admissions, in recognition that traditional standardized assessments are biased, and do not predict future learning outcomes for students.

  10. Anecdotes are not any sort of evidence. Subjective opinions need not be based on evidence, and so are also not evidence. Unless one systematically and correctly (i.e. scientifically) studies the issues, one has no evidence, only ideology.

  11. Most Native beadwork is created for tribal use but beadworkers also create conceptual work for the art world. Richard Aitson ( Kiowa – Apache ) has both an Indian and non-Indian audience for his work and is known for his fully beaded cradleboards. Another Kiowa beadworker, Teri Greeves has won top honors for her beadwork, which consciously integrates both traditional and contemporary motifs, such as beaded dancers on Converse high-tops. Greeves also beads on buckskin and explores such issues as warfare or Native American voting rights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.