Writing in The New York Times in 2002, Sid Wolinsky, a lawyer and cofounder of Disability Rights Advocates, said that “standardized tests test students’ disabilities, not their abilities.” Twenty years later, that somehow rings just as true.
When looking at structural ableism in standardized tests, I believe it’s helpful to take a sweeping, justice-centered approach. A narrower, rights-based approach to ableism does consider prejudice, stereotypes, and stigmas against people with disabilities, but activist and attorney TL Lewis’s working definition of ableism goes further, arguing that ableism is: “a system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.”
Standardized tests may be framed as a way to determine a person’s intelligence, fitness, and excellence to decide who is worthy of higher education. But in reality, they just measure a person’s ability to pass a standardized test and score better than their peers.
As Stephen Sireci, a professor of psychometrics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the director of the Center for Educational Assessment, tells me, “Education should not be about competition. It should be about bringing everyone to their full potential.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15% of students in public school (about 7.2 million students) receive special education services, and a third of those students have learning disabilities. That excludes a host of other students with unidentified disabilities, who, experts have argued, disproportionately happen to be girls, Black students, English language learners, and others who may not have the same educational or economic access to disability services.
Disability, after all, is intersectional. Special education services are supported under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, but Congress has failed to live up to its promise to fund 40% of special education costs, and President Biden’s campaign commitment to fully fund these services hasn’t materialized.
Ableism embedded in standardized tests has uniquely impacted my own journey through education. When it was time to take the SAT and ACT in high school, I already knew that my scores might not reflect my academic abilities. My parents hired a tutor to make sure I had an equal chance.
Throughout my school career, I had to fight harder to make sure I’d have the same opportunities as my peers. At an on-campus college fair, a peer told me I wouldn’t have to worry about “that stuff” after seeing me carrying a backpack full of brochures for prestigious, faraway colleges, and universities. That peer then said, “Well, you have a disability. You could’ve been born a vegetable. Colleges love that stuff.”
Those comments stick with me to this day. That peer had no clue that I was also working diligently to ensure I had the perfect blend of extracurriculars, was earning good grades in the same classes they were taking, and studying overtime to get the desired test scores on those dreaded standardized tests.