The “Achievement Gap”: Banning the Language of Deficit

George W. Bush famously pushed through NCLB with his hyperbolic rally against, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”  His argument was that minority students were performing poorly, as measured by “the achievement gap,” because expectations for them were low, or “soft.”  His answer? To raise standards and test to hold schools accountable to these standards.

Time has predictably shown that Bush’s stance has only served to reinforce a racialized world dominated by Whiteness.  What standards are we asking students of color to rise to?  Standards determined by dominant culture that are reinforced through a biased testing system that rewards those who benefit from privilege, and continues to punish those who lack it.

I assume that Bush would argue that success is determined by this dominant culture, and thus, it is this culture that our students must learn to navigate in order to be what our culture deems “successful.”  (Though he probably would word it differently.)

If only it were so simple.

It seems that the game that determines the winners and losers against our standards of success is rigged.

In What’s Race Got To Do With It?, Wayne Au explains,

One of the key assumptions undergirding the use of standardized tests to measure, sort and rank students is the idea that these tests are measuring students objectively and accurately- for if the tests are objective, then they truly are assessing the individual  merits of students.  In turn the individual students who have worked the hardest and who have the most merit will rise to the top compared to their peers.

So far it kind of sounds like Bush was right, right?

Except he’s not.

Because standardized tests are neither objective nor accurate.

Au points out the flaws in the design of the SAT, “…ensuring that the test question selection process itself has a self reinforcing, built-in racial bias.”

He points out the ways in which out-of-school factors matter more in determining “achievement” than in-school factors.

He writes,

…systems of accountability built upon high-stakes, standardized testing cannot function if everyone is a “winner” for both ideological and technological reasons.  Ideologically, if everyone passed the tests there simply would be no way to justify elite status for any particular group: Every student would qualify for the most elite colleges and jobs, thereby rendering the very hierarchy of elitism obsolete. A high-stakes, standardized test that everyone passed would then function to challenge White supremacy, not maintain it.


But no worries, as long as we are talking about achievement and data and standardized anything, the ranking and competition and market driven forces will ensure that those on top stay on top.   Especially considering,

The White supremacist curriculum enforced by high-stakes testing directly and negatively impacts students of Color. Research tells us that students learn best when they can connect themselves, their identities, their lives, and their experiences to their learning.  This has proven to be true for students of Color in particular, especially those historically underserved by our school system:  Curriculum that connects to students’ cultures and identities fosters deeper connection to concepts and learning, and can lead to more academic success.  By legitimizing Whiteness through the delegitimization of non-Whiteness in curriculum and classroom environments, high-stakes tests explicitly include and exclude certain student identities in schools.  Put differently, because high-stakes tests force schools to adopt a standardized non-multicultural curriculum that structurally enforces norms of Whiteness, it ultimately silences the cultures and voices of children of Color, particularly if those voices, cultures and experiences are not contained on the tests.

And Why This Matters: Towards Banning Deficit Language

So to be clear, the ways in which we supposedly measure the “achievement gap” serves to reinforce the achievement gap.  These measures ensure that we look at students already marginalized through a  lens of “deficit.”  “They” are not measuring up to the standards that “we” have set.  Standards that are defined by, and serve to reinforce, a dominant culture determined by Whiteness.

And it is within this context that I would like to join Andre Perry in  his quest to eliminate the deficit language of “achievement gap.”

In, Why We Need to Smash the Concept of the Achievement Gap Into Tiny Pieces, Perry points out that the deficit model serves to externalize the problem of achievement.  In other words, the achievement gap is seen as a problem that rests with people of color, rather than one that rests within structures that have institutionalized racism.

Perry writes,

Common titles like Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life and Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students insidiously de-emphasize institutional responsibility for graduating men of color and as a consequence, measures of institutional accountability based on inclusion are ignored.

The authors of these and similar texts acknowledge and deconstruct institutional factors. However, we mitigate our efforts comparing black and brown weakness to supposed white strength. We undermine our cause when we try to fix black and brown boys and men of color…

The inferred white male referent in the achievement gap construct contributes to the centuries old logic that others should be compared to whites. On its face the idea of student success lets institutional factors of the hook, which have been shown to be at least half of the reason why men of color are pushed out of college. Educators shouldn’t be data driven.

We should be community driven and use data to support students.  (Emphasis added)

So what’s the first step?

To stop using any language that reinforces a perceived deficit.  Stop using any language that privileges one group vis-a-vis another.

To stop talking about a so-called “achievement gap.”

We can no longer allow language that functions to denigrate others.

Reframing the issue means that researchers must abandon antiquated constructs. Smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces.


Maybe after banning the language of deficit, we can stop blaming people and start to become community driven.

PS- Thanks to Paul Thomas for providing fodder for this thinking. Read more here.

5 responses to “The “Achievement Gap”: Banning the Language of Deficit

  1. I won’t call it racially biased, because there are going to be parents that fit the bubble test profile from every racial group.

    I think it is middle class biased or a socioeconomic bias.

    When I say middle class I mean mostly stable, middle and/or upper middle class families because the standardized tests are designed on the assumption that every child comes from a family with the same stability—one or two working parents earning a livable or better wage who are also heavily invoked in the child’s life—-parents like this can be found in every racial group just like we find children living in poverty from every racial group. But because Whites make up the largest segment of the middle socioeconomic class, they are the anchor/model for the design of the test.

    I think these stable middle class parents are often known as tiger parents, helicopter and/or soccer moms and dads. These are the parents who read bedtime stories to their toddlers and young children long before kindergarten—just like parents do in Finland. These are the parents who read books, magazines and newspapers where their children can see them doing it. These are the parents who do more than ask “How was school today?” These parents ask to see the work and call the homework hotline by phone or log in and check on-line through the school’s website. And these are the parents who show up at almost every parent conference night.

    For instance, my wife, during the 13 years our 24 year old daughter was attending K-12 public schools, if she came home with any assignment or test that had a grade less than an A, my wife was on the phone immediately making sure the teacher was still at school and then mother was on her way to school to find out what she could do to make sure it didn’t happen again.

    If we want to see the kind of parent that doesn’t fit the profile the tests are designed for, we have to look no further than the parent in the corporate reform propaganda film “Won’t Back Down”. Maggie Gyllenhaal played the role. Anyone who watches that film and pays attention will soon discover she is a lousy parent. Every time we see the mother and child at home together, the child is watching TV and there is no sign of books, magazines or newspapers anywhere—at least that’s what I remember not seeing.

    In our house, when our daughter was growing up, you wouldn’t have seen that, becasue the TV was off six days a week and only on for an hour or two on Sunday and the programs—all educational in some way—were picked by her parents. They were all taped, and we fast forwarded through the commercials because commercials contribute to consumer programing, ignorance and kill brain cells.

    Her mother also took her to the library every week for years, because she was allowed to read for entertainment and she did—a lot.

    Our daughter had no cell phone until she was in high school and then only for emergency use. And there was no internet in her bedroom.

    She was told if she started to talk to her friends and text them using the phone, it would show up in her minutes and she’d lose the phone.

    Eventually, when she was in her second year at Stanford—she graduated last June—and working a part time job, she signed up for her own cell phone and paid the bill herself so she would be free to text her friends.

    My wife and daughter are both Asian-Americans. Being a minority seldom slows up most Asian children from even outperforming White children, which, on average, they do.

    • With all due respect, I think it’s crucially important, as educators who care for all of the students we work with, that we recognize how standardized testing functiuons in a way that is racially biased. I agree that it is biased in terms of class. But it also biased in terms of race. And, again, with all due respect, by reducing this function to family level decision making obscures how institutional racism works. As you write, “But because Whites make up the largest segment of the middle socioeconomic class, they are the anchor/model for the design of the test.” So I think we agree that Whiteness serves as the template of standardization. The question then becomes, regardless of individual choices within this context, which groups benefit and which lose from such an arrangement?

      • Yep, we agree that Whiteness serves as the template of standardization, but not just any Whiteness. It has to be middle class Protestant Whiteness. For instance, if you are white and come from a family that lives in poverty, then the odds favor that you are labeled white trash. And heaven forbid if you live in poverty. are considered white trash and are an atheist and/or not a Protestant.

        And according to this site, only 11% of African Americans are Protestants while 12% are non religious—more evidence supporting racism is instilled in standardized tests.

  2. Pingback: Skull Measurements, Achievement Data And The Destruction Of The Public School System -

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