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Dossier. Privatisations et ségrégations de l'éducation. Perspectives internationales

"Such a Powerful Tool":Testing, Business Interests and School Segregation in North Carolina, 1970s-1990s

« Un si puissant outil » : évaluations standardisées, intérêts du secteur privé et ségrégation scolaire en Caroline du Nord entre les années 1970 et 1990 
Esther Cyna
p. 105-126


Comment les évaluations standardisées sont-elles devenues la marque de fabrique des réformes éducatives étatsuniennes à la fin du xxe siècle ? Cet article analyse la transition vers des politiques axées sur les résultats scolaires aux niveaux étatique et local du début des années 1970 à la fin des années 1990, et se concentre tout particulièrement sur la relation entre le rôle croissant d’acteurs issus du secteur privé et l’importance des résultats scolaires quantifiables. Cet article interroge les conséquences de ce mouvement sur la ségrégation scolaire en Caroline du Nord. Un nouveau paradigme de la performance est arrivé à dominer les politiques éducatives de cet État, figure de proue des réformes de standardisation des évaluations scolaires, avec un discours emprunté au monde de l’entreprise. À l’aide d’archives fédérales, étatiques et locales, cet article analyse la mise en place de ces réformes éducatives, leur interaction avec la ségrégation scolaire, leur réception ainsi que l’opposition qu’elles ont parfois suscitée dans ce nouveau contexte.

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  • 1 Domestic Policy Council, Michael Cohen papers, folder: Testing Civil Rights Groups Letter 9/11 [1 (...)
  • 2 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to President Clinton, Sep. 4, 1997, Domestic Policy Council (...)
  • 3 «National Standards and Tests Promote Excellence and Equity for All Students», Sep. 5, 1997, Dome (...)

1In 1997, President Clinton expanded the ambitions of Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the first federal education policy effort to explicitly promote standards-based reform, by pushing for a national test (Jennings, 1998). Attendees of the 1997 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights organized to oppose the idea.1 Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Women’s Law Center, among others, wrote to President Clinton to express their stiff opposition to the National Test, and contested the very foundation of outcomes-based reform by highlighting issues of equity and racial discrimination in test use.2 They received a response from Richard Riley, then Secretary of Education, with a document that summarized the Clinton administration’s stance on national standards and equity. It read: «civil rights enforcement and high standards, high-stakes testing can co-exist».3 Why would equity and policies around standards be in potential competition?

2Looking at the recent history of standards-based reform and testing illuminates this question, and this article takes a close look at these movements in North Carolina, a Southern state with a long history of racial oppression and discrimination. The state has historically been a forerunner in standards-based reform, and Governor Hunt had tremendous influence on the crafting of Goals 2000 (Baker, 2013). In the context of school desegregation in North Carolina, as courts required school districts to end racial segregation, a coalition of stakeholders including business leaders, civil rights advocates and politicians came together to develop standards in the state to promote educational quality, with the rationale that demanding standards would raise expectations and benefit all students. The period from 1970s to 1990s epitomizes a shift from a focus on the conditions of schooling to quantifiable results in outcomes.

3Standards-based reform came to dominate education policy agendas nationally, and it is crucial to consider this movement historically. The political science literature has documented this broad trend, which scholars often call the “equity to excellence” paradigm shift, but fine grained historical analyses allow us to see what the increasingly racially neutral language of education reform actually obscured, and what the understanding of educational achievement as a mathematical question entailed. Looking at the implementation of Minimum Competency Testing (MCTs) and state standards starting in the early 1970s, this paper will provide fresh perspectives on the state standards movement by contextualizing it within desegregation conflicts, and by analyzing public opinion about the tests. It is a response to Scott Baker’s invitation to investigate further the relationship between desegregation and the implementation of MCTs in Southern states, and it analyzes how the rise of testing interacted with discriminatory patterns of school funding, racial and socioeconomic segregation, and contributed to accelerating the difficulties of struggling school districts across the state. Although I do not argue that the coalition that promoted the MCTs sought to reshuffle the terms of education inequality during court-mandated desegregation, I show that white North Carolinians instrumentalized testing for racial discrimination in rhetoric, educational theory and practice.

4This article studies the evolution of standards-based policies chronologically, and uses state and local archival sources to provide an overview of responses to testing reform in North Carolina. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, changes in discourse and policy around standardized testing in schools illuminate historical trends in education. First, it examines how in the 1970s, many North Carolinians shared concerns about the racial impact of new tests, and shows that there was no consensus among African American leaders and communities, or among poor people even though many felt the test would put them at a disadvantage. I then argue that by the 1990s, reformers had largely shifted educational reform discourse to the concept of an “achievement gap”, often without historical contextualization, and business leaders had become key actors in education policy, bringing a prioritization of quantifiable performance for students and teachers with their economic development agenda. The article is an invitation to reconsider the interaction of testing and racial inequality, and argues that historical context is necessary to understanding how test scores redefined differences between students and schools, and that these differences reflect a history of racial discrimination.

The Rise of Standards-Based Reform in North Carolina

Minimum Competency Testing and State Standards

  • 4 «What the Test is Like», folder: Notes, 10/26/78, Call-in Show on Competency Test-WUNC, North Car (...)

5In 1977, Governor Hunt, a Southern Democrat elected that same year, implemented Minimum Competency Testing (MCT)—a multiple-choice test that was administrated to students in the state to evaluate basic skills such as reading and understanding directions.4 The test itself seemed racially neutral in its language and design, but advocates and researchers were quick to question its discriminatory impact and purpose. Criticism against testing generally included accusations of cultural bias—when answers to questions could differ depending on one’s upbringing, for example about appropriate reactions in certain situations — language discrimination, inequities in test training between groups because of inadequate instruction and uneven resources, and many other factors (Locklear, 1993; Darling-Hammond, 1998).

6Part of a moderate Southern political line of thought, Governor Hunt avoided the politically polarizing debate around race and made standards-based reform the cornerstone of his policy agenda (Baker, 2015). This strand of reform also received support from some African American leaders who believed tests could be used as a diagnostic tool, and could show that all children can achieve (Baker, 2013: 8). Yet scholars have shown that policymakers used racially neutral language to talk about educational “achievement” as measured by often racially biased testing (Heubert, 1982).

7For the rich scholarship that surrounds school segregation and desegregation, historians have yet to draw concrete connections between the racial context of the second half of the 20th century and rise of standards-based reform (Baker, 2015; Nelson, 2005). Only a handful of scholars have investigated the question. In his description of the state accountability movement that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, Jal Mehta emphasized its fast yet almost unnoticed ascent:

“A relatively quiet movement led primarily by state bureaucrats did in fact initiate the beginnings of an educational accountability movement. Between 1963 and 1974, no fewer than 73 laws were passed seeking to create standards or utilize a variety of scientific management techniques to improve schooling” (Mehta, 2013: 64).

8Why did testing gain such traction, and at such an accelerated pace during the defining decade of desegregation challenges? Adam Nelson offered an interpretation of the states movement by contextualizing the rising emphasis on standards with intense desegregation backlash in Boston, and identified a moment of political crisis, when there was no agreement on how to improve schools (Nelson, 2005: 164-165). Policymakers and politicians in Massachusetts shifted to a focus on educational outcomes precisely in order to reach a political consensus in the context of protracted battles around desegregation. According to Nelson’s framing, the rise of accountability stemmed from the demands of parents and local actors, which led to the adoption of these measures by the state, and therefore follows a bottom-up dynamic. This analysis markedly differs from other interpretations that see federal growth and changes in federal policy following the 1983 report A Nation at Risk as the main impetus for accountability. In North Carolina, the timeline of reforms also challenges this federal explanation.

9Historian Scott Baker looked specifically at the state-level standards movement in North Carolina during the 1970s and 1980s, and his analysis meets that of Nelson’s in its contextualization (Baker, 2015). By implementing the Minimum Competency Tests (MCTs), Governor Hunt replaced a conversation about desegregation by an agenda of testing, which was more politically viable, and more palatable to white and suburban constituencies (Baker, 2015: 34). Baker shows how the implementation of tests came to replace desegregation remedies.

  • 5 Carolina Times clippings, box 47, folder: Public Education, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, (...)

10In North Carolina, columnists in the major black newspaper The Carolina Times expressed very divergent views about the MCTs. Some argued that it would provide valuable evidence on the fact that all children can learn.5 These factions fell along the lines that Law professor James Liebman schematized as two different positions among civil rights advocates when it came to MCTs: one that mobilized against them on the grounds that they would inevitably be used to discriminate against poor children and children of color, while others promoted standards to ensure minimum school quality (Liebman, 1990: 377).

11In September 1978, William Brown, a black assistant superintendent in the Fayetteville City School System, published an editorial entitled «The Age of  Competency» in the Fayetteville Times, in which he called for broad support of the MCTs. Recognizing that historically marginalized groups of students consistently scored lower on the tests than middle-class or wealthy white students, Brown contested the idea that this pattern was due to cultural bias:

The opponents of the competency testing program justify their position due to the very high percentage of black, poor white, and other minority students who failed the trial tests administered during the school years 1977-78. These opponents are correct with respect to the percentage data, this I cannot argue. 

  • 6 Brown William «The Age of Competency», The Fayetteville Times, September 2 1978 , 4A.

I can argue, however, that those of us who constitute the various minority groups should seriously consider reasons for the high failure rate among minorities relative to the trial competency tests other than the tests being culturally biased in favor of the majority of the majority race.6

12Meanwhile, residents in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area requested their school board convene a public meeting to discuss MCTs. A local group called the Coalition for Quality Education charged that the test was racially biased, and called for a boycott. Wekasa Madzimoyo, a black community activist and member of the group, explained the disparate impact that the test had revealed during its first year: «The items of the test given last spring that were missed 70 percent of the time were missed by 79.3 percent of the black students and 28.8 percent of the white students […] I don’t believe that big of a difference exists between white and black students at Chapel Hill High» (Kelley, 1978: 1).

13The Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA did not take a stance on the test, but private school representatives announced that they would not administer it, as they had «deep concerns about the whole competency test mentality».

14Ted Parrish, an African American leader in the Chapel Hill area who sat on the school board reported on the meeting to Governor Hunt. He highlighted the divisions that the test had created, with explicit racial language condemning black board members’ support of the test:

Twenty people were prepared to speak against the test; about half that number, including two ex-school board members, a couple of teachers and PTSA members spoke for the test. The meeting was heated because the opponents used strong language and emotional appeals. Persons were verbally threatened. For example, I and the only other Black School Board member were told that we would not be reelected because we ‘had not asked the right questions.’ Dr. Gallagher was told that the Lord might well get even with him for taking advantage of poor people.

  • 7 Ted Parrish to Governor Hunt, Oct. 5, 1978. Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1978, folder: An (...)

Larger numbers of students and parents who came to the hearing spoke in opposition to the test than in its favor. Those parents who were pleased shared with teachers the belief that the Competency Test motivated students in ways not generally observed. Those parents who were angered indicated their distrust of the system which produced such a powerful tool.7

15Placing this meeting in historical context explains the «distrust of the system» that many parents felt, only a few years after the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools had started to desegregate. In 1966, school district officials had decided to close the previously segregated black high school, Lincoln High, a beloved institution in the local African American community, and the new Chapel Hill High School, although integrated, only employed a small number of teachers and administrators of color (Waugh, 2012). Ten years later, there remained a strong feeling that public schools did not serve all children well.

16There was no consensus around MCTs among prominent African American leaders. In 1979, Reverend Benjamin Chavis, Jr., who was wrongfully convicted for arson in retaliation for his involvement in the civil rights movement along with nine other young African Americans activists in the high-profile Wilmington 10 case, compared MCTs to the process of Hellenization by which Western conquerors violently imposed Greek culture to replace indigenous traditions (Chavis, 1979: 10).

Testing and Racist Rhetoric in Historical Context

17On January 10, 1979, Mr. and Mrs. Carlton Myers from Thomasville, Davidson County, North Carolina, sent a letter to Governor Hunt about Minimum Competency Testing. Census data indicate that they both lived in a census track that was 98% white, with lower median household income than the state average. The virulent language in their letter illuminates how testing became a pivotal instrument in redefining the boundaries between “us” and “them,” between “deserving” and “undeserving:”

James Hunt, How can you possibly have the nerve to get on public television and ask the overburdened tax payer to pay for unnecessary school funds to pay for children who did not pass the test? […]

  • 8 Mr. & Mrs. Myers to Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., Jan. 10, 1979, Hunt papers, General Corresponden (...)

Pouring more money into give away programs is a terrible burden on tax payers. We tax payers would be much better off if you politicians would try to cut taxes instead of sitting around thinking up all the give aways programs to waste the tax payers hard earned money.8

18When we pay close attention to the two categories that the author creates— the contributing «overburdened tax payers» vs. the unfairly benefiting «children who did not pass the test»—and place them in the long history of racist assumption about the achievement of children of color, and context of desegregation backlash, we can delineate the use of racially neutral terms to convey racist images. Moreover, the author sets the charged language of welfare—«lazy», «giveaway programs»—in contrast with what she sees as white contribution only, in her words, public dollars are “our money.” Legal and educational historian Camille Walsh analyzed hundreds of letters that similarly crafted arguments around a taxpayer identity that built on white supremacist ideology, and this rhetoric systematically draws lines that exclude black citizens, and portrays them as benefiting from tax money regardless of their contributions, and conversely only portrays the white taxpayer as being unfairly taxed (Walsh, 2018).

19The fact that letter writers mobilized arguments around taxes in order to convey racist ideas around deserving or undeserving recipients of public education is even clearer when we consider inconsistencies in the framing of these arguments. Claims around the waste of tax dollars were used to either oppose or promote standardized testing depending on what the authors favored. On March 17, 1977, John W. Floyd, principal at Four Oaks Elementary School in Johnston County, North Carolina, wrote to Governor Hunt to argue that the test was a waste of money:

  • 9 John W. Floyd to Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., Mar. 17, 1977, box 47, folder: Public Education, De (...)

We at the local level never have enough money from the state for basal texts, instructional supplies, and supportive service in the area of custodial and secretarial assistance. The amount of money appropriated for physical education as it reaches the school is infinitesimal (but then as we all know the child’s physical development is not important). Middle grade programs have been repeatedly diminished over the last several years. Yet, it now seems that many millions of dollars will now be expended to test.9

  • 10 Haywood Edmundson, IV to Governor Hunt, Mar. 18, 1977, box 47, folder: Public Education, Departme (...)

20The next day, Mrs. Jean Myers, a white mother from Wilson, about half an hour away from Four Oaks, supported testing as a way to make teachers accountable. She wrote to Governor Hunt in March 1977 to support his program: «You must continue to push for your testing program in the public schools. […] Recent experience proves that money is not the answer. Are the teachers concerned with the welfare of the students or with their own security? Intelligent, fair use of tests results might indeed point the finger at incompetence!».10 The idea that testing threatened teachers, here portrayed as potentially incompetent, became especially popular at a time when Cold War anxiety over economic prosperity fueled the promotion of quantifiable performance for students and teachers.

Performance and Competition in a Cold War Context

21The push for improvement through testing, and the homogeneity and centralization it required, presents a paradox: as the state leadership encouraged the adoption of state tests, it also emphasized the primacy of local control and decentralization. In 1989, the North Carolina legislature passed the School Improvement and Accountability Act (Senate Bill II) to promote greater flexibility for local education agencies. That same year, state superintendent Bob Etheridge reassured the North Carolina School Boards Association in a speech that promoted the bill and asserted the importance of local authority in contrast with state centralization:

  • 11 Remarks by State Superintendent Bob Etheridge North Carolina School Boards Association in Winston (...)

Local control of public education is a strongly rooted tradition in the Tar Heel state. We have always, and rightly so, guarded the prerogative of local people to influence and direct public education and to make it responsive to the conditions and needs of local communities. I am well aware of your concerns about a highly centralized state-level structure that takes all the local initiative out of the hands of local citizens. […] I firmly believe that if local superintendents and boards of education have the commitment to give teachers and principals the encouragement they need to take bold actions, then we really will see a new and improved education system all across this state.11

22This statement highlights a crucial contradiction: as courts reemphasized local control and as developments in metropolitan areas highlighted local variations, education policy at the state level seemed to centralize authority and to push for more uniformity across the state through testing. This paradox illustrates Cold War tensions between policymakers’ search for reform and their reluctance to promote centralization, which many criticized as a tenet of Communism (Sracic, 2006: 65; Walsh, 2019: 49-50). Yet the reality of governance patterns meant that there were constant negotiations between different levels of government. Local districts also had the flexibility to establish practices that built on testing practices, such as tracking, which often worked to recreate a segregated order within a school. By assigning students to different tracks based on grades, schools redistributed student population along racial lines within a single school. Racially discriminatory testing became a pivotal tool in this process.

Business Leaders as Education Policymakers

  • 12 Public School Forum of North Carolina, «North Carolina Ranks Last on SAT Scores», The Forum Repor (...)

23Developing a high-skilled workforce for a new economic order became a central concern of the Cold War United States. In 1989, the year when all fifty governors met with President George H. W. Bush in Charlottesville to discuss education policy and agreed on an agenda of outcomes-based education, North Carolina had to reckon with the fact that it ranked last on the SAT standardized tests that largely condition access to higher education.12 These concerning results pushed state officials to intensify their testing agenda. The early testing impulse of Minimum Competency took on a new dimension through end-of-course testing and high-stakes testing, meaning «tests whose scores have a direct impact on a person’s life options and opportunities […]. Some uses of high stakes tests include placing students in academic tracks, retaining students in grade, or deciding high school graduation eligibility» (Moses & Nanna, 2007: 56).

  • 13 Remarks at the Nations Bank Corporate Center on Apr. 27, 1994, Hunt papers, General Correspondenc (...)

24Several historians have argued that ideas about performance gained traction in unprecedented proportions at a moment when anxieties over international competition dominated much of the national conversation (Berliner & Briddle, 1996; Mehta, 2005; Davies, 2007). Scholars often cite the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk, an alarming report that warned the country against a «rising tide of mediocrity» that would bring about the nation’s decline, as the major catalyst of the contemporary accountability movement. For Gareth Davies, A Nation at Risk marked a true turning point because it «linked economic anxiety with concerns about the quality of education» (Davies, 2007: 271). Although economic considerations had long been associated with certain levels of education, they usually did so through the ideal of individual opportunities. The mention of the national economy in relationship with education broadened the scope of this link, and added considerable weight to it. In 1994, talking to a group of business leaders at Nations Bank Corporate Center in Charlotte, Governor Hunt captured this specific articulation of the role that education played in the state’s economy: «As a North Carolina business leader, you understand the inextricable link between a high-skilled workforce and our state’s economic prosperity».13

25For Jal Mehta, it is precisely the formulation of an education-economy nexus that made A Nation at Risk impactful as opposed to previous state efforts (Mehta, 2005: 92). Even as he reasserted the underrated importance of the 1960s-1970s state standards movement in education as context, Mehta identified the 1983 report as a watershed moment in the history of education, which established a «new story line» in education, because of the new framework it established regarding economic competition (Mehta, 2005: 89).

26In the 1980s and 1990s, the role of businesses in education was at a high point, in the state as well as on a national scale, at a moment when business was highly venerated (Mehta, 2013). In 1983, Governor Hunt had created the business-led North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), which became a major actor in education reform in the state. In larger metropolitan areas especially, Chambers of Commerce were actively involved in local affairs, including in education. Urban historians have explored partnerships between public and private actors in shaping segregated or integrated urban spaces, yet the centrality of schools in these processes rarely figures as a central component of these projects (Glotzer, 2016; Robinson, 2000). Private actors’ involvement in education policy changed and progressed in a period when economic development was driving much of the state reform agenda (Goldsmith, 2017).

  • 14 Remarks by State Superintendent Bob Etheridge, IBM Education Representatives, Jan. 17, 1992, 1.

27Business leader had been involved in education for decades, but the nature and scope of their involvement changed over time. The tremendous influence of International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), which created the dominant computing platform in the 1960s and 1970s, in the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area and in North Carolina in general illustrates how businesses became increasingly involved and powerful in education reform (McCorkle, 2012). The company came to the RTP in the 1960s, at a moment when politicians actively courted industry that required high-skills, in an intentional move to transition away from manufacturing and textile (Korstad & Leloudis, 2009: 46). IBM heavily promoted standards-based reform and testing, especially in terms of data collection—they created software that they sold to North Carolina public schools to that effect. The numerous exchanges between the North Carolina state superintendent of public instruction and IBM representatives over the period is a testament to their tremendous influence. By 1992, Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge called IBM the «company that is the best-known acronym in education».14

  • 15 «Superintendent’s Dropout Prevention War», folder: Dropout Prevention Report, 89-90, box 23, Du (...)
  • 16 «Superintendent’s Dropout Prevention War», 19.

28At the local level, school officials worked to involve businesses in school affairs. In Durham, a 1989 committee specifically focused on alliances between businesses and schools to reduce dropout issues in the city’s schools, which had the highest dropout rates in the state. One strategy listed in the committee’s plan involved the symbolic adoption of schools by private businesses: «Ask individual businesses to adopt schools and identify and carry out ways to help schools meet specific goals and objectives. (Businesses may provide personnel to come into schools and work with students, provide monetary support, open their facilities to special school activities)».15 The hands-on interventions of local businesses happened at the school level, and at the planning stage as well. One of the objectives of the dropout war business committee was «to involve businesses in generating ideas about how to attack the dropout problem».16

29Rhetoric around testing and performance in schooling went beyond policymaking circles. North Carolinians who wrote to state officials about testing at the end of the 1980s and beginning at the 1990s, had largely adopted it. Close analysis of archival correspondence shows letter writers often formulated old ideas with new words and new syntax—ideas about waste, laziness, and deservedness still structured opposition to or promotion of testing.

Education as Equation: The Penetration of Technocratic Logic

30On May 23, 1989, at a time when North Carolina grappled with the fact that it ranked last on the SATs, and as the legislature considered slashing the budget of earlier reform efforts to increase state funding for education, Robert P. Armstrong from Bladenboro, NC, wrote to Governor Hunt to suggest directions for education reform. He established his legitimacy as a potential expert by emphasizing his business experience, and based his entire argument on the fact that what «works in industry» would inevitably be applicable to public education:

  • 17 Robert P. Armstrong to State Superintendent of Public Instruction, May 23, 1989, Department of Pu (...)

I work for a large and highly successful company as a specialist in experimental statistics. Today I was discussing the education crisis with an associate, a Ph.D. Physicist with collegiate level teaching experience. […] We agreed that the root cause of the education problem is the change in our society, and the inability of the educational system to compensate for the change. Since you can do little to change society, the solution must rest squarely in the lap of the educational system structure, and more importantly, in the lap of the classroom teacher. […] How can it be done? The same way we do it in industry.17

31Armstrong’s rhetoric, and his identification of the «root cause of the education problem» very much reflect what scholars have analyzed as the tendency to educationalize social problems (Labaree, 2008). Armstrong saliently emphasized in his conclusion that «the solution must rest squarely in the lap of the educational system structure». In fact, the use of the term «solution» here is symptomatic of his framing of the situation as a math problem, and proceeds to detail the straightforward, one-dimensional calculations that would solve the issues:

Test all children in the state at every grade level at the beginning of the school year. Calculate the state average at each level. Calculate the classroom average for a particular classroom teacher. Divide the class average by the state average to get the relative starting point for the class. Test all students again at the end of the year, and do the same calculations to get the relative ending point for the class. […] The students taught by good teachers will perform better on a relative scale than students taught by poor teachers, regardless of the inherent learning capabilities of the students in a particular classroom. […]

Teachers and administrators would fight such a suggestion with all their might. They are afraid of having to demonstrate performance. Such a system would have to be carefully coordinated with the state legislature, because the teachers’ associations would lobby ferociously against it.

  • 18 Ibid.

However, I submit to you, that works in industry, and that it would work here.18

32Armstrong’s letter emphasized competition: he contrasts «good teachers» with «poor teachers» and argues that the state could easily measure teachers who «perform better» based on test scores. His description of the work of educators delegitimizes the expertise of professionals in the education field, and instead heralds industry experts and corporate employees as knowledgeable, efficient, and rational (Mehta, 2013). Additionally, this line of thinking presents education policy as a simple mathematical equation, devoid of any context, and creates a dangerously ahistorical understanding of educational achievement.

Contextualizing the Interaction of Segregation and Testing

The Achievement Gap in History and Geography

33Discourse around performance and outcomes-based education did not erase the racially disparate impact of standardized test in the state. In 1992, Joseph Locklear conducted a study on end-of-course test scores in Robeson County (Locklear, 1993). Robeson is a unique county in North Carolina in terms of demographics: in 1990, the census indicated that 39% of the Robeson County population was Native American, 25% was black, and 36% white. Locklear found stark evidence of racial bias in tests, with Native American students consistently scoring lower than white students on all items. He also found evidence of gender bias, but scoring patterns were much more homogenous for black students and Native American students than they were for white students.

34The rates of failures on Minimum Competency and end-of-course tests interacted with the complex geographical, socioeconomic and racial patterns of public education. Testing as a mechanism contributed to the labeling of certain school districts as desirable or «failing», thus exacerbating existing centrifugal forces. I use the term «centrifugal force» to highlight man-made divisions that created and maintained pockets of fiscal isolation, and reinforced the difficulties of struggling school districts (Briffault, 1992: 14). In his study of Charlotte schools, Stephen Samuel Smith uses the phrase «centrifugal tendencies» to designate segregation patterns against which the desegregation court mandates worked (Smith, 2004: 130; Schneider, 2017). Test scores became a part of this landscape and contributed to categorizing certain schools and districts into a hierarchy that penalized schools with higher percentages of students of color (Grundy, 2017). Erasing this history runs the risk of attributing differences in achievement to essential characteristics (Gould, 1996; Lemann, 2000).

35Already in 1979, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction had recorded minimum competency test scores, and the results outlined the contours of how testing can discriminate against schools that receive fewer resources. Disparities in Durham County and Durham City are listed below.

  • 19 «Competency Testing Commission» Mar. 27, 1979, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1979, State A (...)

Table 1. Information on failures, Fall 197819

Reading Competency

School District

Number of students tested

Number of students who failed

Percentage of students who failed

Durham County




Durham City




36Understanding these disparities requires historical context. Two districts operated separately in Durham until 1992: a city district and a county district (Cyna, 2019). The city district had a higher concentration of students from poverty backgrounds, and a smaller tax base because of complex fiscal policies that chronically disadvantaged the city district. Not only did the Durham County district cover wealthier suburban areas, which meant it had a larger pool of property tax to draw from, but it also benefitted from the large industry base of the Research Triangle Park, and from selected pockets of the city that had voted to remain in the county district during annexation (McCorkle, 2012; Cyna, 2019). Not until the early 1990s did the two districts merge, at a time when business interests had come to clash directly with the stark segregation in the city, which haltered recruitment because it evoked backwardness. Under the leadership of William Bell, future Durham mayor and IBM engineer, that the two districts finally became one in 1991, despite intense resistance from Durhamites on both sides. The Durham example shows how much business interest could shape the educational landscape on the local scale, sometimes mitigating segregation, but always prioritizing quantifiable outcomes.

  • 20 «Closing the Achievement Gap Through Community Action» Spring 2001, box 4, folder: Durham Public (...)

37The inequities between the two separate districts lasted for decades. When the districts merged in the early 1990s, differences in student test scores were alarming. Yet the context of inequalities in educational resources seemed to escape a 2001 commission that studied disparities in test scores.20 The commission operated as if it were amnesic to the long history of disparities in educational opportunities, engrained in the history of the local districts. Its report included the following sentence in bold, capital letters: «the achievement gap is no one’s fault, but it’s everyone’s responsibility!». According to the commission, then, differences in test scores between students could not be traced to the decisions of historical actors. Although the commission agreed that the difference should be addressed, it presented it as a disembodied reality: the “achievement gap”—as measured by standardized testing in 2001—had no history, no context, and no fixed meaning.

The Opportunity Gap

38Some historians have cited major influences in the 1960s as stepping-stones for later standards movements. The 1966 Coleman report claimed that family backgrounds had a far greater influence on outcomes than schools, and left a lasting print on public discourse and education policy. In a 50-year retrospective on its impact, Leah Gordon synthesized the dominant stance in the field: «Historians often discuss the Coleman Report as a time when views of educational equality shifted focus from educational inputs (funding, teacher quality, facilities, curricula) to educational outputs (test scores); when research on what would later be termed the achievement gap was launched; and when arguments over whether integration or compensatory education represented the best tool for equalizing educational opportunities reached a crescendo» (Gordon, 2017: 605).

39Scholars have called attention to the racist framework on which the concept of the “achievement gap” builds. Gloria Ladson-Billings argued that the focus on the “achievement gap” is misplaced, and that scholars and policymakers should instead seek to understand how the gap was produced: students who are at a disadvantage accumulate educational debt in a system that perpetuates and reinforces inequalities (Ladson-Billings, 2006). This concept highlights discriminatory policies at several levels of education. In 2016, Ibram X Kendi framed the concept of “achievement gap” as part of a long, white supremacist tradition of creating and recreating racial hierarchies:

40Few testing critics are bursting its biggest bubble: the existence of the achievement gap itself. To believe in the existence of any sort of racial hierarchy is actually to believe in a racist idea. The achievement gap between the races–with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinos at the bottom–is a racial hierarchy. And this popular racial hierarchy has been constructed by our religious faith in standardized testing. […] The testing movement does not value multiculturalism. The testing movement does not value the antiracist equality of difference. The testing movement values the racist hierarchy of difference, and its bastard 100-year-old child: the academic achievement gap. (Kendi, 2016)

41Scholars in other fields have also expressed deep concerns about discourse on racial disparities, which too often lacks the context to actually explain «the forces behind the bleak figures» (Reed & Chowkwanyun, 2011). Historians can help reframe racial disparities in education by identifying policies, capital flows and legal developments that produced or challenged educational debts in the recent past. The notion of debt takes on both a general educational sense, as defined by Ladson-Billings, but also holds its literal economic meaning: basing school funding on property tax inherently places poor people who live in low-wealth districts at a disadvantage. With a low tax base, poor school districts struggle to yield enough money to adequately fund schools even with higher tax rates. These funding inequities have direct impacts on test scores, since schools have drastically different resources, and as school finance scholars have worked to prove for decades, money impacts student performance because it directly affects teacher hiring, teacher to student ration, classroom resources, and many crucial elements that make for successful schooling (Baker, 2017).

Conclusion: Racial Bias, Tracking and the “Achievement Gap”

42In 1993, students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (CMS) participated in a student essay contest about the problems that they identified as the most pressing issues in the school district. Some of the student writing shed light on the dangers of adopting racially neutral language. Even in a school district with an intense history of segregation and desegregation as CMS, which made national headlines with the 1969-1971 Swann case that crystallized around busing children across the school district to achieve racial balance, the idea that academic achievement was somehow devoid of context still obscured processes of racial discrimination. Lauren Jacobs, a white 8th grade student at Alexander Graham Middle School, mentioned the issue of racial segregation and stressed the fact that segregation could not be blamed on the actions of school officials because it had happened through tracking: 

  • 21 Lauren Jacobs, Alexander Graham Middle School, in «The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Urban League’s 1993 (...)

Are you in classes that are basically segregated? I am. One of the major problems facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s youth is being segregated. This is not on purpose, but it has happened. Most classes at my school are either mostly white or mostly black. It is not the school’s fault because we are grouped with other people that are on the same academic level as we are.21

43Tracking there appears as a new form of “de facto” segregation—the false idea that segregation happened by accident. Historians have worked to demonstrate that there is no such thing as de facto segregation in its spatial dimension, that is to say segregation as a result of happenstance and as the sum of individual preferences, but that structural forces and policies shape metropolitan spaces (Hirsch, 1983; Sugrue, 1996; Rury & Mirel, 1997; Erickson, 2012; Glass, 2016). Below the surface of a new vocabulary, historical context and archival sources reveal startling continuity in dynamics of exclusion and inclusion, even without explicit racial classification.

44Test scores are often a reflection of a history of resource disparities, and in the United States, differences in school resources is inherently linked to a long history of racial discrimination, of which North Carolina offers a stark illustration. This article traced the rise of standardized testing in the context of school desegregation, when politicians and reformers sought to answer a need for reform that would seem racially neutral. The rise of businesses in education reform accompanied and reinforced the emphasis on testing, especially during the Cold War when the performance of ideology came to dominate education reform.

45This article showed that testing interacted with racial discrimination in at least four significant ways: the tests themselves were discriminatory because students were unevenly prepared to perform on them (as the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Robeson examples highlighted); the concept of achievement provided code-language that redefined the terms of inclusion and exclusion (as letters from white citizens showed); school officials used test scores to segregate students within schools, as in Charlotte; and schools became valued or devalued based on student test scores, and that new hierarchy often fell along racial lines because of discriminatory funding and the legacy of segregation, as in Durham. The Durham example, however, reminds us that interaction between testing agendas and racial discrimination took different forms in diverse locales—in Durham, although they pushed for added emphasis on testing, business leaders fought to merge the two segregated districts in order to mitigate inequality in the Durham metropolitan area.

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1 Domestic Policy Council, Michael Cohen papers, folder: Testing Civil Rights Groups Letter 9/11 [1], box 21, Clinton Presidential Records: White House Staff and Office Files, Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

2 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to President Clinton, Sep. 4, 1997, Domestic Policy Council, Michael Cohen papers, ibid.

3 «National Standards and Tests Promote Excellence and Equity for All Students», Sep. 5, 1997, Domestic Policy Council, Michael Cohen papers. ibid.

4 «What the Test is Like», folder: Notes, 10/26/78, Call-in Show on Competency Test-WUNC, North Carolina Competency Test Program, box 277, Governor James B. Hunt, Jr. papers (hereinafter Hunt papers), Press Secretary’s Files, 1978, Speeches, Releases, Statements, Remarks, North Carolina State Archives.

5 Carolina Times clippings, box 47, folder: Public Education, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1977.

6 Brown William «The Age of Competency», The Fayetteville Times, September 2 1978 , 4A.

7 Ted Parrish to Governor Hunt, Oct. 5, 1978. Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1978, folder: Annual Testing, I, Education, State Board of Public Education, box 186, 1.

8 Mr. & Mrs. Myers to Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., Jan. 10, 1979, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1979, folder: Competency Test Commission Education, box 313.

9 John W. Floyd to Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., Mar. 17, 1977, box 47, folder: Public Education, Department of, D-F, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1977, State Agencies, Boards, and Commissions.

10 Haywood Edmundson, IV to Governor Hunt, Mar. 18, 1977, box 47, folder: Public Education, Department of, D-F, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1977.

11 Remarks by State Superintendent Bob Etheridge North Carolina School Boards Association in Winston-Salem, Nov. 16, 1989, Superintendent’s Speeches File, 1989, box 1 [unprocessed], folder: Speeches, 1989.

12 Public School Forum of North Carolina, «North Carolina Ranks Last on SAT Scores», The Forum Report, v 4, 4, (September 1989), 2; Remarks by State Superintendent Bob Etheridge, North Carolina Association of Chambers of Commerce, Nov. 6, 1989, Department of Public Instruction, 1989, box 1 [unprocessed], folder: Speeches, 1989, North Carolina State Archives.

13 Remarks at the Nations Bank Corporate Center on Apr. 27, 1994, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1994, box 15, Folder: Education: Business.

14 Remarks by State Superintendent Bob Etheridge, IBM Education Representatives, Jan. 17, 1992, 1.

15 «Superintendent’s Dropout Prevention War», folder: Dropout Prevention Report, 89-90, box 23, Durham Schools Collections, Durham County Library, 16.

16 «Superintendent’s Dropout Prevention War», 19.

17 Robert P. Armstrong to State Superintendent of Public Instruction, May 23, 1989, Department of Public Instruction, Citizen’s Correspondence File, 1989, box 1 [unprocessed], folder: A Miscellaneous, 1989, North Carolina State Archives.

18 Ibid.

19 «Competency Testing Commission» Mar. 27, 1979, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1979, State Agencies, Boards, and Commissions, Education, folder: Competency Test Commission Education, box 313.

20 «Closing the Achievement Gap Through Community Action» Spring 2001, box 4, folder: Durham Public Schools: Education+Testing, Theresa El-Amin papers, David Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

21 Lauren Jacobs, Alexander Graham Middle School, in «The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Urban League’s 1993 Student Essay and Public Speaking Contest: What Is the Major Problem Facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth and What Can You Offer As A Solution?», folder: Education Publication A-C, box 23, Hunt papers, General Correspondence, 1993.

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Esther Cyna, « "Such a Powerful Tool":Testing, Business Interests and School Segregation in North Carolina, 1970s-1990s »Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 19 | 2020, 105-126.

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Esther Cyna, « "Such a Powerful Tool":Testing, Business Interests and School Segregation in North Carolina, 1970s-1990s »Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 19 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2020, consulté le 04 octobre 2023. URL :

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Esther Cyna

Université Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Columbia University.

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