Putting Racial and Socioeconomic Equity at the Center of Education Policy

States’ adoption of high-stakes testing was not related to the equalizing of school resources or improved student achievement in math for racially and socioeconomically minoritized students

Reviewed by Tyrone Fleurizard


The 1990’s was a watershed moment in American education reform. Prior to the start of the decade, in 1983, the newly formed National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a scathing 52-page report titled ​A Nation at Risk t​hat charged American education with mediocrity and lack of international competitiveness. If ​A Nation at Risk w​as a report card, America’s grade on education was an F. To get a better grade, the report concluded, America needed to raise its academic standards and hold schools accountable for student performance.

After the publication of ​A Nation at Risk​, many states raised performance standards and used high-stakes testing to hold schools accountable. However, states did not consider whether this performance-focused accountability mandate promoted or hindered racial and socioeconomic equity. Although these mandates may narrow achievement gaps* by ​motivating under-performing students and schools to improve achievement, ​gaps could widen without adequate support and equity in school resources. Education researchers Jaekyung Lee and Kenneth K. Wong, two recognized leaders in accountability and equity in U.S. education, sought to answer the question: Were states’ accountability policies of the 1990’s able to improve the achievement of historically marginalized students and make school resources more equitable?

Jaekyung Lee, PhD, is a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo. He is also a ​Richard P. Nathan Public Policy Fellow of the Rockefeller Institute of Government ​and a​ fellow of the American Educational Research Association​. ​His primary areas of focus include educational policy for accountability and equity, and international and comparative education. ​Kenneth K. Wong ​is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair for Education Policy, and Professor of Urban Studies, International and Public Affairs, and Political Science Brown University. He is also the director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown. His research focuses on the politics of education and outcome-based accountability, among other education-related topics.

*The language surrounding achievement in education has shifted since this paper was published in 2004. Once referred to as ‘achievement gap,’ the disparities observed in achievement between racially and socioeconomically minoritized and majoritized groups is now called the ‘opportunity gap’ to reflect that inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities are better determinants of achievement.

Methods and Findings

The researchers analyzed the role of educational accountability policies and the relationship they have with the racial and socioeconomic distribution of school resources and math achievement. They classified 50 states into either a strong accountability or weak accountability group to assess the impact of the states’ accountability policies on improving and equalizing math learning outcomes, specifically for minoritized students. States with strong accountability policies used school ratings, offered rewards for successful schools, and made major modifications for underperforming schools, while states with weak accountability did not take these measures. They found:

●  Significant racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in 1992 that did not change with time, and were poorly associated to states’ accountability policies

●  No significant difference between the accountability of strong and weak states in their impact on school resources such as per-pupil spending, class size, and qualified teachers

●  Strong accountability states’ policies were positively related to gains in math achievement, but the effects were insignificant when other factors were taken into account

●  School resources had a positive effect on the change in the Hispanic-White achievement gap, but these same results were not significant when states’ demographic factors were taken into account

●  States’ math achievement is significantly associated with school resources


The researchers found no evidence that accountability policies of the 90’s significantly improved school resources nor did it significantly change the distribution of student achievement in math. Although the researchers found no evidence of negative impacts of accountability policy on equity in educational resources or student achievement, this is hardly a compliment. The authors posed the results of the study as a challenge to states: while accountability policies did not hurt adequacy or equity in schooling conditions, they didn’t lead to improvements either. Adopting high-stakes testing was not related to changes in racial and socioeconomic gaps nor equality of resource allocations.

Accountability practices such as adopting high-stakes tests, with an exclusive emphasis on performance outcomes and disregard for resource allocation issues, lack of support for school improvement, and limited attention to achievement gap issues, will fall short of achieving racial and socioeconomic equity. Accountability policies need to maintain a balance between state pressure and allocation of support to make movement on equity. The researchers are clear on this: given that states’ adoption of high-stakes testing policies was not related to changes in the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps or to changes in the equality of resource allocations, racial socioeconomic equity should be at the core of accountability policies. Doing so would properly address the real problem: gaps in ​opportunity​ experienced by racially and socioeconomically minoritized groups.


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