High-stakes Crowding, Resource Bias & Content Privileging in Public Schools

Dr. W.N. Thomas IV
5 min readMar 14, 2022

A Cycle of Inequitable Exposure to Knowledge

High-stakes crowding: Teaching to the Test

If you have ever been a non-ELA or Math teacher in a public school, then you might know a little bit about high-stakes crowding. This refers to when school leaders prioritize standards in ELA and Math over the material being covered in their content-specific course. This phenomenon can be attributed to the test-driven culture of schools that has been normalized over the past two decades. Government policies have forced school leaders to include more time for these “core” subjects in order for students to show proficiency on annual standardized assessments.

As a former middle school and high school science teacher, I can recall often being asked to review certain “Non-fiction text” skills, particularly analyzing text features that may include graphs and tables that allude to science content. I very rarely attempted to resist this request, however that is not always the case for all teachers. Why should science, social studies, world language, art, music or other content-specific courses compromise the scope and sequence of their content to “make-room” for lessons more aligned to preparing students for their high-stakes assessment? How can schools revalue non-Math and ELA courses and invest in the quality execution of these courses that many times spark streams of life-long learning for students?

Many public schools make budget decisions that limit the type of available resources for specific courses outside of ELA and Math. Students and teachers in public schools are sometimes pushed to be creative with the resources they have to design models in courses like Science.

Converting a test-driven culture to an authentic Equity Initiative

I have had the privilege of witnessing a school shift its approach to teaching and learning by connecting this distancing from high-stakes prioritization to the school’s antiracist, equity and inclusion initiative. Not only are they reevaluating key enabling systems that create a common foundation for the 26 campus charter school, they are also prioritizing non-ELA and Math courses by investing in new curriculums and designing new staffing, budgeting and professional development models that align with the tenets of culturally responsive teaching and developing a 21st century learner. As a part of their science curriculum adoption, I have experienced a reawakening and revaluing of science, social studies and other content-specific courses in this charter school network.

This progressive, urban public charter school has shown that it is possible for a school system to enact meaningful structural change that can alter how they expose students to knowledge in a context. Although they have had a long history of using standardized assessments as their “North Star”, they have begun to do the real equity work in education that goes beyond the performative measures taken in schools to avoid being labeled as not being “inclusive” by investing in both curriculum and human resources for the benefit of their entire school network.

Resource Bias: Unpacking implicit bias in school operations decisions

There is a common feedback loop of implicit bias that takes place when high- stakes crowding occurs. It is followed by what can be described as resource bias which is a type of implicit bias that impacts how school leaders make decisions about budgets and resource allocation. When a school culture has been created where instructional programming, staffing models and scheduling parameters are determined based on ELA and Math interventions, specialist availability and grant funding, leaders tend to curtail their administrative decision-making based on the conditions of the bureaucracy. This eventually leads to a problematic cycle of making system impacting decisions based on implicit institutional bias. Patterns of this resource bias eventually leads to an established mindset of content privileging, leading to a dilution of any type of diverse exposure to science, social studies, world languages, physical education and the fine arts. However this type of implicit bias, once established, begins to trickle-up to how educators are being developed in higher education and the opportunities they have to expand their teaching skills.

High-Stakes Crowding + Resource Bias = Content Privileging

Literacy: Passive or Active assimilation for urban schools?

Now that I have started teaching graduate students in higher education, I have been inspired to push against this notion that Literacy is the only entry point for learning. Some education programs have even designed specialized Literacy cohorts to to offer added opportunities for educators interested in getting more intimate with the “Science of Reading”. Do these schools emphasize Literacy in their programs because of the “gaps” they see in test scores, available funding or because they genuinely believe Literacy is the key to all learning? This interrogation of implicit biases begins to open conversations centered on how racism influences policy and practice. I am convinced that as a result of content privilege in public schools, there runs rampant a deficit mindset toward students (in particular, students of color) that they inherently struggle and have challenges with obtaining, mastering and applying Literacy skills (implicitly understood as reading and writing White American English). Internalized domination appears to live not only within racialize contexts but also within an academic-disciplinary contexts.

Reframing the role of Standardized Assessment for leaders

How do you break the cycle of inequity? It begins with how leaders in various school systems frame the role of standardized assessments, particularly those that are mandated by state and local legislation. Assessments should be used to identify assets and opportunities for improvement, however when they are used as the default variable for resource decision-making, it becomes a virus within the culture of the school that permeates and influences all stakeholders who impact the learning environment. Whether or not something is assessed shouldn’t determine its value. One major concern I have with “data-driven” charter schools is when they attempt to get buy-in from teachers and leaders, they sometimes do this by adding standardized test goals to subjects other than ELA and Math. While this may shift the perception of importance to these other subjects, it exacerbates the already over-tested high-stakes assessment culture that exists in public schools.

Our students deserve to get a well-rounded educational experience beyond the system’s rhetoric of developing the “whole child”. Those who are in influential leadership roles in education should reassess and reevaluate how decisions are made related to new courses, new programing, new instructional materials and consider whether or not it is based on the implicit bias of content privileging.

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Dr. W.N. Thomas IV

Professorial Lecturer at American University in Washington, DC