Educational racism is stopping bright minds from excelling in school

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Monica Alarcon-Najarro, Contributing Writer

As I nervously walked into my high school class the morning Virginia Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams were taking place, I remember the daunting feeling of relying on a test score in order to pass my classes.

Preparation for these exams is not easy and outside factors such as jobs, family and access to materials to prepare can hinder a student’s journey to academic success. 

Each year, students in Virginia schools spend all year studying material in order to pass a single test in five subjects at the end of their academic year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made SOL exams harder for disadvantaged students to do well on.

Educational racism is a problem in schools which students of color, especially Black students, face to this day. It has not only been seen through test scores but through implicit bias from instructors who overlook the academic excellence Black students have, either by disproportionately leaving Black students out of gifted and talented programs or lack of support from their teachers.

One Friday morning, while perusing the headlines of the Richmond Times-Dispatch daily newsletter, I came across one intriguing yet familiar headline in the news: “Virginia students’ performance on Standards of Learning tests plummeted during pandemic.”

Reading through the article, I realized that this was not a new topic for me. Even in high school, I was aware of the advantages that certain schools had over others, allowing their students to perform better on standardized examinations such as Advanced Placement and SOL tests.

During my high school years, I realized many of the students who attended higher-income schools had access to professional tutors outside of the class to help pass exams such as AP and SOL tests.

Meanwhile, many students in my high school looked for school-based programs to help prepare for exams due to either not having time for extra help or not having the financial funds.

It dawned on me that a student’s test score was not necessarily a reflection of their intelligence or motivation. Factors outside of their control such as fluency in English, the school district they lived in and having parents with the time to help them understand the material all played a role in whether they were successful or not.

While in high school, I experienced this firsthand. As a writing tutor, I helped several students with tasks varying from understanding grammar conventions to writing AP essays. At one point in my senior year, I was asked to help nonnative English speakers prepare for the English SOL.

For these students, success on the SOL was indispensable: it would ultimately decide whether they would be able to move up to the next grade or have to stay back and retake the exam.

Working with the tutees, I realized that many students were unprepared, and had circumstances that caused intense barriers in their education. As chatter filled the room, I recall hearing that many of these students had younger siblings to take care of at home and prioritized their families over school; others had to pick up shifts to help out with income.

I remember being partnered up with a girl who was a grade below me to work through the questions with. I could see in her eyes that she was extremely tired and the last thing on her mind was studying for a test completely in English, a language that she was still learning.

As bad as the barriers that she had to deal with when studying for the SOL were, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse.

Not only has online learning worsened test scores for public schools, the statistical percentages that Black and Hispanic students are barely passing these exams shows how alive educational racism is in county schools.

In Virginia, students of color are struggling to keep up with passing rates. 

According to the Virginia Department of Education, in the 2020-21 SOL test results, Black students in the city of Richmond had a pass rate of 36% for reading, 18% for mathematics and 30% for science. Meanwhile Hispanic students had a pass rate of 38% for reading, 23% for math and 35% for science.

Educational racism is affecting the way future generations are learning in school. Students of lower-income schools are either not being given updated school materials such as laptops, or have no way of affording notebooks, pencils, etc.

Not only that, but it’s seen through the investments made for certain school districts. Wealthier school districts are gaining higher budgets due to their enrollment predictions

These higher budgets include an extra $5 million going towards schools in Chesterfield and nearly $10 million going to Prince William County’s schools.

According to an article from Virginia Public Media, schools that are more rural and lower income are losing money as their enrollment predictions were inaccurate following the pandemic.

Money and privilege are the most detrimental factors that determine whether or not a child gets an education. There needs to be higher investments in education for areas such as Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield.

Students should not be deprived of future career prospects because of the inequity in the education system.

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