Vocalizing Silenced Student Voices: Identifying Barriers and Empowerment Strategies in Higher Education
By Virginia Lea & Dang Vang

Description of the Research

In this critical, action research, a diverse group of researchers are working with cohorts of students from underserved ethnic backgrounds to uncover the barriers they experience to equity and inclusion in higher education. Using an innovation methodology, the students are able to access their understanding of the complex ways in which hegemony works on their campus to standardize, categorize, individualize and police their experience to recreate white, (upper) middle class, heterosexual privilege. The students also suggest solutions to overcome the barriers they experience.

Methodology: Collages made by Students

Semi-structured interviews with small groups of students who self-identify with African American, Asian, Latino, Native, and White ethnic groups were contacted and asked to volunteer for the project. Students given a list of key words and concepts related to hegemony, such as “power,” “surveillance,” and “standardization,” and asked to respond to/illustrate the prompts in the form of a collage. Students asked to reflect orally on the the meaning of their representations on the collage. Researchers ask students follow-up questions to tease out, as individuals and their groups, the hegemonic significance of their collages.

Results: Hegemonic Devices Found on Campus



This device refers to the social system whereby each individual reaches a social and economic status commensurate with their individual talents and how hard they work. It is also used to explain why some individual excel and while others flounder. At the same time that meritocracy reinforces the inequalities in our society, it makes people unconscious of any notion of privilege.


At its face value, color-blindness seems like a good thing — judging people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. It focuses on commonalities between people, such as their shared humanity. But in reality it works in opposite way, color-blindness creates a society that denies minorities' negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.In simple terms: Color-Blind = "We can not see People of color". The alternative to color-blindness is Multiculturalism.

High-stakes Testing & Standardization

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) 2002 of United States Congress formulated the federally mandated high stakes testing in schools. Analyses of NCLB standardized test data has found, for instance, that the high-stakes testing policies have not improved reading and math achievement across states and have not significantly narrowed national and state level achievement gaps between white students and non-white students or gaps between rich and poor students (Lee, 2006). Further still, other research has found that sys
tems of high-stakes testing negatively impact on non-white students disproportionately (Zabala, 2007).

Consider the SAT (Socialistic Aptitude Test) mostly taken by high school graduates to get admission into universities. The SAT is standardized test and tests the abilities of whites and non-whites in a standardized manner. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), who traditionally develops and administers the SAT, establishes statistically valid questions by using one of the six sections of the test as an experimental section, essentially testing out questions to potentially use on future SATs. (Wayne 2009)

Based on the responses on the experimental test items, psychometricians then make decisions to either keep a question and use it in the regular sections of future tests or discard it as an unusable, “invalid” test item. Kidder and Rosner (2002- 2003) compared some of the regular test items with the experimental ones and arrived at some interesting conclusions. For example, on one Verbal test item of medium difficulty, 62% of Whites and 38% of African Americans answered it correctly (for a 24% disparate impact). This question was a test item from one of the regular, non-experimental test sections. By comparison, an item of similar difficulty used in the experimental test section resulted in African Americans outperforming White students by 8% (that is, 8% more African-American students answered the question correctly than White students). (Wayne 2009)

Test designers determined that this question, where African Americans scored higher than whites, was psychometrically invalid and was not included in future SATs. The reason for this was that the students who statistically on average score higher on the SAT did not answer this question correctly enough of the time, while those who statistically on average score lower on the SAT answered this question correctly too often. By psychometric standards, this means that this question was an anomaly and therefore was not considered a valid or reliable test question for a standardized test such as the SAT. At issue is the fact that, statistically, on average, white students outperform Black students on the SAT. Higher-scoring students, who statistically tend to be white, correctly answer SAT experimental test questions at higher rates than typically lower-scoring students, who tend to be non-white, ensuring that the test question selection process itself has a self-reinforcing, built-in racial bias

(Kidder & Rosner, 2002–2003). Rosner (2003) explains this process of psychometrically reinforced racism:

"Each individual SAT question ETS chooses is required to parallel outcomes of the test overall. So, if high-scoring test takers—who are more likely to be white—tend to answer the question correctly in [experimenta] pretesting, it’s a worthy SAT question; if not, it’s thrown out. Race and ethnicity are not considered explicitly, but racially disparate scores drive question selection, which in turn reproduces racially disparate test results in an internally reinforcing cycle. (p. 24)"

Racial Grammar




Corporate/Privatization of Schools:

Scarcity Model:


Other/Dualistic Thinking:


Cultural Deficit:

Outcomes From the Research


Wayne W. Au (2009) High Stakes Testing and Discursive Control: Triple Bind for Non-Standard Student Identities. National Association for Multicultural Education. Multicultural Perspective, 11(2), 65-71.
Zabala, D. (2007). State high school exit exams: Gaps persist in high school exit exam pass ratesflpolicy brief 3. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.
Rosner, J. (2003). On white preferences. The Nation, 276(14), 24.
Kidder,W. C., & Rosner, J. (2002–2003). How the SAT creates “built-in headwinds”: An educational and legal analysis of disparate impact. Santa Clara Law Review, 43, 131–212