Absurd Defense of Standardized Testing in Jacobin Magazine



A bizarre article appeared in this Month’s issue of Jacobin – a left-leaning, even socialist magazine.


It was titled, “The Progressive Case for the SAT” and was written by Freddie DeBoer.


In it, the author attempts to explain why the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) – though flawed – is a more unbiased way to select which students deserve college admissions than indicators like K-12 classroom grades.


It’s all convoluted poppycock made worse by a baroque series of far left think tank connections, intellectual bias and mental illness.


In short, DeBoer argues that our schools are unfair, so we should embrace unfair high stakes tests.


I know. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Let me slow it down a bit, premise by premise so you can see his point – or lack thereof.


The current education system privileges white affluent children, says DeBoer, so they have an easier time getting into college than poorer children of color.


Check so far.


Richer whiter kids often go to schools that are better funded than those that teach mostly impoverished minorities. Therefore, the privileged get smaller classes, wider curriculums, more extracurricular activities, more counselors, better nutrition, etc. – while the underprivileged… don’t.


Then DeBoer says that classroom grades are often dependent on the resources students receive. Richer whiter kids get more resources, so they often get better grades.


Still with you so far.


Therefore, he concludes, we need standardized tests like the SAT to help equalize the playing field. We need so-called “objective” assessments to counteract the “subjective” classroom grades.


But DeBoer admits standardized tests aren’t objective! They are also the result of resources – that’s why richer whiter kids tend to score better on them than poorer blacker kids!


The argument makes no logical sense.


Justifying one unfair system with another unfair system is beyond bonkers.


Plus DeBoer contends out of nowhere that classroom grades are more easily manipulated than the tests and thus the tests are more valid.


Wrong again.


Classroom grades are based on roughly 180 days of instruction a year for 12 plus years. The SAT is roughly one day. More if you retake it.


It is MORE difficult to influence 2,160 days worth of grading than 1 or 2 or 3. Not the other way round.


Moreover, classroom grades are tabulated by numerous teachers, many of whom have little or no contact with each other. Standardized test scores are tabulated by a handful of temporary summer workers who often collaborate on the scores.


Whether students get good or bad grades generally doesn’t affect a given teacher. However, low test scores are actually beneficial to testing corporations because they allow the company to make additional money by retesting and selling remediation materials to the district.


If one group is more subject to bias, it is those grading the standardized tests, not the classroom teachers.


He has a point that getting rid of standardized testing won’t by itself eliminate inequality. But doubling down on it certainly won’t either.


That’s just logic.


DeBoer seems to be ignorant of history, as well.


The SAT test didn’t just spring up out of the ground. It was written by people –  Psychologist Carl Brigham building on work by U.S. Army Psychologist Robert Yerkes to be exact.


Brigham devised the SAT in the early half of the 20th Century based on Yerkes’ and his own deeply racist eugenicist theories.


And when I say they were eugenicists, I’m not speaking in hyperbole. They truly believed that some races were just smarter, more moral and downright better than others.


“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive,” wrote Brigham in his seminal A Study of American Intelligence.


“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922.


And this idea was the foundation of their application of standardized testing, as Yerkes  noted a year later:


“The contrasting intellectual status of the white versus the negro constituents of the draft appear from table 3. Few residents of the United States probably would have anticipated so great a difference. That the negro is 90 per cent. [sic] illiterate only in part accounts for his inferior intellectual status.”


Yerkes eugenics Table 3


Brigham was basing his ideas on another test created by Yerkes, the Army Alpha and Beta tests.


As noted above, Yerkes  used test scores to “prove” black soldiers in WWI were inferior and thus more suited to menial service and the trenches while whites should be given better positions.


And Brigham continued this practice with his SAT test.


In both cases, the psychologists used standardized testing to back up a racist and classist status quo.


Yet it is this same SAT test that DeBoer is suggesting we keep because it reduces racial and economic bias!


Certainly the SAT has changed some since Yerkes time, but it hasn’t changed THAT much!


And that brings us to DeBoer, himself.


Who is this guy and why did an allegedly respectable publication like Jacobin print his crap theory?


DeBoer appears to be a very troubled individual.


Back in December of 2017, he published a blog post about his mental illness, almost being committed to an institution, the antipsychotic drugs he was taking and the break he would have to take from being a “public intellectual.”


I don’t mean to shame anyone who suffers from mental illness. But when someone offers such a bizarre policy suggestion, questions of stability arise.


Next, there’s DeBoer’s think tank connections.


On the same Website, DeBoer talks about “My anti anti-SAT take for the People’s Policy Project” – the same theory he expanded upon in his Jacobin article.


People’s Policy Project (3P) is a left-leaning think tank created by another frequent Jacobin contributor, lawyer and policy analyst, Matt Bruenig.


You may recall Bruenig. In 2015, he criticized schools that provide more resources to impoverished children by dubbing them “welfare schools.” He saw the inclusion of free healthcare, free meals, free pre-K, and other wraparound services as increasing the welfare state and making children and families dependent on the government for survival.


And, yes, like DeBoer, this is a guy who claims to be a far left Democrat.


This is all very troubling.


Sometimes we fall into the lazy attitude that high stakes testing, charter schools and other corporate education reforms are only championed by the right.


Certainly the left – or at least the far left – is immune to this neoliberal agenda.


You definitely wouldn’t expect to get a heaping helping of top down supply side school policy in Jacobin!


It just goes to show you how little policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand education and how ignorant they can be when we don’t force them to include the experts in the conversation.


I am, of course, talking about real, live classroom teachers.


Until we prize what they can tell us about education, we will continue to be led in circles by the ignorant.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


12 thoughts on “Absurd Defense of Standardized Testing in Jacobin Magazine

  1. 1. The piece has one and only one point to make. There is a movement to get rid of the SAT under the theory that this would make college admissions more equitable and create diversity. That idea is empirically wrong. We’ve done the research; schools don’t get more diverse following the adoption of test-optional practices.

    2. I am opposed to routine standardized testing in K-12 schools.

    3. I am totally opposed to the charter school agenda and other neoliberal educational reform efforts.

    4. The association with income level and the SAT is real but far smaller than most people think. There is also an association with income level and grades – in fact, a stronger one than when it comes to the SAT.

    5. The ACT has no such long-ago association with eugenics. So I imagine you’re fine with the ACT, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Freddie, Thanks so much for replying to my article. I wasn’t expecting it.

      To address your points:

      1) You are certainly correct that removing a standardized test as the gatekeeper for college admissions will not by itself make college more diverse. But that doesn’t mean we should keep the test, and that DOES seem to be what your article proposes we do. It is called “The Progressive Case for the SAT.” It’s not called “Repealing the SAT Won’t Make College More Diverse.”

      2) If you’re opposed to high stakes testing in K-12, how can you be in favor of it as a prerequisite for college admissions? The same problems with testing at the K-12 level are present at the college level.

      3) To be fair, you said nothing about school privatization in your article, and I think you have criticized the practice elsewhere. However, don’t you see that high stakes testing and things like charter and voucher schools are connected? The tests are used to “prove” public schools are failing and thus we need to privatize schools. If you’re in favor of even just the SAT, you’re in favor of a tool of the privatization industry.

      4) I don’t think you fully proved this assertion in your article. Moreover, as a classroom teacher, I’ve seen the opposite over the course of 15 years. I teach mostly low income students of color. Their grades are better than their standardized test scores. One of the reasons I oppose high stakes tests is that I see students who have learned the material given failing test scores due to absurd cut scores, unfair questions, cultural bias, and developmentally inappropriate expectations.

      5) The ACT may not have such a direct link to eugenics but the entire practice of standardized testing in this country comes from this same root. The fact is that standardized testing has always been a pseudoscience used to uphold the status quo. It cannot be used to increase equity.It is one of the strongest tools ensuring inequality.


  2. You can’t claim to be a Progressive and defend standardized testing. It just doesn’t make any sense. The author’s article is just a jumbled rhetorical mess, and his reply merely doubles down on his logical inconsistencies. Thanks, Steven, for your analysis, and for shining a light on this mess.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Who is this guy and why did an allegedly respectable publication like Jacobin print his crap theory?”

    The Kochtapus (Koch brothers, ALEC, etc) have already taken over the GOP but they have also been infiltrating the Democratic Paty for decades too. This guy is probably one of their operatives. The Kochtapus has also been buying, up one way or another, respectable publication and because they didn’t have the patience it would have taken to buy up the entire free press, they launched many of their own media outlets. Fox is a perfect example of that.


  4. For many many decades now we have seen a one to one correlation between the rate of increase in SAT scores and that of family income. We still don’t have a good, fully explained understanding of why this is the case. Of what all of the factors are that produce this correlation and how they operate as a system. We do know a lot about the toxic effects of poverty, but when it comes to comparing different wealth levels within the middle class or upper middle class to lower wealthy class (for example) we are basically clueless.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Just FYI, SAT no longer stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. Fittingly, it doesn’t stand for anything.

    Good article, though. Peter Greene makes similar points a lot. Just because the treatment your doctor is giving you isn’t working doesn’t mean that something known to be bad (say, chopping off your arm) would be better. Just because inequality is a persistent problem throughout the educational world (because it’s a persistent problem throughout the world period) doesn’t mean we should use a known biased “measure” (sic) to treat the problem.


  6. Coincidentally, the becoming radical posted this today: https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/the-never-ending-allure-of-scientific-racism/

    Money quote:

    “The problem is two-fold: The markers for intelligence are determined by those in power (thus, they are arbitrary) and tend to represent well those in power while marginalizing those who are powerless, and then, that process invariably uses the allure of “scientific” to entrench power deeper for the powerful and disadvantage further the weak.”


  7. Using standardized tests in college admission can serve to balance gender bias in grading. College attendance, especially at more selective colleges, is running between 60% and 70% female. Dropping standardized test scores as one of the criteria for admission is likely to make the imbalance worse.


    • Where does “gender bias in grading” end and “girls are just better in school than boys” begin? What about the gender bias in testing that favors males? What about the fact that for hundreds of years everything about schooling was biased in favor of boys (even to the point of often making it inaccessible to girls), yet as soon as those barriers fall, females invariably outperform males? Maybe it’s just that men can’t compete on a level academic field with women, the way females can’t compete physically with males? Are you saying males need to be given advantages in order to keep up?


      • It may be that the differences in grades that we observe between genders, race, and ethnic origin in schools just reflect the fact that small genetic differences between these groups cause one group to outperform another. A little to bell curvy for me, but I suppose you might think it true.

        There does not seem to be a large difference in ACT scores between male and female students. In 2013 the average overall ACT score for a male student was 20.95, for a female student was 20.86, so boys scored .4% higher. The difference in GPA was more significant: male students had an average GPA of 3.07 while female students had an average GPA of 3.24, so female students GPA was 5.5% higher than male students. These figures only include students that expected to graduate in 2013, so bias the GPA for male students upwards as many more male students drop out of high school than female students.

        I am arguing for using a variety of criteria in admission. I have just evaluated more than 100 students for admissions to a graduate program, and have used overall GPA, grades in particular economics and math courses, GRE scores, TOEFL scores, recommendation letters, and courses taken in order to evaluate the chances of success for a student in our program. Aside from the university mandated minimum TOEFL score, no single criteria dominates the other. It seems to me that this is the most reasonable way to do these things as more information is better than less.

        We are perhaps all influenced by our personal experiences. My middle son did not graduate in the top 10% of his high school class, but was a National Merit Finalist because of his pSAT and SAT score, perfect SAT subject exams, 5’s on the 9 AP exams he took (Siemens Prize winner for the state), and a 4.0 GPA in the 25 credit hours of undergraduate and graduate university courses he took while in high school (these grades had no impact on his high school GPA). If all you looked at were high school grades, just an above average student.


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