Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

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Let’s say you punched me in the face.

 

I wouldn’t like it. I’d protest. I’d complain.

 

And then you might apologize and say it was just an accident.

 
Maybe I’d believe you.

 

Until the next time when we met and you punched me again.

 

That’s the problem we, as a society, have with standardized tests.

 

We keep using them to justify treating students of color as inferior and/or subordinate to white children. And we never stop or even bothered to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

Fact: black kids don’t score as high on standardized tests as white kids.

 

It’s called the racial achievement gap and it’s been going on for nearly a century.

 

Today we’re told that it means our public schools are deficient. There’s something more they need to be doing.

 
But if this phenomenon has been happening for nearly 100 years, is it really a product of today’s public schools or a product of the testing that identifies it in the first place?

 

After all, teachers and schools have changed. They no longer educate children today the same way they did in the 1920s when the first large scale standardized tests were given to students in the US. There are no more one-room schoolhouses. Kids can’t drop out at 14. Children with special needs aren’t kept in the basement or discouraged from attending school. Moreover, none of the educators and administrators on the job during the Jazz Age are still working.
 

Instead, we have robust buildings serving increasingly larger and more diverse populations. Students stay in school until at least 18. Children with special needs are included with their peers and given a multitude of services to meet their educational needs. And that’s to say nothing of the innovations in technology, pedagogy and restorative justice discipline policies.

 

But standardized testing? That hasn’t really changed all that much. It still reduces complex processes down to a predetermined set of only four possible answers – a recipe good for guessing what a test-maker wants more than expressing a complex answer about the real world. It still attempts to produce a bell curve of scores so that so many test takers fail, so many pass, so many get advanced scores, etc. It still judges correct and incorrect by reference to a predetermined standard of how a preconceived “typical” student would respond.

 

Considering how and why such assessments were created in the first place, the presence of a racial achievement gap should not be surprising at all. That’s the result these tests were originally created to find.

 

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.

 
In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.”
 

These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others.
 
In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following:
 

 

“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”

 

 
Thus, Yerkes and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.”
 

People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class.
 
The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.

 
Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
 

Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind.
 

And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

 
The SAT remains a tool for ensuring white supremacy that is essentially partial and unfair – just as its designers always meant it to be.
 
Moreover, it is the model by which all other high stakes standardized tests are designed.

 
But Brigham was not alone in smuggling eugenicist ideals into the education field. These ideas dominated pedagogy and psychology for generations until after World War II when their similarity to the Nazi philosophy we had just defeated in Europe dimmed their exponents’ enthusiasm.
 

Another major eugenicist who made a lasting impact on education was Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In his highly influential 1916 textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence he wrote:
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“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 
The modern wave of high stakes testing has its roots in the Reagan administration – specifically the infamous propaganda hit piece A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.

 
In true disaster capitalism style, it concluded that our economy was at risk because of poor public schools. Therefore, it suggested circumventing the schools and subordinating them to a system of standardized tests, which would be used to determine everything from teacher quality to resource allocation.

 
It’s a bizarre argument, but it goes something like this: the best way to create and sustain a fair educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students.
 

So we shouldn’t provide kids with what they need to succeed. We should make school a competition where the strongest get the most and everyone else gets a lesser share.

 
And the gatekeeper in this instance (as it was in access to higher education) is high stakes testing. The greater the test score, the more funding your school receives, the lower class sizes, the wider curriculum, more tutors, more experienced and well compensated teachers, etc.
 

It’s a socially stratified education system completely supported by a pseudoscientific series of assessments.

 
After all, what is a standardized test but an assessment that refers to a specific standard? And that standard is white, upper class students.
 
In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process by-which SAT designers decide which questions to include on the test:

 

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

 
In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.
 

Some might argue that this isn’t racist because race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included. Yet the results are exactly the same as if it were.

 
Others want to reduce the entire enterprise to one of social class. It’s not students of color that are disadvantaged – it’s students living in poverty. And there is overlap here.
 

Standardized testing doesn’t show academic success so much as the circumstances that caused that success or failure. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s both. Standardized testing has always been about BOTH race and class. They are inextricably entwined.

 
Which leads to the question of intention.

 
If these are the results, is there some villain laughing behind the curtain and twirling the ends of a handlebar mustache?
 

Answer: it doesn’t matter.
 

As in the entire edifice of white supremacy, intention is beside the point. These are the results. This is what a policy of high stakes standardized testing actually does.
 

Regardless of intention, we are responsible for the results.
 

If every time we meet, you punch me in the face, it doesn’t matter if that’s because you hate me or you’re just clumsy. You’re responsible for changing your actions.
 
And we as a society are responsible for changing our policies.

 
Nearly a century of standardized testing is enough.

 
It’s time to stop the bludgeoning.
 
It’s time to treat all our children fairly.
 

It’s time to hang up the tests.

 


NOTE: This article expands upon many ideas I wrote about in an article published this week in Public Source.


 

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!

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26 thoughts on “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

  1. I have never been a fan of high stakes tests. I think there is a place for teacher-made tests used to diagnose (not grade – at least for English — maybe for math) a taught lesson to see if students were learning from it and then the teacher adjusts his or her lesson and teaches it again or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Once again we have intense overlap between socioeconomic factors and academic achievement. It should surprise no one that the most impoverished group (African Americans) have the lowest GPAs. Moreover these are national averages. These are not GPAs of students in the same schools. Our poorest students are in our most segregated and underfunded schools. And why are those schools so underfunded? A large portion of the answer is standardized testing. Finally, when it comes to your favorite counterexample (Asian Americans), you know darn well that they’re a so-called model minority. There are a slew of factors that explain their high academic achievement from strict immigration policies allowing only the most privileged and educated into the country to their historical and cultural avoidance of the most virulent racism suffered by African Americans. There are some facts you just have to face – and one of them is that the standardized tests you love so much came from racism and continue to promulgate it with each generation that we subject to it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Steven,

        It seems to me that one could easily argue that it should surprise no one that the most impoverished group have the lowest standardized test scores. If racial differences in test scores indicate that standardized test scores are a tool of white supremacy, racial differences in high school GPA’s should also indicate that teacher assigned grades are also a tool of white supremacy.

        As to your question about why our poorest students attend segregated and underfunded schools, I think the answer is obvious: the public education system is designed to maintain class and racial differences in society, that is the public education system is a tool of white supremacy.

        Like

      • Teaching Economist, I must admit that to a degree you have a point. Our school system has been a tool of white supremacy just as nearly every institution in our country has been. However, you paint with too broad a brush. Yes, our schools are increasingly segregated. Why? Is it a direct result of the schools or the surrounding communities which they serve? To what degree does red lining play a role? To what degree is it a result of the will of the white majority who control the school board, city council, the zoning board, etc.?

        The problem with jumping to your conclusion is that it ignores these subtleties. Unlike standardized testing, public schools were not created to separate the privileged from the underprivileged. Admittedly, they were sometimes used that way, but that was not the impetus behind their creation. In fact, just the opposite. They contain the possibility of a solution to the issues that plague them. If our schools are segregated, integrate them. If they are underfunded, fund them. If minorities are underprivileged. Privilege them.

        These solution cannot be found for standardized testing because the rot of inequity runs to its core. They are standardized. They see correct and incorrect only in so far as it relates to a standard of a hypothetical typical student. That will always lead us astray no matter how we define our standard. There are no standard students therefore you cannot fairly assess them with standardized tests.

        Like

    • In the UK I’d say it’s still a tool of the class ridden society where the rich who are educated at what we call ‘private’ ( fee paying, ie your family have lots of spare cash ) schools, where an inherent, mostly white supremacy ensures that those people have greater advantage in all areas of life from the start, than those educated at ‘state’ schools. They also most often land jobs at the highest level of government and in law in fact. Win win.

      There is a spectrum though, but, if you attended a ‘private’ school your chances of landing some types of jobs are much higher, with less effort on the part of the candidate. Hard to believe it’s 2019 at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization. […]

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  3. While I can see where your perspective is coming from, you can’t blatantly claim the intent of creating a standardized exam is for the purpose of targeting minorities and thus must be abolished. It never was. While it may seem more of a challenge for financially impoverished students (though much educational research on student mentality could prove you otherwise), it provides top ranking universities with a basic understanding of the applicant, and whether that applicant indicates they show potential to perform well at their university. Every student, regardless of race and class, receives the exact same SAT come testing day, do they not? There’s an equal opportunity in regards to the exam itself. The only true aspect to this situation that could support your assertion is a lack of resources, which in turn would likely impact a student’s exam score. Though, what you fail to consider is the choices at an individual level students facing financial issues make. From here, you may accept your fate in this world or you can make the choices that alter your destination. Throughout the past few decades, admission rates for more financially impoverished students has increased tremendously throughout top ranking US universities. This is a result of low-income students showing a commitment to improve on standardized exams, and universities recognize this. At Harvard for example, admission officers have sought for students who, while they scored lower (1100-1200), have showed signs of improvement over their high school career, and thus show potential to succeed at the university. Choice is the very basis of capitalist society. Through such measures to place consideration into students facing financial hardships, by seeing the potential in students who chose to overcome their financial circumstances indicates that standardized testing is in itself a sound measurement for determining whether a student is ready for the next step in education. Also, if anything, this is a matter of wealth, not race. Your argument could definitely apply to thousands of wealthy African-American families in contrast to the outcome impoverished white families.

    Like

    • Jacob, I thought I explained this pretty thoroughly in the article. The people who designed standardized testing did so to justify their racist beliefs about human beings. They said so themselves. It’s right there in black and white. And their prejudices are still embedded in modern day standardized testing. You mention potential of college applicants. That’s a phrase rife with bias! Who is to say which students have potential and which don’t? Doesn’t it give you pause that the system we use to determine this potential consistently prizes wealthy white people and underprivileges poor brown ones? That is no accident. You bring up the overlap between race and economics. This is true but it exists always when these two subjects are conjured. Race and class are inextricable. Racism is a tool by which the wealthy keep their wealth. One need only look at the latest absurdity from the Trump administration to see this in action.

      Like

      • Yet it doesn’t apply to modern application. I’m certain many schools are aware of its origins, but regardless of it recognize that there’s still value to the idea of an equal opportunity exam as a means of indicating one’s readiness for college education. The current motive is vastly different from the motives of the past. Just as your motive is different from mine as to why standardized testing should be abolished. Also, the way the exam is valued and perceived in the admissions process, as I’ve already stated, has changed dramatically. If you actually do research on admission statistics from the past decade, you should realize that it’s not impossible to be admitted to elite schools simply because you were born into a low income family. But if you’re a student and you don’t want to place value on it because you don’t think you’ll perform well, then go ahead. There’s community college, which has also contributed immensely to economic growth in more financially burdened households throughout the past four decades. Also, if you want to discuss blatant racism in the admissions process, how about you talk to Harvard admissions officer who have placed a quota on Asian American applicants over the past 15 years. Lastly, I find it most laughable that you claim we only allow the “privileged” to immigrate, as if their circumstances involve any form of privilege whatsoever. I can guarantee that if you brought this argument as a legal case to RBG herself on grounds of violating the 14th Amendment, she would sit in her seat and laugh. It’s called a meritocracy for a reason. If you want to accept responsibility for someone else’s poor financial decisions, as governmental oppression towards African Americans is essentially nonexistent with the exception of police brutality, police militarization, and drug criminalization, then go ahead and invest your money in people who are unwilling to help themselves.

        Like

      • Jacob, your biases are showing. You just said an entire race of people “are unwilling to help themselves.” Don’t you see how prejudicial that statement is? You also said that the real racism was affirmative action. It’s clear you’re coming from a radical right point of view – possibly alt right. But our politics shouldn’t blind us to the truth. A social mechanism like standardized testing that was designed to select against black people but even after revisions still selects against black people should be troubling to most people. It is hard to believe those results are just a coincidence. These tests are not “equal opportunity” exams. The questions are deeply biased. I have seen them – and not just the ones they release to the public. But if I take a picture or write them down, I could be prosecuted.

        If your goal is equal opportunity, why is standardized testing the only means to achieving it? We could provide equitable resources to all students and give all who desire a chance at post secondary education. We don’t need a gatekeeper. We need more support before and after the gate.

        Like

  4. Do I believe the idea of standardized testing is flawed? Sure. Perhaps schools could experiment with comprehensive exams with more room for error and less pressure for students, and universities could potentially consider them in the admissions process. Though, bashing capitalism and the idea of free will isn’t a very sound argument in the discussion as to whether or not we abolish standardized exams. You may point your hand towards clear and obvious laws with an objective to oppress African-Americans, such as the Jim Crow Laws and the eugenics court case (which I genuinely have no clue how it managed to be supported by the SC, as it was clearly unconstitutional). Though, there is no comparison between authoritarian right policies and a literal capitalist based society. How do you think low income Asian American families have consistently thrived in standardized testing? They chose to improve regardless of their current state. Alright, that is all.

    Like

    • Jacob, I have literally provided example of the creators of standardized testing admitting their racist motivations. If I make a knife and say “I made this for cutting” and then I give it to you and you cut something with it, does it not follow that you probably intended to use it for that purpose. It boggles the mind to image that our society keeps using tests designed by racists that consistently debate black and brown people – by accident! And even if we somehow did that, it’s no excuse. We should know better. As to other ethnic groups or so-called model minorities, they have much different social and economic factors governing their lives. For example, we only let the most privileged and motivated people immigrate. That has an affect on their test scores and even the scores of their children. Moreover their culture was not erased by generational slavery and the prejudice they face is not as severe as that which African Americans and Latinix people routinely face in this country.

      Like

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