I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

 


Bill Maher is mad at me. 


 
And I’ve never even met the man.  


 
I guess you could say we’re from different worlds. 


 
He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East.  


 
He’s a political comedian. I’m a public school teacher. 


 
He’s a multimillionaire. I can barely make ends meet. 


 
What could I possibly do to provoke the ire of this man so much so that he took aim at me on his HBO TV show? 


 
 As near as I can tell, it started when I wrote a blog.  


 
Then people read that blog.  


 
It got popular and was republished throughout the Internet.  


 
And Maher disagrees with what I wrote.  


 
In fact, the very idea annoyed him as a prime example of namby-pamby liberals taking their agenda too far. 


 
What did I write in the article?  


 
Only that standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy


 
In fact, that was the title of the article, which seems to be about as far as Bill read because he ignored any arguments, facts or historical citations in the piece.  


 
On his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” this week, he posted the title of the article and the graphic that appeared with it when it was republished on commondreams.org


 
What he didn’t post was my name. I am the author, after all, but I guess that’s not important.  


 
The crucial bit was how triggered Bill was by my assertion.  


 
By connecting such allegedly alien concepts as standardized testing and racism, Maher thinks I devalued the meaning of “white supremacy.” 
 


Maher never actually examined my claim or what I wrote backing it up. Never mind the arguments I made in favor of my point, the sources I cited, the examples of actual bias or the documented history of standardized testing as a creation of the eugenicist movement.  
 


He was content to speak in a smarmy tone and make a pretty lame joke about what a racially biased test question might look like.

 
 
In fact, that’s probably why he (and his staff) picked my piece in the first place. They saw it as an opportunity to make a joke and whiffed at it pretty terribly. 


 
Here’s the relevant bit of his monologue: 


 
 
“In 2010 the New York Times used the term “White Supremacist” on 75 occasions. Last year, over 700 times. Now some of that to be sure is because Trump came along and emboldened the faction of this country that is truly white supremacist. It is of course still a real thing. But it shouldn’t apply to something like – as more than a few have suggested – getting rid of the SAT test. Now if we find the SAT test is slanted in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of Caucasians, if there are questions like Biff and Chip are sailing a yacht traveling at 12 knots to an Ed Sheeran concert on Catalina – if Catalina is 12 miles away, how many White Claws should they bring? Yes, then maybe. But of course the SAT doesn’t have questions like that so it becomes a kind of ludicrous exaggeration that makes lovers of common sense roll their eyes – and then vote for Trump.”  


 


Queue audience laughter and applause.  


 
Funny stuff I guess.  


 
Not the comedy staff’s fake SAT question but Maher’s assurance that “The SAT doesn’t have questions like that.” 


 
Really, Bill? 


 
How about this one? 


 
Runner: Marathon 
(a) envoy: embassy 
(b) martyr: massacre 
(c) oarsman: regatta 
(d) horse: stable 


 
It’s a real SAT question famously discussed in the infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray – a book that tried to use discrepancies in test scores to prove white people are smarter than black people. 


 
The answer is C, and it relies on a test taker’s knowing the meaning of regatta – something more likely to have come up in the daily lives of affluent white students than in the lives of less affluent minority students. If you don’t live by a body of water and/or don’t have much experience with rowing, you’re probably going to fail this question.  

It’s the same kind of question Maher’s comedy team came up with – find something white people are more likely to know than black people – but the Real Time writers just pilled it on over-and-over.

It doesn’t take five repetitions of something to make it biased. All it takes is one.


 
To be fair, my example is from the SAT analogy section, which was removed from the test in 2005. However, that doesn’t mean they got rid of the bias. 

In fact, the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, tacitly admits its test is biased.

It now provides an “adversity score” for poor and minority students to adjust raw SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

In other words, they know that poor and minority kids get lower scores so they’re trying to fudge the results to give them a boost.

Which would be entirely unnecessary if the SAT assessed them accurately in the first place.

They are literally trying to make up for how biased their test scores are.

Consider this.

Total SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 – or from 200-800 in both Math and Reading respectively.

According to 2018 data, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students average over 1100, while all other groups average below 1000. Meanwhile, students with family income less than $20,000 score lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest, according to 2015 data. And the difference is significant – a 433 average Reading score for those with the lowest family incomes compared to an average Reading score of 570 for those with the highest family income. That’s a 137 point difference!

And it holds for racial groups, too. The average Reading score on the SAT was 429 for black students – 99 points behind the average for white students.

However, the College Board is trying to justify this by saying the discrepancy is because poor and minority students are more disadvantaged than white, affluent ones. In other words, it’s not the test that is unfair, but American society in providing better resourced schools with lower class sizes and more resources for white kids than children of color.

And while American society IS unfair to the poor and minorities, several studies indicate that the problem is even deeper than that.

The SAT is biased, too.

Several studies ( Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service from 2003, Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson from 2010, etc.) find notable differences between the verbal scores of black and white students whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores.

Freedle says this is because SAT questions likely reflect the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people.

This makes sense if you examine how test questions are selected for the SAT. In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process:


 
“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, 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.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you that standardized tests really are a tool of white supremacy, consider their sordid history.

They are literally the product of the American eugenics movement.

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.”


 
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.

Is it an exaggeration to say that assessments specifically designed to favor affluent white people over impoverished minorities still does the same thing?

Is it ridiculous to describe the century long racial and economic discrepancy in test scores as something that supports white supremacy – especially when these results are shown time and again to be a feature of the tests and not just an artifact that recreates economic inequality?

Is it going too far to call out the racism of the SAT and other standardized tests like it when even the College Board admits its own scores are biased?

Does it devalue the term “White Supremacy” to point out real world white supremacy?

But Maher apparently isn’t interested in these questions.

After a few moments he moved on to another example of the left gone wild.


 
But I can’t do that because this isn’t just a bit for me.  


 
As I mentioned, I’m a public school teacher.  


 
I deal with the impact of standardized testing every day.  


 
I watch my students degraded, depressed and dehumanized by it year after year.  

It’s become cliche for privileged white people like Bill Maher to get cranky when someone points out real world prejudice.

But for those of us in the trenches, it is an everyday reality.

And that’s what triggers me.


Here’s the segment from “Real Time with Bill Maher”: (the relevant bit starts at 4:45)


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

16 thoughts on “I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

  1. Hi Steven, thanks for this piece. I share your perspective on standardized tests. I’ve had very negative experiences in my critiques of white supremacy in STEM. I’ve had venomous vitriol from many people in STEM conferences and in non-STEM public venues. I’ve found that many white people in North America, even many “progressive” commentators on the site I read your articles – CommonDreams – can’t tolerate a Latino, such as myself, criticizing practices that they consider to be “objective” as rooted in white supremacy. I have a degree in Physics from MIT and I have a doctorate in engineering, but when I’ve criticized the white supremacy in STEM, and when I’ve noted that STEM is, to a large degree, a tool of corporate capitalism and the military, my academic credentials aren’t enough to stop white “woke” folk from demeaning me as a knuckle dragging moron.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Steve. I am so sorry people are reacting to your legitimate criticism in this way. As a person of color, yourself, you can see the problem more clearly than white people can – certainly more clearly than I can. White people are often oblivious to racism and prejudice because it doesn’t affect them personally. However, when you teach public school and most of your students are children of color – as in my case – it becomes obvious. You also had the courage to criticize the sacred cow of STEM! I’m with you on that, too. I wrote about my thoughts on the issue here: https://gadflyonthewallblog.com/2018/08/14/stem-education-severs-the-arts-from-the-sciences/

      Like

    • I really enjoyed your insight into the systemic racism that is disenfranchising a large segment of our population through standardized testing. It is frustrating however when unconscious racism like Bill Maher demonstrates takes over the discord and pretends to be insightful and somehow meaningful. Why is Bill Maher so defensive? This is what I always ask myself in these situations. It’s frustrating because I just want to know why these unconscious racists can’t snap out of it and look at the facts objectively and with some empathy instead of taking it personally and thus demonstrating their own racist ignorance.

      Like

  2. Show guest – call them up and get booked. Bill likes laughs, but at the end of the day I think he loves dialogue even more. I’d love to see you on the shoe discussing this. We need your voice on a national platform!

    Like

  3. This post doesn’t make logical sense. I looked up the stats, and while it is true that whites as a group outperform blacks as a group in every area, it’s also true that Asians outperform whites in all areas as well (Thinking is such generalities is already problematic). If the logic was consistent, the title of the post would be “…About Standardized Testing and Asian Supremacy” The word “supreme” does mean superior to all others after all. And no, all Asians are not “white”. Indian Americans are some of the most successful Americans in the country.

    I certainly didn’t know what a regatta was until I read this post. Now that I looked it up, I would ace that question. That’s what learning is. I think you sell your black students short by not believing in their abilities.

    Like

    • TCG, you certainly are tying yourself into knots to avoid seeing bias. That’s the point – bias. Anyone who steeped themselves in the dominant culture (upper class whiteness) would generally do better on these tests and that’s what many Asian people do. But should you have to do that to pass a test that’s supposed to be assessing your academic knowledge? Would it be okay if we had the tests steeped in black culture and white folks had to learn all their cultural mores, terms and ways of thinking? You don’t think that would put white people at a disadvantage? How about we assess people fairly instead?

      Like

      • Of course I want to speak up when I see gross racial bias. Why do you think I left my first comment? But it still doesn’t add up. Differences in culture alone don’t prohibit academic success. If it did, we couldn’t teach foreign language. Knowledge, laws of logic, and critical thinking don’t differ with skin color. You’re limiting an entire race of people. And yes, I have taken tests that were “steeped” in a culture not my own (It was literally the whole point of the class), and I did quite well. It’s because I prepared. Even so, the culture issue is a moot point because you can’t blame every problem on the “whiteness” bogyman. Disparities between whites and blacks are blamed on “whiteness.” But when nonwhite populations outperform the very people you claim the test is designed for, the excuse is also “whiteness.” Seems inconsistent. It looks more like a preconceived conclusion in search of evidence. When my students don’t do well, I don’t blame someone else’s culture. My first question isn’t, “How can I turn you into a victim?” I help them learn. It seems that for some, anything they disagree with can be strained and tortured into somehow being racist.

        Speaking of consistency, you mentioned how testing has a racist past. No one took tests before WWI? In the not-too-distant past unions and minimum wage laws were used to price blacks out of the market. From your earlier posts, I assume you support these ideas in principle but not in kind. If so, why not apply your own standard?

        Like

      • I don’t think you get it. Is it possible to overcome a handicap? Certainly. But why should you have to do that if that handicap has been placed on you and a direct advantage given to others you are forced to compete against? If you and I were to run a mile long race and I get to ride a bicycle while you have to run, could you beat me? Maybe. If you train really hard. But that race is unfair. That’s why it’s called bias. Moreover, we’re not talking about two people. We’re talking about two groups. The way the assessments are set up, it’s easier for one group than another regardless of what the test is supposed to be assessing. So one group will do better than the other. Will some in the disadvantaged group succeed? Absolutely, just as some in the privileged group will fail. But over all, more in the advantaged group will succeed UNFAIRLY. That’s the point. It’s not saying that people in the disadvantaged group aren’t good enough to overcome the obstacle. It’s saying that this obstacle should never have been placed there in the first place. Why is that so hard to understand?

        Finally, standardized testing existed before WWI. It was invented in ancient China. However, the modern variety has very little in common with the ancient Chinese variety. It may have been a big improvement back then but we’ve come along way in the last millennium. The point is that standardized testing – AS PRACTICED TODAY – comes directly from the eugenicists of a century ago.

        Like

  4. You missed the point. His point was about exaggerated use of terminology. Basically, refraining from turning all of our words up to 11. Yes, the SAT and LSAT and MCAT and GMAT and every single other admission test is going to skew toward those with access to higher quality education, which due to systemic, societal disadvantages in America produces a statistical gap. Even for those from equal educational backgrounds, a lot of test questions are probably written by people who are white, still producing a statistical skew. And yes, there is a racist background to standardized tests. There is also a racist background to Planned Parenthood, but despite its historical ties to eugenics, over the decades PP has become an extremely vital provider of women’s health care to communities of color and enables access to important life saving procedures, like cancer prevention examinations. His point was that there is a difference between “de facto discriminatory testing” and “white supremacy.” College Board’s significant mishaps in attempting to create a merit-measuring, equitable examination does not make College Board equivalent to David Duke. The problem with exaggerating and using terminology disproportionate to the fault and moral repute involved is that, if College Board, the Law School Admission Council, and every other source of systemic discrimination is “white supremacist,” overuse of that term makes people who the term actually describes, like David Duke, seem less bad. In holding people accountable for, say, descending on Charlottesville to literally hold a white supremacist march, it is more than a little absurd to describe that behavior with the same terminology that you’re using in that article to refer to the College Board. We need to renounce disgusting and deplorable behavior like holding white supremacist marches when that happens, and we need to have our rarely-used, appropriately severe terminology available for when we do. It needs to not be hackneyed. To that end, Bill’s point stands and is 100% valid. The regatta question or other data points do not change the validity of that point. Regatta is literally known in the world of testing as the poster child question for biased questioning that inherently produces a statistical bias. Our knowledge of that question for the past 30 years is demonstrative of the exact opposite of the intent and purposive action to which the term “white supremacist” is appropriately applied: common knowledge of discriminatory questioning illustrates awareness of and efforts to remedy the problem. While their remedial efforts have certainly left a whole lot to be desired, it’s absurd to suggest that in 2021, College Board is purposefully creating racist questions so that minorities don’t get into college, especially considering that affirmative action plans are still thriving under the precedent in Grutter v. Bollinger, thereby completely foiling that plan anyway. By using David Duke terminology for College Board, that is precisely the linguistic equal footing you put them on. Let’s call “de facto discrimination” (such as its definition in Civil Rights Act lawsuits) and “white supremacy” out, by name, in the appropriate contexts when they exist. But I would highly recommend not conflating the two.

    Like

    • AI, thanks for commenting. I certainly see the point Mahrer was trying to make. He is saying that I was taking away the power of the term “white supremacy” by applying it to standardized testing. However, you are being far too generous to him. He does NOT admit any of the things about testing that you do here. He ridicules the very idea of it being discriminatory as ridiculous.

      Second, you misunderstand a lot about modern day racism. You don’t have to be in the KKK or shave your head and be a NeoNazi to be racist. The problem is SYSTEMIC. That means it is baked into many of our societal systems. Even if no one actively sought to be prejudiced they would be furthering racism by upholding racist systems. Your intentions don’t matter. If you inherited a machine that sought out and killed people of color, you would be responsible for it no matter what your stated personal beliefs. You would be responsible for stopping that machine. That is kind of like the situation we are in. Standardized testing DOES support white supremacy. It is a more quiet support than burning a cross in a person’s lawn, but it is no less effective. In fact,it is MORE effective because we don’t take it seriously. That’s what i was trying to change with my article. We need to take this problem seriously. It has gone on long enough.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.