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Standardized Tests Have Always Been About Keeping People in Their Place
There are some things that can’t be unseen.
America’s history of standardized testing is one of them.
Today, critics from all sides of the political spectrum decry the overuse of high stakes tests while paradoxically championing them for accountability purposes – especially for schools serving minority students.
Civil rights organizations that last year opposed testing have suddenly come to demand it – not because testing ensures racial equity but for fear of losing wealthy donors tied to the assessment industry.
Yet one look at where these tests come from and how they have been used in the past shows their essentially classist and racist natures.
Make no mistake – standardized testing has been a tool of social control for the last century. And it remains one today.
Twisted statistics, made up math, nonexistent or biased research – these are the “scientific” supports for standardized testing. It has never been demonstrated that these kinds of tests can accurately assess either intelligence or knowledge, especially as that knowledge gets more complex. But there is an unspoken agreement in political circles to pretend that testing is rock solid and produces scores that can be relied on to make decisions that will have tremendous effects on the lives of students, teachers, parents and communities.
Our modern assessments are holdovers from the 1910s and ‘20s, an age when psychologists thought they could isolate the racial markers for intelligence and then improve human beings through selective breeding like you might with dogs or cats.
I’m not kidding.
It was called eugenics.
Psychologists like Carl Brigham, Robert Yerkes, and Lewis Terman were trying to find a way to justify the social order. Why is it that certain people are at the top and others at the bottom? What is the best way to decide who belongs where?
To answer these questions they appealed to a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. They thought they had discovered something new about the human brain. Positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.
It was really just the same kind of racial prejudices that have been prevalent throughout Europe for centuries, but now American pseudoscientists had found a justification for believing them. In fact, they argued that these deductions weren’t prejudices at all. They were facts based on evidence. It was “science.”
To make such conclusions they had to blind themselves to the effects of wealth and social class. The rich tend to be more well-behaved and educated than the poor. These psychologists took this to mean that the rich were somehow genetically superior. And since the rich were mostly of Northwestern European ancestry, they concluded their genes produced a racially superior type of human. They ignored the fact that a privileged upbringing bestows certain benefits while an impoverished one inflicts life-altering wounds. Ultimately, their “science” was simply a justification for their prejudices.
Brigham later created a civilian test of intelligence that could be used to sort and rank students just as the Army Alpha and Beta tests had been used to sort soldiers. He called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.
Yes, THAT SAT.
Though the test has been revised multiple times since Brigham created it, the purpose has remained the same – to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, to hold some students up as worthy of further educational investment and to keep others out. Moreover, the means by which the SAT makes this distinction was and remains culturally and economically biased. Researchers have been pointing out since Brigham’s day that the test favors students from wealthy, white backgrounds over those from poor minority homes. Yet today 2.1 million teenagers every year still must take the test to get into the college of their choice.
And so eugenics became education policy throughout the country from primary to post-secondary school.
Terman, who created the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test to identify “slow” children for special education programs, went on to champion rigid academic tracking for all students in public schools based on standardized testing. The idea was to give the racially pure students extra resources and keep the mixed or lower races in classes more suited to their lower intellects and eventual menial stations in life.
It is sad that many of these ideas persist in our present-day schools. Even today, economically disadvantaged and minority students still make up the majority of remedial and academic classes while the children of the middle class and the wealthy (most of whom incidentally are white) disproportionately populate the honors classes. Today we write that off as merely accidental if we think about it at all. However, a peek at history shows quite clearly that it is exactly how the system has been designed to work.