Blinded by Pseudoscience: Standardized Testing is Modern Day Eugenics

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Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Steven Singer’s GadflyOnTheWallBlog. Check out his great work documenting the attacks on public education and the teachers, parents, and students who are fighting back. Check out all his work HERE.

Adolph Hitler was a big fan of standardized testing.

It helped justify much of the horrors of the Nazi regime.

National Socialism is nothing but applied biology,” he said.

In other words, it’s just science, people. Some races are simply inferior to others. Black people, Jews, Gypsies, Hispanics – they just can’t hold a candle to the superior races of Northwestern Europe.

And Hitler based much of this on the “science” of Eugenics, especially the work done in America in the 1910s and ‘20s.

Eugenicists used a flawed and biased interpretation of Gregor Mendel’s laws on heredity to argue that lawlessness, intelligence, and even economic success are passed down in families due to dominant or recessive genes. Moreover, the negative traits are widespread in certain races and the positive ones in others.

Practitioners like Carl Brigham used IQ tests to PROVE white people were just the best and everyone else, well, maybe they should just stop breeding. (In fact, laws were passed in the U.S. imposing mandatory sterilization on thousands based on the conclusions of these “scientists.”)

Brigham was a U.S. Army psychologist who used WWI data to declare that whites (especially those born inside the United States) were the most intelligent of all peoples and that immigrants were genetically inferior. He went on to refine his work into an even better indicator of intelligence the he called the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

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

To combat this mixture, eugenicist education reformers encouraged schools to rigidly track students into low, middle and high level classes – similar to the way many of our schools are organized today.

Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, expressed these views in his textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence (1916). He wrote:

Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feeble-minded 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.

Compare that ideal to the increasingly segregated American schools of today. We have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. We have schools for black and brown kids and schools for whites.

Terman would have been in heaven!

It was the work of patriots like Brigham and Terman that the Nazis relied on heavilyto justify their forced sterilization programs and ultimately the Holocaust, itself.

Does that sound extreme? It isn’t.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi scientists repeatedly praised the work of American eugenicists, who uncoincidentally also created the standardized test model of education favored by corporate education reformers today.

It’s easy to follow their logic. If certain races can be scientifically proven to be inferior, it is a small step to thinking that they should be stopped from breeding or eradicated from the face of the planet altogether.

And the pseudo-scientific justification for this scheme was standardized testing. The IQ test – which has since been shown to be incredibly biased – was used to justify mass murder. And then Brigham refined that same test into our most popular current standardized assessment – the SAT. In fact, all standardized tests that students are forced to take today owe a huge debt to the SAT and other standardized assessments used by Terman and other eugenicist educators.

The resemblance between testing in the 1910s and the 2010s is obvious to those who will but look.

Similar to the IQ test, modern standardized exams like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) repeatedly have been shown to be biased in favor of affluent and white test takers. Supporters bemoan the “racial proficiency gap,” but that’s just a nice way of wondering why the same folks Hitler thought were “inferior” don’t do well on our modern tests.

This is no accident. It’s how the assessments are designed.

The IQ test is supposed to demonstrate an innate intelligence. However, modern psychologists have become increasingly skeptical that intelligence is fixed. So standardized assessments like the SAT are supposed to somehow show BOTH what students have learned AND their innate intelligence. That’s the justification behind the high stakes. You have to pass the SAT to show you’re smart enough to do well in college.

Such outright racism would not be tolerated today, so it becomes cloaked in doublespeak. It’s good that poor black students don’t score well on standardized tests because that shows us they need extra help. And then, instead of providing any help, we close their schools or turn them over to fly-by-night charter operators.

Once again, standardized tests are used as the justification for doing something obviously racist. If anyone said, “We’re going to close and privatize all the schools serving minorities and the poor,” people would revolt. However, when you say we’re doing it because of standardized tests – because of “science” – people just shrug and say, “You can’t argue with that!”

The same goes for Common Core State Standards. States were bribed to enact them so that the reasons for attacking public schools would be uniform across the country. This provides another level of pseudo-scientific justification.

They are supposed to ensure every student who graduates high school will be “college and career ready.” However, now that Common Core has been adopted in 46 states and their tests have become aligned with the standards, we’ve seen studentscores take a nosedive. Only our rich white kids apparently are ready for college.

So what will we do with those who fall below the mark? We’re sending no additional resources to help them increase their achievement. We’ll just close their schools and/or privatize. And to make sure none of them escape, we’ll make passing the Common Core tests a graduation requirement.

This does not level the playing field. This does not – as some corporate education reformers claim – ensure the sanctity of students Civil Rights. It extensively violates them!

The education model of Test and Punish is a modern eugenics movement. We’re shellacking over class divides so that those below a certain point have no possibility of ever rising to the white place. And I do mean “white.”

Standardized testing is not a ladder of social mobility. It is a means of keeping certain people in their proper place.

Some try to deny the racial component by pointing to the intersection with class. Testing impacts poor white children as it does poor black ones.

To a degree this is true, but remember our eugenic forerunners saw everything in purely racial terms. For instance, today, few people would claim Judaism is a race. It is a religion. It is essentially a belief system, not a set of shared genes even though some adherents do share genetic characteristics after centuries of segregation. But the Nazis considered them a race and, thus, systematically murdered 6 million of them.

The same goes for the poor. Brigham and his Nazi admirers thought that people were poor mainly because of their genes. They are genetically predisposed to being lazy and good for nothing, so they can’t keep a job or advance themselves. Therefore, they’re poor. Pause for a moment to consider the large numbers of people in America today who would agree with them.

Standardized testing treats the poor the same way it does minorities. In fact, it is just the lack of opportunities that come with poverty that cause the very scores that are being used to denigrate these people. 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 standardized testing puts the blame on the victim. Students score badly because they aren’t working hard enough, corporate reformers say. These kids don’t have enough “rigor.”

To make sure few people actually volunteer to help, we blame their teachers, as well. We make the education profession as unattractive as possible, indicting teachers for all societies ills knowing full well that this will result – as it has – in a nationwide teacher shortage. Then we can deprofessionalize the field and replace educators who have four-year-degrees with lightly trained Teach for America temps.

These kinds of shenanigans didn’t fool the anti-racists of the past.

The great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois remarked in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”

He could be talking about No Child Left Behind.

In “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” scholar Horace Mann Bond issued a warning about the misuse of IQ tests:

But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life.

He could be talking about Race to the Top.

Karen Lewis, a present-day Chicago teacher and president of her union, says this:

What many people do not know is that the use of standardized tests has its origins in the Eugenics movement …we have to be clear about the original purpose of standardized tests.

In a society fascinated by statistics, we are often compelled to reduce everything to a single number. Those of us who work with children know that there are so many characteristics that cannot be quantified.

Ask yourselves whether you want to be part of a legacy born of the unholy alliance between the concept of  “natural inequality” and the drudgery that has been imposed on many of our classrooms.

Make no mistake. Corporate Education Reform is modern-day eugenics. It pretends to justify increasing standardization and privatization of public schools through flawed and biased assessments. Its claims that any of this is actually supported by research are spurious. At heart, these are articles of faith – not science. Neither Common Core nor high stakes testing nor charterizing impoverished schools nor putting districts into receivership nor evaluating teachers based on student test scores – none of it has ever been shown in peer-reviewed studies to help students learn.

Corporate Education Reformers are asking all of us to have faith in a racial and economic social order that benefits those already at the top and keeps the rest of us in our place.

And for anyone who questions it, we are continually blinded by their pseudoscientific justifications.

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