Standardized Tests Have Always Been About Keeping People in Their Place

Photo credit: "Obscure Associate," by Christopher Rogers, Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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

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 itnot 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.

They came to many of these “discoveries” during the First World War. Yerkes developed the U.S. Army Alpha and Beta Intelligence tests that were given to almost all American soldiers. Ostensibly, the assessments were used to determine where soldiers were best suited – support services, the trenches, the officer core, etc.

The rational was to ensure these assignments were being given more fairly and objectively. Before these tests, soldiers were assigned based on wealth and class. Now soldiers were assigned based on tests – that supported the exact same assignments based on wealth and class.

Until this point, I.Q. tests had to be given by one highly trained proctor to one person at a time. Yerkes’ advancement was to put it all on paper so that multiple people could take the tests at once.

However, the tests were deeply flawed. Yerkes claimed they showed a person’s natural intelligence. But the questions were clearly assessing knowledge of facts like a 1900s version of trivial pursuit.

For instance, here is Question 18 of the Alpha Test:

“Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of … (tooth powder)(dry goods)(tobacco)(soap).” The answer is tobacco. How you could know that without having seen period advertisements is beyond me. In any case, it gave good cover for positioning white, affluent men as officers while mostly darker complected and working class soldiers populated the trenches.

After the armistice, Yerkes and Brigham used the wartime test results to continue sorting and ranking Americans. They claimed that their assessments had shown a terrible danger for the human race: nearly half of the white draft (47.3%) was feeble-mind. The cause? Not enough exposure to print advertising? No. They were interbreeding with members of inferior genetic strains.

“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922 in the introduction to Brigham’s “A Study of American Intelligence”.

In that same book, one of Brigham’s most seminal, the author was even more specific:

“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”

Something had to be done. Pure whites needed to be segregated from mongrel races. But how to do it without being accused of prejudice or bias? How to make it seem like science? Once again, the answer was standardized testing.

Brigham 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.

From there eugenics became the dominant American policy of social organization. It was a required course of study for all education majors at colleges and universities. It was the justification for our isolationist foreign policy allowing thousands of immigrants to be turned away for fear of watering down the U.S. gene pool. Even inside our own borders, tens of thousands of Americans were subjected to mandatory sterilization to ensure degenerate genes were eradicated. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of WWII and the Nuremberg Trials when the eugenicist star began to fade.

We come to a difficult and painful chapter in American history. The word “Nazi” has become an overenthusiastic and easy pejorative for anything that critics wish to vilify. Godwin’s Law states that almost any argument on the Internet will eventually degrade to one side calling the other Adolph Hitler.

He has a point. We should be careful. Too often we wield the sledgehammer of Nazism to smash anything we don’t like. But we can’t let it silence the truth. Sometimes a policy really is Nazism. And if eugenics isn’t, I don’t know what is.

Here it is from Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.

Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed the progress of the American eugenics movement. “I have studied with great interest,” he told a fellow Nazi, “the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant calling his race-based eugenics book, The Passing of the Great Race his “bible.”

And lest we forget the U.S. based Rockefeller Foundation helped found the eugenics program in Germany and even funded the section that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz. By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 – almost $4 million in 21st-Century money – to hundreds of German researchers. Without American funds, these programs could not have gotten off the ground.

Nazis even looked to the US Supreme Court for inspiration.

In 1927, the court decided in Buck v. Bell that mandatory sterilization of feeble-minded individuals was, in fact, Constitutional. The ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, resulted in the forced sterilization of between 60,000 and 70,000 Americans.

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.”

The Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials repeatedly quoted Holmes’s words in their own defense.

This is what finally tainted the eugenics brand beyond repair. Psychologists and policymakers didn’t want to be associated with the horrors of the war. They didn’t want any of the blame though they clearly deserved a portion of it. They inspired it.

It took almost two additional decades for these ideas to largely dissipate. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement when Americans began to question the social order and the educational system that helped preserve it.

Schools changed. Students were increasingly desegregated both racially and academically. Less emphasis was put on testing and sorting and more on experimentation and self-discovery. Creativity and original thinking were prized above all else. Things weren’t perfect, but we had entered a new era that refused to put children into rigid boxes. They were all unique and valuable and should be treated as such. But it couldn’t last.

Flash forward to 1983. President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education put out a report called “A Nation at Risk.” Like the eugenicist work of the ‘10s and ‘20s, it purported to “prove” that our public schools were failing. Something must be done.

The answer was the same as that of the eugenicists. We needed more standardized tests. We needed to return to the practices of sorting and ranking students followed by rigid tracking.

It didn’t matter that “A Nation at Risk” was just as flawed and biased as Brigham’s WWI data.  It didn’t matter that this same policy hadn’t yielded superior academic results in the 1920s, ‘30s. and 40s. It didn’t matter that since we’d put an emphasis on desegregation and creativity, American education was producing unprecedented racial and economic equity. Politically, the only thing to do was return to testing and tracking.

And that’s what we did. It took time. There was opposition. But eventually, we passed No Child Left Behind, which changed the federal role in education from one of ensuring equity to one of rewards and punishment all based on a new generation of flawed and biased standardized testing.

It was a brave new world where all the evils of the past were revisited on our children. And it succeeded – and continues to succeed – because we don’t remember our history. We let policymakers rename the errors of our progenitors and never question their true purpose.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been in control. Both sides blame the other, but left and right wing are both complicit in what remains our national policy.

It is just as racist as that perpetrated by the eugenicists. The major difference is emphasis. In the 1920s, Terman would talk candidly about the racial order. Today, no one mentions it – not openly.

Instead, we get talk about the “racial proficiency gap.” Undeniably poor minority students don’t score as well on standardized tests. Instead of wondering if the problem is the assessments, themselves, we’re pushed to question what teachers and schools are doing wrong.

We wonder why schools serving impoverished students (who are disproportionately brown and black) apparently don’t teach kids as well as schools serving wealthier populations. And anyone who mentions the difference in resources between these schools is quickly silenced. Anyone who mentions the impact of an impoverished upbringing and environment is quickly escorted from the room.

Instead of doing anything to actually help these students, our policy is to close their schools and/or turn them into fly-by-night charter schools.

“We’ve been able to do things – for example, close schools for academic failure. It is hugely difficult, it’s hugely controversial and it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” said former US Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Imagine if instead of “academic failure” he had said “racial and economic failure.” Because that is what it comes down to. Duncan was decrying low test scores. That’s why these schools were closed. But the test scores aren’t the root cause. That’s poverty. And it disproportionately affects minority students. But you can only see that if you admit the tests are inaccurate assessments of students’ abilities – as countless peer-reviewed academic studies continue to prove.

“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” Duncan famously said.

Our highest education official in the country actually praised a natural disaster that killed between 1,200 and 1,800 people (mostly minorities) for destroying their public schools so they could be rebuilt as charters. Did it actually improve children’s academic outcomes? No.

This whole charter school push is another element of our modern educational pseudoscience. These types of schools have never been proven to help kids learn. In fact, the research shows they either do no better or often much worse than traditional public schools. It is an article of faith with our modern education policymakers that schools serving poor minority children should be run by private corporations and schools serving wealthy white students can be allowed to be run by the community.

None of this could happen without the false objectivity of standardized testing.

A hundred years ago, the eugenicists used their test scores to explain away a racist and classist social order. Today we use similarly flawed test scores to justify a similarly prejudicial social order.

Testing remains a way of keeping you in your place.

People are starting to notice. Hence the quick move by the testing industry to co-opt the largest and most well-funded Civil Rights organizations. Hence appointing John King to succeed Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education – a brown face to silence racial complaints.

Are the people championing standardization and privatization racist? Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t see into their hearts. But it is undeniable that the results of their policies disproportionately hurt our black and brown children. Judging by effect – not necessarily intention – they are racist as well as classist.

Some may be true believers who actually think these policies will help children learn. I’m sure many of the eugenicists of the past felt the same way. Keeping “racially inferior” children in the slow class was purported to be for their own benefit, just as closing poor black schools is said to help them learn.

That’s why I’ve written this and other articles. It is essential that we understand the terrors and errors of past education policy.

If we hadn’t forgotten this dark page of American history, perhaps our children wouldn’t be forced to repeat it.

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