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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tool to discriminate

This is a story that needs to be told: the sordid history of standardized testing. I wrote about it in chapter four of my book “Left Back” (2000). 

Many scholarly dissertations have documented the story. Others have tried to alert the public about the assumptions embedded in the fabric of standardized testing. 

But the policymakers don’t read or don’t care.

The very idea that the essential intelligence and worth of a human being can be scientifically measured by multiple choice questions is fraught with flawed and dangerous assumptions. 

When we then use those measures to judge the worthiness of teachers and schools, the damage the tests do is multiplied.

The standardized test was created in an era when the new field of psychology was trying to establish itself as a “science.” The psychologists earnestly believed that intelligence was innate, inherited, and could not be changed. They also believed that intelligence varied by race and ethnicity. Tomes were written about the superiority of whites over other races, and among whites, the superiority of Northern Europeans over Southern Europeans. This belief was conventional wisdom among psychologists.

One of the men who wrote and believed this was the Princeton psychologist Carl C. Brigham. He joined the College Board as its senior psychologist and created the first Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Once you know this story, you will never forget it. It will change the way you view the tests forever. You will ask why federal and state officials are so determined to impose them. You will wonder why anyone takes these biased instruments so seriously. They are social constructions, neither objective nor scientific.

Singer writes:

“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?”

Their tests justified the social order. Those at the top deserved their privilege. They had the highest test scores. Those at the bottom had the lowest scores and were where they belonged. At the bottom. A few might rise, just enough to keep the fraud going. They would lecture those they left behind to try harder. And the social order would remain unchanged.