A student under pressure from standardized tests and its white creators
Are tests really a measure of someone's academic performance anyway? (Illustration by Veronica Chen, Yale University)

Are Standardized Tests a Form of White Supremacy?

The SAT was created in part by  eugenics enthusiast Carl C. Brigham. How does this shape America’s current evaluation of its students?

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A student under pressure from standardized tests and its white creators

The SAT was created in part by  eugenics enthusiast Carl C. Brigham. How does this shape America’s current evaluation of its students?

It’s a Saturday, and you walk into your high school. Pencil bag and paperwork dangle from your fingers as you’re given a number and sent down a hallway along with your fellow consignees — that is, consigned to the whims of the College Board. Finally, you sit down in a room you’ve never been in, tossed a few slabs of paper and begin your first, of possibly many, standardized tests that’ll determine your future collegiate and perhaps economic prospects for years to come.

Such an experience, in a world plagued by the coronavirus, may conjure nostalgia for the assessment-savvy. For others, it could mean a resurgence of trauma. Whichever way you look at it, taking the SAT, ACT or any exam of the like simply isn’t the same under lockdown. That discrepancy has real ramifications for the concept of testing itself.

Not to say that it’s a bad thing. For years students, educators and colleges have repudiated standardized tests for not performing as the “great leveler” it claimed to be. Rather, a score on the SAT is more comparable to a zip code than it is to an individual’s mental prowess. Above all, it is a conceptual leftover from an earlier generation in which intelligence was measured through multiple choice answers and discounted from minorities.

Last month, columnist Ross Douthat published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “The Real White Fragility.” Co-opting the racialized phrase popularized by the 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo, Douthat looks at how meritocracy in our society, specifically in the college admissions race that begins at an ever-younger age for students around the world, may not be the honorable system it appears to be. Instead, it could represent racism.

This is nothing new. In the early 20th century, a few prominent figures helped establish this cornerstone of American meritocracy with intentions ranging from commendable to dubious. For instance, James Bryant Conant represented a pretty noble cause. As the president of Harvard College from 1933 to 1953, Conant wanted to level the playing field when it came to college admissions. He created new scholarships for poor applicants and helped form the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which combined all of the national testing organizations into a single, not-for-profit coalition.

Conant had two key assistants, Wilbur Bender and Henry Chauncey. The latter man, an aristocrat by birth, became the first president of ETS, serving from 1947 until his retirement 23 years later in 1970. He was fascinated with all kinds of tests, including those of Hermann Rorschach. Also a Harvard graduate, Chauncey wanted to give non-elites (unlike himself) the opportunity to earn a prestigious education, leading him to work with Conant.

Despite all of these seemingly positive motives, the coalition made a crucial mistake in adopting a test created by the eugenics enthusiast Carl C. Brigham. As a Princeton student, Brigham was drawn to mental testing, and he later developed his own test for applicants to the university. From the dissection of data resulting from the dissemination of the Army Alpha Test, one he developed for World War I recruits, he published “A Study of American Intelligence” in which he concluded that American education will suffer as a consequence of racial mixture.

So, we have this racist man to blame for the SAT, which was first accepted by Harvard in 1934. Despite later recanting his findings, Brigham’s damage had already been done. In our current understandings of systemic racism, it should be quite obvious that such blatant prejudice is not easily removed from the world of testing. Yet the manner in which white supremacy pervades standardized testing may not be so obvious at first glance, and its consequences are dire.

As much as one wants to believe that the questions on the SAT are not biased against minorities, certain demographics do in fact face less of an advantage by taking the test than other populations. Let’s begin with the gender gap. In 2019, the average math SAT score for men was 537 and 519 for women. Part of this discrepancy can be explained by stereotype threat, a psychological concept that explains how reminders about stereotypes associated with one’s identity can trigger anxiety that logically lowers test scores for that demographic. Since test takers have to mark their race and gender before the test begins, this is an inevitability.

We can apply this to race as well. That the College Board had to implement an adversity score in its most famous test says it all. The SAT cannot seriously level the academic playing field if it has to level its own. In addition, to view this concession as real reform would be a horrible mistake; they’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s wrong with Brigham’s brainchild.

If we’re to discuss how the SAT and other standardized tests discriminate against minorities, we have to address the elephant in the room: The test is only offered in English, giving ESL students a significant disadvantage. If English is your first language, imagine taking a standardized reading, writing and math test in Spanish. Let me know how that goes.

Additionally, the higher your socioeconomic status, the greater opportunities you’ll have to prepare for the test and consequently raise your score. Not to mention that your zip code plays a huge role not only in the quality of your school but also social climate and household income, among other things. Given how segregated the country remains, you can’t pass it off for mere economic inequity. It’s unequivocally racialized, with people of color given the short end of the stick.

So, what choices do we have? Well, the answer is pretty simple: Completely dismantle the standardized test. For Douthat, the author of the aforementioned New York Times article, it would give everyone an advantage.

Without the nucleus of our nation’s merit-based academics, minorities would not be disadvantaged and white people would not be forced to work under their strictures. Granted, there is a certain privilege of having the system work in your favor at least, but that doesn’t mean meritocracy isn’t exhausting. No matter who you are, standardized tests really stink.

If we’re to rid ourselves of the SAT and other standardized tests, we may need to replace it with something more egalitarian. The potential for another corrupt test to emerge leaves a sour taste in my mouth, so I’ll end this with a glimmer of hope by shining a light on our educators. If we focus more on those who teach the nation’s children, perhaps such a rigid test won’t be necessary. Rather, we can simply trust the classroom to provide for each student’s growth, enabling us to finally abolish Brigham’s monstrosity.

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