The Standardized Test Scam

I’ve been trying to mellow out as I get older. I get into way fewer fights online than I used to. I’m WAY less of an annoying pedant than I used to be. (This one’s been a very hard habit to break). So, in general, I’m more mellow. Not mellow, mind you, but more mellow than I used to be.

But I still get incredibly annoyed when there’s information that is widely known and people just refuse to act on it because of ideology or just vibes.

So, for example, it’s been well demonstrated that widening roads does nothing to ease traffic congestion. And yet states and municipalities continue to widen roads.

But I’m here to talk about standardized testing. Literally everyone—the people who make the tests, the institutions that use the tests, and the media that reports on the test results—knows that standardized tests are pretty much just a proxy for family income.

Now yes, there are outliers. I was one—a broke kid who loved nothing more than “proving” I was smart by figuring out how test makers were trying to trick me into picking the wrong answers. I enjoyed the game, but it was definitely a game to me and of course had no correlation to whether I was going to be able to make myself study instead of shooting the shit with my friends. But, for the most part, standardized test scores correlate to family income.

Like I said, this isn’t a secret. What’s not as well known is how standardized testing had its roots in the eugenics movement in the US in the early 20th century. Basically a bunch of racist white guys believed that people they considered white were smarter than people they did not consider white and made a test to “prove” this. (The Army Alpha test, created by Robert Yerkes with assistance from Carl Brigham, also a racist eugenicist but better known now as the creator of the SAT).

Of course there’s a circular logic to the whole thing. If you believe that non-immigrant white people are the most intelligent people, then you’ll design an “intelligence” test which is really “how well do you know the dominant culture of the United States” , and then immigrants and people of color won’t do as well on it, thus “proving” that they’re not as intelligent as native-born whites.

It’s sick, evil stuff, and it should not surprise you to learn that the Nazi racist pseudoscience was directly based on the work of American eugenicists.

So, yeah, please understand that anyone arguing in favor of standardized testing is effectively saying, “yeah, it started as a way to create a pseudoscientific basis for racism and bigotry, but it’s good now.”

To be fair, not everybody knows about the eugenics. But everyone does know that standardized test results correlate to family income. This is famously true of the SAT, but it’s also true of the MCAS, the standardized test that students in Massachusetts have to pass in order to graduate.

Here’s a list of Massachusetts towns listed by income. And here are the 10th grade MCAS results by town. If you sort the results by percent of students getting a “meets” or “exceeds” score on the MCAS (i.e. passing), what you’ll find is a list that isn’t quite identical to the first, but one that shows that the districts with the highest scores are pretty much the districts with the highest income, and vice versa. There is a weird outlier—Lenox scored highest in the state on the English part of the test despite being 169th in income, but overall, there are very few surprises here.

So we know that the MCAS, like most standardized tests, is effectively a test of family income. And, what’s more, we know why income correlates to higher test scores, and it’s not because of intelligence. Schools in poorer districts tend to be in older buildings without proper ventilation, which leads to more sick time out of school for both students and teachers. Cities have higher percentages of students whose first language isn’t English, which hurts their test scores. Poor students often have less time to devote to academics because they need to work outside the home or inside the home as caregivers for younger siblings. Teens who run afoul of the law in cities tend to get jail time. I guarantee whoever is dealing drugs to the students of Wellesley High is never doing any jail time even if they’re caught. (I speak from second-hand experience. The kids who sold drugs at my small private high school went to pricey rehab facilities, not to jail.) Add on housing insecurity, job insecurity, financial stress, sometimes hunger—if you’ve never been broke or poor, let me tell you, it’s a nonstop cavalcade of stressors which are not conducive to learning.

This is all stuff we know. None of it is contested. And yet, every time the scores come out, the media wonders why the schools in poorer districts can’t just buckle down and get their students to score as high as kids in wealthy districts.

Why this intentional feigning of ignorance?

Well, though there is no longer racist pseudoscience at the heart of these tests, I do believe that pretending standardized tests are valid is helping to uphold the myth of the meritocracy. It’s not that kids in Belmont have the deck stacked in their favor—it’s that they deserve to make more money because they’re better students! And sometimes broke students do score well on these tests. Which only goes to “prove” that there are no systemic barriers to success! It’s just that “those people” aren’t willing to buckle down and work hard!

See how this works? We pretend the tests measure something important in order to pretend that the status quo is just.

But they don’t. And it isn’t. And just because a lot of people are in on this game of make-believe doesn’t mean you have to be.