In the 1880’s, a white anthropologist named Samuel Morton theorized that the relative intelligence of different races could be determined by measuring and comparing skulls. He then took to measuring hundreds of skulls and concluded that based on his results, of course races could be ranked by intelligence.
Guess who came out on top in Morton’s system?
Yep. White people.
People of African descent.
And when the evidence didn’t support his theory Morton just rewrote history. He concluded that, according to his measurements, the people of Ancient Egypt were white.
With the passing of time, it is easy to see Morton’s science as a racist imposition of so-called objective science on “reality.”
It’s a little bit more difficult to see the racist impositions of so-called “objective measures” upon reality today, but such impositions nonetheless exist. And, though they are difficult to see, they are not hard to find. Simply look at any form of measurement that proposes to determine invisible characteristics that are difficult to quantify, such as intelligence, and then designs a ranking and sorting system that concludes with whites ranked above people of color. Some measures simply quantify “reality” without ranking and sorting. Others ostensibly quantify, but actually translate “reality” and call it real just as Morton did.
Let’s try using this filter. Does it apply to poverty? No, poverty is a fairly straightforward, visible, measurable characteristic once we agree on a level of income that determines it.
How about achievement in school?
Now we’re talking.
What is it? It depends on who you ask.
How do you measure it? I have no idea, especially since I’m not sure what it means, but the superficial and all too easy answer has become, you use a standardized test.
Whose standards are used in a standardized test? The standards of dominant culture.
What is the organizing principle of the standards of dominant culture?
And what are the results?
Exactly the same ones that Morton arrived at.
Yes. High-stakes standardized testing takes its place in a long historical line of impositions of racist assumptions upon “reality.” Morton would be proud.
My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color are “under-performing” in schools. My point is that the design and context of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called “reality.” My point is that the tests, like Morton’s measuring of skulls, actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.
History Replicating Itself
Morton was a part of the eugenics movement, an overtly racist scientific attempt to explain racial differences in status by genetics. This movement has been discredited, but it’s important to remember that in its time it was highly respected as an objective, scientific explanation. In our time, as Harold Berlak points out in Race and the Achievement Gap, genetics as the explanation of racial differences has been replaced by explanations of culture and history.
“Recently a more subtle form of ‘scientific’ racism has gained some respectability. The inferiority of the Black and brown races is now said to lie not necessarily in genetics but in culture and history. This more quietly spoken academic version of the master-race ideology has also been thoroughly dismantled, yet racist explanations for the race gap persist.”
So the structures that benefit one race over another still exist, but the language used now makes those structures more difficult to see. We know that when we look at DNA there is no such thing as race. We know that race is a social construction with implications of power. What is more difficult to see is the language used to construct and reify these differences.
How This Works With Standardized Testing
What follows are some of the factors that instantiate racial outcomes into standardized tests and the contexts they occur within:
* Stereotype vulnerability: Berlak discusses a study done by psychologist Claude Steele which explored the differences in how white and black students mentally frame testing situations. In this study, black students who were told that the test was a valid measure of academic ability and capacity scored much worse than those who were told that the test was a not a measure of ability, but of psychological factors involved in problem solving. The black students who were told the test was looking at psychological factors rather than ability scored equal to the white students. The white students scores were consistent in both situations.
“The explanation Steele offers is that Black students know they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability. Groups not stereotyped in this way do not experience this extra intimidation. He suggests that it is serious intimidation, implying as it does that if they should perform badly, they may not belong in walks of life where their tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested.’ He labels this phenomenon ‘stereotype vulnerability.'”
* The ways in which the curriculum of the dominant culture shapes the schooling experience of students of color: Berlak points to a study completed by anthropologist Signithia Fordham.
“She concludes that for African-American students, patterns of academic success and underachievement are a reflection of processes of resistance that enable them to maintain their humanness in the face of a stigmatized racial identity. She shows that African-American adolescents’ profound ambivalence about the value and possibility of school success is manifest as both conformity and avoidance. Ambivalence is manifest in students’ motivation and interest in schoolwork, which of course includes mastery of standardized test-taking skills….
Fordham found that even the most academically talented African-American high school students expressed profound ambivalence toward schooling and uncertainty that they will reap the rewards of school success. Virtually all African Americans she interviewed indicated that a central problem facing them at school and in larger white society is the widely held perception by whites that African Americans are less able and intelligent and their continuing need to confront and deal with this reality in everyday experience.”
* Racial Bias Built Into Tests: Many of us are aware of the ways that the unconscious bias of the dominant culture is integrated seamlessly into test questions. The example often given is the abandoned question from the SAT that asks students a question referring to a “regatta.” Who knows what a regatta is? People who have enough wealth to provide them access to boats. The cultural bias is clear. Fair Test explains it this way:
“According to other research, items which facilitate ranking and sorting are often items which, perhaps unintentionally, factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. Such items help create consistency in test results, but they often are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children, who also typically have access to a stronger academic education.”
Less well known is the bias that is built into the scoring of the tests. Fair Test does an excellent analysis of this in explaining “bi-serial correlation.”
“To obtain higher consistency (and hence technical reliability) on the test, Texas follows the typical practice of using items with the highest correlation values. This procedure means that on items covering the same materials, the ones with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers will be used. Because minority group students typically perform less well on the test as a whole, the effort to increase reliability also increases bias against minorities…
This common test development procedure exacerbates the existing inequities of schooling. When used in high-stakes testing, biserial correlation helps ensure that at least some students who know the material and ought to pass the tests do not. Those students are overwhelmingly low-income, of color, with English as a second language, or have special needs.”
John Loflin nicely summarizes these factors:
“…the standardization of high stakes tests is based on: 1) “normalcy” and epitomized via norm-referencing tests where some will always fail regardless of actual achievement, 2) a history of racial discrimination associated with the testing–particularly in how tests are calibrated–as well as the cultural bias associated with intelligence measurement such as IQ, and 3) the eugenic deficit model of humanity, a model with neither scientific nor moral merit.”
What does this mean?
It means we simply can not continue to use measures that have unconsciously pre-determined an outcome, pretend shock at the outcome, and then focus all of our energy on changing the outcome after the fact. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions that create the outcome in the first place? Doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions of inequality organized around poverty and race?
It means that when we are unavoidably involved in anything to do with “achievement data” we must act with the recognition that such data is not a reflection of ability. Nor is it a reflection of achievement. It is simply a marker of privilege. “Achievement data” tells us what we already know from history – our society is full of inequalities, and race and poverty are the organizing principles of these inequalities. This data, taken as real, has become the lever for the current education reform movement that is decimating our public education system. It follows that the use of it hurts students of color and white students. It hurts poor students and rich students. It hurts all educators who recognize that places of belonging are fundamental to learning, rather than places of ranking and sorting. As school superintendent David Britten eloquently puts it, “I firmly believe the evidence is unassailable that the end game is the complete destruction of the public school system, since it is the one substantial threat to maintenance of class structure, dilution of power, and eventual downfall of an expanding oligarchy.” (In the comments section of this excellent post.)
So let’s top talking about “achievement” and let’s start talking about learning. Let’s stop standardized testing and instead focus on contextual assessment and useful feedback.
And let’s stop talking about the “achievement gap” and start addressing the conditions of inequality that it reflects.