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The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

As many students return to in-person learning for the first time in almost a year, states and school districts are also beginning to gear up for statewide standardized testing, as required by the US Department of Education (ED).

In April 2020, as the pandemic engulfed the nation and forced schools to close, the department granted a “blanket waiver” to every state to skip mandated statewide testing for 2019-20. Last month, however, ED officials announced it was mandating schools to administer some form of statewide assessment for 2020-21.

Educators across the country criticized the decision, saying the idea that students should be forced to take any sort of standardized test this year is incomprehensible. The priority right now should be on strengthening instruction and support for students and families in communities most traumatized by the impact of the coronavirus.

Many of these same communities have suffered the most from high-stakes testing. Since their inception almost a century ago, the tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system. Decades of research demonstrate that Black, Latin(o/a/x), and Native students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.

"We still think there’s something wrong with the kids rather than recognizing their something wrong with the tests," Ibram X. Kendi of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at Boston University and author of How to be an Antiracissaid in October 2020. "Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools."

Yet some organizations insist on more testing, arguing that the data will expose the gaps where support and resources should be directed.

Standardized tests, however, have never been accurate and reliable measures of student learning and, one year into a pandemic, would be even less so now.

“While much has been said about the racial achievement gap as a civil rights issue, more attention needs to be paid to the measurement tools used to define that gap,” explains Young Wan Choi, manager of performance assessments for the Oakland Unified school District in Oakland, CA. “Education reformists, civil rights organizations, and all who are concerned with racial justice in education need to advocate for assessment tools that don’t replicate racial and economic inequality.”

"To tell the truth about standardized tests," Kendi said, "is to tell the story of the eugenicists who created and popularized these tests in the United States more than a century ago."

As the U.S. absorbed millions of immigrants from Europe beginning in the 19th century, the day’s leading social scientists, many of them White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were concerned by the infiltration of non-whites into the nation’s public schools.

In his 1923 book, A Study of American Intelligence, psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum. Testing, he believed, showed the superiority of “the Nordic race group” and warned of the “promiscuous intermingling” of new immigrants in the American gene pool.

Read entire article at National Education Association