Barring some miraculous set of circumstances, I don’t anticipate Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, will make much of a difference. To be clear: the newly resigned Secretary under Trump, Betsy DeVos, is an absolute parasite, a racist ideologue committed to gutting public education and obsessed with dehumanizing trans students. But the department she helmed for four years was rather pathetic even before her tenure. For quite some time, the Department of Education has been more comfortable acting as an enabler of privatization and a loan shark than as a body committed to creating educational equity. Miguel Cardona—who reopened Connecticut’s schools during the pandemic—cannot fix the American education system simply by attempting some misguided reset to the Obama years.
Part of the problem is that the U.S. education system has long wedded itself to an entire industry of standardized social sorting, an arrangement that cannot be undone with a new political appointment. This sorting system leads students to see themselves as a quantifiable commodity from an early age and, eventually, to borrow against their future. It has contributed to our blistered student loan bubble and fueled racial and gender inequity in public education. If we want some chance of removing education as a site of social inequity, we need to eliminate standardized testing.
By “standardized testing,” I don’t just mean the SAT or ACT, or graduate school entrance exams such as the GRE or LSAT. I also mean the entire system of social sorting that begins when a child first enters public schooling in the United States. These exams used to be nominally differentiated into “aptitude” tests (supposedly measuring abstract cognitive ability) and “achievement” tests (assessing accumulated knowledge), but their design is more or less the same; students are presented a sequence of multiple-choice questions deemed to measure a certain set of reasoning skills and are told that one, and only one, answer suffices for each question, given the instructions at hand.
The neutral, objective gloss that test designers put on standardized testing obscures the reality that standardized test questions overwhelmingly favor white test-takers, both in their content and as a reflection of educational access. Asserting that the questions students face are the product of rigorous psychometric design, standardized test manufacturers have long neglected to address this type of bias, which can arise in algorithms and scientific tools of quantification (a trend we continue to see with search engines, for example). By ignoring these biases, they promote instruments that perpetuate racist outcomes in education.
By the end of the Obama Administration, public school students were taking on average over 100 standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade. This trend did not disappear in the Trump years, no matter how much the outgoing administration railed against Common Core standards. In order to accommodate that degree of testing, school years and course curricula are built around satisfying arbitrary local, state, and federal benchmarks. (The coronavirus has temporarily altered some patterns of standardized testing, but by no means has it undone the system. It seems that the SAT and ACT will survive the pandemic just fine.)
Whether or not a child pursues higher education, they leave secondary school understanding themselves as a set of metrics, numbers that signify their social value and, by extension, their worth in the marketplace. Through a continuous process of standardized testing, Americans eventually come to understand and express themselves in abstract quantified terms: percentages and quartiles, “below average” and “exceptional.” Standardized testing takes a social problem—the unjust stratification of material resources between school districts based on property tax values built upon decades of racist housing policy and practices—and turns it into an individual issue: “I’m bad at math,” “I’m good at reading,” “I have potential,” “I don’t have many options.” It is, at once, a means for penalizing marginalized youth under the guise of achievement, hamstringing teachers and unions under the auspices of accountability, and upholding the pecking order of elite institutions—and by extension, pathways into and retention of the elite—through numerical sleight-of-hand.
As a mechanism of social surveillance that props up the illusion of meritocracy, standardized testing is an exemplary feature of the 21st-century American state. We have the Second World War to thank for the sustained widespread use of standardized testing as a social sorting device; the Army General Classification Test quickly assessed millions of men in order to place them in combat and service roles that most fit the skills they brought to basic training. With the Cold War, however, came the increased appeal of standardized testing in civilian realms, particularly as a way to source “brainpower” and funnel those with supposed scientific prowess through the emerging military-industrial complex.
When combined with the growth of public research universities, especially the University of California system, standardized testing suddenly had a captive market. As an upwardly mobile middle-class lifestyle became increasingly pegged to a college degree, testing became a hotter commodity. In the process, test scores became another way to boost—or forge—human capital, another feather in the cap of students who already had the means to take a mission trip or be a varsity lacrosse player. Accountability testing only furthered the transformation of students into marketplace objects: how many suburban homes were sold on the basis that the local school had “good test scores”?
Like an aggressive tumor, standardized testing has metastasized throughout American society. In psychometric terms, test reliability depends upon its consistency; the SAT and other standardized tests have extraordinarily knotty genealogies that ensure each new version of the test doesn’t stray too far from the previous ones. What this also means is that the racial bias in standardized tests, intentional or otherwise, continues to haunt each new generation of tests and, in turn, reproduce racist outcomes. The desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces was undercut by the fact that, by switching from a race-based quota to a test-based cutoff, the Army could effectively reduce its share of Black recruits. In the military and elsewhere, blatant racism was traded for camouflaged structural discrimination. Decades after the Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Company that the use of standardized testing unjustly enabled discriminatory promotion practices, states continued using SAT scores to grant college admissions in ways that shut out minority students. This bait-and-switch sits at the core of racist test design and implementation.
The discriminatory effect also cuts across gender lines. It has been demonstrated that the SAT notoriously underpredicts women’s success in college, another error that should call its psychometric validity into question. For years, New York’s use of SAT scores to award Regents Scholarships shut out young women from educational opportunities. The sexist design and repercussions of the SAT and other standardized tests was even the focus of a House Judiciary hearing in the 1980s; over three decades later, the test remains a strong filter for women in higher education.
Even seemingly benign instances of standardized testing—what nerd with a desk job doesn’t know their Myers-Briggs type?—have dim histories. That similarly pseudoscientific test was designed by a mother-daughter team with eugenicist intent: to weed out the “multitudes of people” who “are worthless or worse than worthless, having no just claims whatsoever upon the civilization which they burden with the dead weight of their existence.” A revised Myers-Briggs had become a highly profitable human resources diagnostic tool by the 1980s. To revel being an ENFP—or, as every self-described former gifted kid once typed into their Twitter bio, “INTJ!”—is not only to relish a pseudo-Jungian pleasure; it is also to unknowingly echo the logic of corporate meritocracy and social sorting.
What’s frustrating is that it’s long been an open secret that standardized test scores reflect little more than class and social marginalization. This line of critique has its foundations in Allan Nairn’s scathing indictment of the Educational Testing Service (the nonprofit that designed the SAT) in the 1970’s. Nairn, a product of the Public Interest Research Group movement, illustrated that the only clear correlation the SAT and other standardized testing scores held was with family income level. Children from wealthy families tend to go to better-funded schools, receive more rigorous instruction, and partake in more enriching educational activities—all reflected in scores for standardized exams that conflate innate “aptitude” with acquired “achievement.”
Further tilting the scales, rich kids could more easily purchase pricey test prep courses from organizations like Kaplan or The Princeton Review, in which they could boost their SAT scores through intensive coaching. The College Board would later enter a partnership with the Khan Academy to provide free prep resources. But merely offering free or low-cost versions of test prep doesn’t mitigate all the factors that allow these exams to play a substantial role in crafting and replicating the class composition of elite schools—and by extension, every other school caught in the prestige racket.
What Nairn demonstrated, and what is worth remembering when considering the omnipresence of testing in our education system, is that standardized tests are products. They are consumer goods. Testing’s ubiquity is based less on some imagined ideals of meritocracy than on the fact that your test scores—your quantified self, every single Scantron appraisal of your abilities and skills—are used to generate corporate profit. These test scores are one of the metrics used by colleges, public and private alike, to justify charging the tuitions they do in the name of creating certain student body profiles, and they’re part of the architecture that the federal government now depends upon as a gargantuan loan officer.
Longstanding research aside, Americans are more than aware that the SAT and other standardized tests remain mechanisms for reflecting wealth. One of the juiciest scandals of the past decade involved celebrities and other elites rigging their children’s SAT scores to secure admission to selective schools. In Operation Varsity Blues, the U.S. Justice Department uncovered a racketeering network in which wealthy parents—including television actress Lori Loughlin and Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman—paid college counselor Rick Singer upwards of six figures to broker bribes with collegiate sports coaches, admissions officers, and test proctors. Huffman paid Singer $15,000 to forge a learning disability diagnosis for her daughter so that she could receive double time on the SAT; a rigged proctor later corrected a certain number of wrong answers.
I would be lying if I told you I did not find something deliciously warped in learning Aunt Becky committed mail fraud, in knowing Huffman typed “Ruh Ro!” upon learning her daughter’s school wanted to provide its own proctor to administer the exam, in seeing these actors from my youth become buffoonish caricatures of extreme wealth. More disorienting, however, was seeing the story take on two parallel forms: a white-collar true crime tale for tabloid aficionados and a parable for social inequity.
But what ensnares these two tropes is an inert understanding of privilege. We are made to feel that a terrible injustice has been committed against the American education system and somehow, at the same time, that it’s normal for the elite to use their capital (material and social) to secure spaces at prestigious schools, forging another generational chain of wealth and power. That is: this is truly shitty, but nothing can be done about it. Well, almost nothing. In this logical knot, elites can check their privilege and simply choose not to cheat. With this liberal sense of justice, the system remains intact: the wealthy are not penalized for “their hard work,” Ivy League schools can still admit legacies, universities can continue accepting large donations, and students from marginalized communities can only hope that test scores and gumption will make do.
There should be no policy or protocol that depends upon the beneficence of the elite. Ditching Betsy DeVos will only do so much to fix American education. We have been plagued not only by Bush’s No Child Left Behind, but also by Obama’s Common Core, Every Student Succeeds, and Race to the Top testing and accountability initiatives. Education is a profoundly bipartisan failure in this country.
But I don’t think it’s enough to file a “thing bad” line of critique. If we are ever going to have a world without testing, we actually have to envision what that world looks like. Stopping short of that only enables “testing reform” to gain popularity, which reinforces the idea that testing must be preserved because no other measure can be trusted. By calling for abolition, we open up the space to substitute a better model.
Abolishing standardized testing would allow us to remove punitive notions of accountability and replace them with a restorative concept of commitment. By “commitment,” I mean relationships built on the premise on that marginalized communities deserve long-term material and intellectual investment divorced from quantitative expectations they must “perform” or “measure up” to marketplace-driven standards. Teachers in marginalized communities would not be under the gun to produce consistently improving test scores if they want job security or school funding. Students would not be funneled away from options based on a battery of exams in elementary and middle school. Unions could build greater power with the individualized bargaining chip of testing merit pay off the table.
A world without standardized testing also lets us reimagine the nature of assessment. Too often standardized testing is propped up as the one true objective measurement of skills against “soft” assessments like course grades. Well, grades can go, too. Wildly expensive Waldorf Schools or niche programs like New College shouldn’t be the only places students can move through their education without numerical marks. We could easily expand the idea of portfolios and unessays and any other idea half of academic Twitter has made a thread about. In the spirit of Paulo Freire, we could ditch pedagogies of domination—“banking” approaches that replicate ruling ideologies and conceive of students as empty vessels to be filled with and tested on rote, decontextualized facts—and instead embrace dialogic processes that unmoor power structures by encouraging critical thinking and seeing teachers and students alike as capable of both learning and educating.
Ultimately, envisioning a world without standardized testing will allow us to actually take on the way wealth and class shape American education. From the moment students enter the educational system, they are sorted by standardized tests that reinforce rather than redress racial marginalization. Minority students are ultimately punished for their scores by accountability metrics—which enables policymakers to believe they have no responsibility in fueling unequal school district funding, politicians to continue harping on “personal responsibility,” and colleges to shrug off their role in replicating disparities within higher education.
This is meritocracy as designed. Simply wishing these tests will die off is absurd. Treating inequalities as nothing more than celebrity scandal fodder—mistaking cheap acknowledgements of privilege for the dismantling of power—lets the system off far too easy. Unless we start to tear apart the world made by standardized testing, the way it festers and infects so many aspects of our lives, from our earliest educational experiences to our workplaces, we are only chasing the next big letdown. ♦
KJ Shepherd is the social media editor for Lady Science Magazine and the editor/producer for the Ask Any Buddy Podcast. They live in Austin, Texas.