How Standardized Testing Maintains Achievement Gap, Perpetuates Black Self-Doubt and Self-Hatred


Standardized testing has emerged as an important civil rights and racial justice issue. As society examines the institutions and practices that engender and perpetuate racial inequity, exams are not immune from the analysis.  From No Child Left Behind and “teaching to the test” in public schools, to the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement exams, high-stakes testing dominates American education.  With a single score on a single exam having the potential to determine which school a student may attend, there is increased scrutiny over the misuse and overuse of these tests, and whether they should be used at all.

While critics of standardized tests point to their inherent racial and socioeconomic bias, few may realize the insidious origins of these exams.  In order to understand the problem, go to the root.

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies,” wrote Ibram X. Kendi — Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America — in an African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog post. Kendi argues that the achievement gap — that system of racial hierarchy in which white and Asian students find themselves at the top, and where Blacks and Latinos are at the bottom — is itself a result of our blind obedience to standardized testing, and this notion that intelligence is measurable like one’s body weight.

“From our standpoint, standardized testing is one means that maintains segregation, particularly in advanced placement courses,” Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing told Atlanta Black Star.  According to Schaeffer, the tests are “damaging the aspirations” of people of color.

Carl Brigham (1890-1943), father of the SAT (PBS).

Carl Brigham (1890-1943), father of the SAT (PBS).

“The original founders of standardized testing were racists, misogynists and anti-Semites. They believed Nordic males were superior and their previous pseudo sciences like measuring brain sizes, craniology, palmistry etc., provided so-called evidence for their beliefs, and standardized tests serve their purposes even better because it appeared objective” he said.

Schaeffer noted that the founder of the SAT, Princeton psychology professor Carl Brigham, was a racist and eugenicist who sat on the Advisory Council of the American Eugenics Society.  Brigham had a death-bed confession and repudiated his racist beliefs, as did a number of other people in the early part of the 20th century who led this racist testing movement.

“That was the center of gravity in the intellectual community of northern white Europeans,” Schaeffer said.  “All white men assumed the intellectual class were them and people who look like them.”

Rich Gibson — emeritus professor of Social Studies in the College of Education at San Diego State University — has noted in “The Fascist Origins of the SAT” that the college entrance exam stems from the IQ test, which was written by French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 and “was designed to prove the genetic advantage of races they had already identified as superior” and to “purify the race” by identifying inferior genes that were a “threat to the general welfare.”  Professor Gibson calls the SAT an “equation of lies” that undergirds the notion that intelligence can be measured, that race is a biological rather than a social construct, and that some folks simply are more deserving than others.

“I was among the first people in the U.S. to seek to rally opposition to the high-stakes exams in the mid-90s. Along with members of the Rouge Forum, I always linked the exams to racist alienation, social class separation, and empire via fake science,” Gibson told Atlanta Black Star. 

Black college students experience the impact of the SAT, ACT and other racial profiling exams on a regular basis.  Three African-American students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — juniors Tyriek Mack and Marquise Mays, and sophomore Tashiana Lipscomb — conducted important research on the subject, and have been recognized internationally for their work.  In their project, entitled “Standardized Testing: The Social Warfare Against Black Men,” the young scholars found that the exams support the white supremacist leanings of their creators, and there is no correlation between a student’s score and their success in college.  According to Mays, while colleges claim to look at applicants in a holistic manner, the emphasis on standardized tests creates expectations.  As a result, many Black students are discouraged from applying in the first place, as their lower scores make them feel as if they are not good enough and not ready for college.

“The test is very racist in inflicting self-doubt and self-hatred on our community,” Mays told Atlanta Black Star.  “I’ll speak from my personal experience.  Standardized testing is a form of institutional racism because going to an all-black high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I found it very hard to look at this test as an indicator of my intelligence. In private schools in the suburbs, white kids learn at such a young age, they learn the jargon and format of test taking, they learn these things early on.  So, when it comes to taking these standardized tests, they are well prepared and well equipped; they don’t have to take prep courses,” he noted.  “In public schools here, funding is not a priority.  You have Black and brown kids who don’t learn the jargon.  So, when you take the ACT, you have to take these [prep] courses just to learn that jargon, so we are starting way later.”

“In the 21st century — in 2016 — we’re still using standardized tests to indicate someone’s intelligence,” Mays added, explaining the impact of the exams as a source of racism against Black students.  “You’re constantly microaggressed about this test, which is not an indicator for anything. We have to be 10 times better than the white students, and we are microaggressed by white students when we don’t have the same scores,” he said. “Getting here, we are microaggressed from white people saying: ‘How did you get in? You don’t belong here.’ So not only is there racism in the testing, but now, I am in a predominantly white school where people have an ACT score of 25, and I have a 20. … People say, ‘Oh, you only got here because of affirmative action.’  We are in these places where we are told we don’t belong here.”

For Schaeffer, a prime example of the problems of standardized testing is found in New York City, where students take exams to compete for the select, specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science.

“The exam testing requirements have kept those schools largely white and Asian, and have excluded talented African-American and Latino kids,” Schaeffer said, noting that standardized tests “fit the myth of objectivity and merit. At the same time, it allows replication of the status quo: Those who already have power and advantage do better on these exams.  These exams are a good measure of socioeconomic status more than capacity, and those who have get more, and those who make the decisions like that,” Schaeffer said, adding that many colleges have eliminated the SAT and ACT from their admissions requirements, increasing diversity without impacting academic quality.

However, as he indicates, “There are financial interests such as testing companies and ideological interests against public education who are pushing standardized testing.”

According to education advocates, the proponents of public school privatization use standardized testing with the goal of dismantling public K-12 education.

“The wave of privatization sweeping across public school districts all over the country has, for over a decade, relied heavily on standardized tests to prove the validity of their position: that public schools are failing to provide a quality education for the nation’s most needy students and should therefore be shut down,” Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union and co-author of the Movement for Black Lives platform, told Atlanta Black Star.

“And while the tests are used to measure academic proficiency that is then measured up against private schools, charters and schools in other countries, they don’t measure the impact of poverty, institutional racism, and disinvestment by our state and federal governments. It is easy to point and say a school is failing based off its low scores, but what is not measured is how many teachers, books, and academic supports have been lost to annual budget cuts,” Rivera noted. “Schools in poor urban neighborhoods, like the majority Black and brown students they serve, have been set up to fail. Intentionally starving schools of the necessary resources to provide a quality education, while at the same time requiring them to take tests that will ultimately be used to decide whether a community loses their school, is nothing short of criminal.”

Meanwhile, there is growing opposition to standardized testing, including the Opt-Out Movement, in which parents and students are refusing to participate in government-mandated standardized tests.  Schaeffer believes a coalition of parents, teachers, students and civil rights groups can fight back against the use of high-stakes testing.

“Testing requirements are usually based on politics and power. Adding affluent communities with clout and educators to historically impacted communities in the fight to roll back standardized test overuse and misuse creates a very powerful movement in New York, for example. The Opt-Out movement did begin in suburban white communities and has spread to include schools serving largely kids of color, and that has become a very powerful alliance that can force policymakers to change the rules of the game,” Schaeffer said, adding that educators have witnessed the damage that the testing has done to educational excellence and equity.

Gibson provides a different assessment.

“The reformers who now oppose high-stakes testing did not do so until merit pay came along — a completely predictable move that they did not see coming. They had conducted the exams with few complaints until merit pay hit — which makes me think they really mean ‘save my job and income.’ They’re opportunists.  Most, although not all, opposition to the exams comes from middle- and upper middle-class white people, and some profs in a group called Rethinking Schools,” he said.

“San Diego is a good example. Allen Bersin (an Obama favorite) became head of the school system about 10 years ago. He’s a former ‘Border Czar’ who had no education background. He imposed a harsh series of measures — regimented curricula down to the minute and more high-stakes exams than ever,” Gibson continued.  “He fired around a dozen principals, which spread real fear through the whole system.  The parents of rich LaJolla (part of San Diego’s system) realized this practice of Bersin’s would make their kids stupid. So, they threatened to make the whole La Jolla area a charter school.  Bersin realized that without LJ, the San Diego school test scores would collapse, so he announced they didn’t have to follow his blueprint as their test scores were high! The rest of the district was stuck with the blueprint,” he noted.

“Today, after about 20 years of nothing but slavish testing and following the curriculum, a sizeable group of teachers — probably most — wouldn’t know how to function without direct instruction from textbooks and the exams. I know that is true in most schools I have been in,” Gibson suggests. “I don’t see the testing ratcheting down much, although [the National Education Association]’s and the [American Federation of Teachers’] support for Clinton may cause a small shift.”

Standardized testing imposes disproportionate harm on Black students by ignoring cultural differences and needs, forcing Black boys into special-education programs, and creating mental anguish among test takers. Further, the tests help to encourage zero-tolerance policies, and force urban schools with limited funding to cut art and music programs as a cost-saving measure.  Last year, President Obama took a swipe at the education-industrial-complex, warning that students spend too much time taking exams, which detracts from learning, teaching and developing creativity among children.

Back to top