Myth of Meritocracy



Myth of Meritocracy

System Justification

Racist History of Standardize Testing

Racism as a Systems

Myth of Meritocracy

“Etched in the framework of African Americans is the undeniable reality that access and whiteness grants experiences and opportunities by virtue of privilege — a firm contradiction to the “pull yourself up” rhetoric utilized by many who’ve failed to see their privilege.” Jamar A. Boyd II, Solo

  • Meritocracy
    • Belief that rewards of life
      • money, power, jobs, university admission
        • Are or should be distributed according to skill and effort
      • Self-made, even playing field, personal responsibility, grit, etc.
  • Dangers of this fallacy
    • Whitewashes 400 years of white supremacy and systemic racism
    • “The “even playing field” is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race, and the like…it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.” Clifton Mark – Fast Company

“In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical, and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.” Clifton Mark – Fast Company

Atlantic: Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they just tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] made it,” said Erin Godfrey, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School. But for those marginalized by the system—economically, racially, and ethnically—believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences…

The findings build upon a body of literature on “system justification”—a social-psychology theory that believes humans tend to defend, bolster, or rationalize the status quo and see overarching social, economic, and political systems as good, fair, and legitimate. System justification is a distinctively American notion, Godfrey said, built on myths used to justify inequities, like “If you just work hard enough you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps … it’s just a matter of motivation and talent and grit.” Yet, as she and her colleagues discovered, these beliefs can be a liability for disadvantaged adolescents once their identity as a member of a marginalized group begins to gel—and once they become keenly aware of how institutional discrimination disadvantages them and their group…

…“I do think that there’s this element of people think of me this way anyway, so this must be who I am,” Godfrey said, adding that the behaviors—things like stealing and sneaking out—reflect stereotypes perpetuated about youth of color. “” he explained. Stovall said it’s critical to guide young people from “defiant resistance”—defying what they’ve learned to be untrue regarding a just and fair system for all—to “transformative resistance”—developing a critical understanding of the historical context of U.S. society. Educators, he said, play a crucial role in this work.

The Progressive: The Myth of White Meritocracy

The recent college admissions cheating scandal involving parents accused of committing bribery and fraud to get their children into elite schools raises two issues: the myth of meritocracy for the privileged and the continued denigration of affirmative action for the less-privileged.

While most of society will publicly denounce what these parents did, it is in some ways nothing new. People with power and privilege have always done whatever they can to maintain it, while claiming that they simply worked hard and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Then they tell everyone else to do the same, a message specifically targeted toward historically oppressed groups.

As a black woman, I have experienced misapprehension and resentment about affirmative action firsthand.

Meanwhile, affirmative action has been called everything from welfare to reverse discrimination. It is more accurately defined, to quote the National Conference of State Legislatures, as “admission policies that provide equal access to education for those groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, such as women and minorities.”

As a black woman, I have experienced misapprehension and resentment about affirmative action firsthand. When I was in graduate school, a white male student and I were having a discussion on race. He told me he couldn’t get a scholarship when he was an undergraduate because undeserving black students were taking all the scholarship money. He blamed this on affirmative action.

Having myself received one of these academic scholarships, I proceeded to inform him of the reasons this occurred: “I took College Prep classes in high school that gave me honors credits, so I graduated with a 4.075 GPA. What was yours? My class ranking was 32 out of 857 seniors in my graduating class. What was yours? I was named in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. What about you? I was in the National Honor Society, the National Spanish Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, the National Beta Club, a service club, and I took Advanced and Advanced Placement classes. What about you?”

By the time I finished, he just stood silently. Then I said, “So please explain to me again how I supposedly took your scholarship away from you.” He said nothing further.

My story is not an anomaly. All of my close friends and many colleagues did just as well or better than I did. The problem is that our stories are not told, and this continues to perpetuate the racist stereotype that when blacks succeed, it can only be due to an affirmative action program that gives unqualified blacks the privileges that rightfully belong to whites.

Sojourners: When White Privilege Is Disguised as Meritocracy

“America’s current educational structure produces greater results for the upper middle class and the rich than other demographics, yet they manipulate the system to their advantage. Despite decades-old practices of admitting underqualified white students or legacy applicants, black students have undeniably grasped the concept of “you must work twice as hard as they do.” This statement is shared universally within black households as parents and children alike understand how the system is stacked against them. After the civil rights movement, families with privilege vehemently opposed school integration. They formed their own private institutions, today known as private schools, that kept segregation alive. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a silo was created and further separation by virtue of education continued. These practices are still thriving today, seen throughout state legislatures and school districts through redistricting and rezoning based upon zip code, disabling fair and equal education to be accessed by all.”

Fast Company: Meritocracy doesn’t exist, and believing it does is bad for you

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behavior. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The “even playing field” is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race, and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this “paradox of meritocracy” occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behavior for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success, or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.

This is why debates over the extent to which particular individuals are “self-made” and over the effects of various forms of “privilege” can get so hot-tempered. These arguments are not just about who gets to have what; it’s about how much “credit” people can take for what they have, about what their successes allow them to believe about their inner qualities. That is why, under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of “luck” can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination, and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.”

White can go “Low”, Black has to go “High”

“that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

  • Shit Obama dealt with
    • Suitgate, Arugula scandal, birtherism, Michelle’s arms, Tea party
    • Accused of being Muslim, a foreigner, elitist, hating white people
    • Being called a liar in a congressional speech
    • Had to accept, not fight, all of this with grace
  • Shit Trump got away with
    • Admitting on tape to sexual assault, lying to soldiers in a combat zone about a raise, praising Nazis
    • Blowing up the debt with no Tea Party reaction, profiting off presidency, record breaking lies, etc.
    • Golfing more than any president, despite repeatedly criticizing Obama for golfing too much
    • Allowed to be defensive and nasty while attacking any criticism of himself

“Most black people have been told practically since the womb that they must be twice as good to get half as much as anybody white. They have also been conditioned to believe that maintaining the moral high ground and being a bigger person is the only way to defeat racism. That often means suppressing natural human emotions that could communicate racism’s devastating impact…

…That’s one of the many burdens of racism for people of color: It is ridiculously one-sided. Only one side is expected to show compassion. Only one side must practice restraint. Only one side is pressured into forgiveness. It’s bad enough having to stomach being wronged. It’s downright shameful being stuck with the responsibility of also making it right” Jemele Hill, The Atlantic

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System Justification

Wikipedia: System Justification

According to system justification theory, people desire not only to hold favorable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and the groups to which they belong (group-justification), but also to hold positive attitudes about the overarching social structure in which they are entwined and find themselves obligated to (system-justification). This system-justifying motive sometimes produces the phenomenon known as out-group favoritism, an acceptance of inferiority among low-status groups and a positive image of relatively higher status groups…

Belief in a just world

This theory broadly explains that people are inclined to believe the world is generally fair, and that the outcomes of people’s behavior are subsequently deserved. Ideologies that relate to belief in a just world have to do with maintaining a sense of personal control and a desire to understand the world as non-random. Such ideologies include the protestant work ethic and belief in meritocracy. Essentially, belief in a just world feeds an epistemic need for predictability, order, and stability in one’s environment. System justification theory, while keeping the perspective that people are inclined to believe the world is just, extracts the underlying epistemic needs of the just world ideology and uses them as support for why people are motivated to uphold the system. In other words, preference for stability, predictability, and the perception of personal control, over random chance, motivates one to see the status quo as fair and legitimate.[3] This can be an issue, however, due to the fact that disadvantaged people can easily internalize their low position and blame themselves for ‘shortcomings’ or lack of ‘successes…

Another way people rationalize the status quo is through the use of stereotypes. When people perceive threats to the predominant system, they are more inclined to cling to and back the existing structure, and one way of doing so is by means of endorsing stereotypes that rationalize inequality. If one considers oneself a member of a higher social status group (economic standing, race, gender) he or she will hold favorable stereotypes about their group and less positive ones toward lower status outgroups. As perceived legitimacy of the system or threat to it increases, members of both disadvantaged and advantaged groups will be more motivated to utilize stereotypes as explanatory rationalizations (no matter how weak) for unequal status differences. Those that belong to disadvantaged groups will tend to associate positive characteristics (favorable stereotypes) to high status members and lead low status group members to minimize negative feelings about their low status. Thus, stereotype endorsement as system justification is consensual and holds a palliative function. This is true for both the ingroup and outgroup. Stereotypes also deflect blame of unfair status differences from the system and instead, attribute inequality to group traits or characteristics.

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Racist History of Standardize Testing

Image result for racist standardized tests

“Since segregationist had first developed them in the early twentieth century, standardized tests, from the MCAT to the SAT and IQ exams, had failed time and again to predict success in college and professional careers or even to truly measure intelligence. But these standardized tests had succeeded in their original mission: figuring out an “objective” way to rule non-whites (and women and poor people) intellectually inferior, and to justify discriminating against them in the admissions process.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

  • 1920s, Carl Brigham, an Eugenicist, design the SAT
    • Meant to identify white people as superior
    • Bad at determining academic success
    • Good at determining wealth of family students
      • Good scores directly correlate with wealth of family
      • This is true among IQ and other tests
  • Standardize testing questions are bias towards white knowledge
    • Design specifically to produce questions white people know at higher rates than people of color

“When we accept the myth that these tests are merit-based, we also accept the idea that race and class gaps in standardized-test results, which have remained essentially unchanged over the last 20 years, are due to individual and group shortcomings, not structural one…The tests themselves have a long history of favoring white, middle-class students by testing bodies of knowledge that are fundamentally white and middle-class; therefore, the tests reinforce the idea that white identity is the default American identity.” Mariana Viera, The History of the SAT Is Mired in Racism and Elitism

“In essence, questions for future tests were deemed “good questions” if they replicated the outcomes of previous exams; specifically, tests where black and Latinx students scored lower than their white peers. Test-makers might argue that race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included, but the method used was inherently racist and biased toward knowledge held by white students. Beyond the issue of affirming whiteness as a marker of neutrality — as questions are deemed to be good when white students do well on them — the SAT is mired in a long history of racism, classism, and nativism.” Jay Rosner, How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds

  • No Child Left Behind
    • In 2002, the Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act Law
      • Schools whose students did not perform high enough on state tests faced sanctions in the form of the loss of federal funding
    • Since then federal laws became driving forces behind teacher firings and school closings
      • Which disproportionately affected (and continue to affect) children of color

“The bill (No Child Left Behind) professed that its purpose was to keep children from being left behind, but it simultaneously encouraged funding mechanisms that decrease funding to schools when students ware not making improvements, thus leaving the neediest students behind… it was the latest and greatest mechanism for placing the blame for funding inequalities on black children, teachers, parents, and public schools.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

Teen Vogue: The History of the SAT Is Mired in Racism and Elitism

“The SAT still promises something it can’t deliver: a way to measure merit.” – Lani Guinier

Standardized tests are supposed to be neutral, value-free assessments of how hard students work. The more students study, the more seriously they take their education, the better they will perform on these tests. In high-stakes settings, standardized tests are used as primary determinants of student access to, or else denial of, resources, opportunities, and spaces. The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is one such test. Ostensibly, the students who work hardest will earn higher scores, and those scores will give them an upper hand in the college admissions process. This particular narrative neatly aligns with the illusion of America’s meritocratic tradition: Those who work the hardest will reap the greatest benefits, never mind structural inequality. But studies have proven, time and again, that standardized tests are much better at revealing things like household income, race, and level of parental education than they are at predicting the success of students in college classrooms.

In a deeply flawed and unequal educational system that has continuously failed its most vulnerable children and their communities, high-stakes standardized tests function to reinforce that same system. When we accept the myth that these tests are merit-based, we also accept the idea that race and class gaps in standardized-test results, which have remained essentially unchanged over the last 20 years, are due to individual and group shortcomings, not structural ones.

Even if we accept the premise that the best way to create and sustain an ethical, justice-oriented educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students, the system remains deeply flawed. The tests themselves have a long history of favoring white, middle-class students by testing bodies of knowledge that are fundamentally white and middle-class; therefore, the tests reinforce the idea that white identity is the default American identity.

In How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, Jay Rosner, a national admissions-test expert, explains a process that was used by SAT designers to decide which questions would be included on the test:

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

In essence, questions for future tests were deemed “good questions” if they replicated the outcomes of previous exams; specifically, tests where black and Latinx students scored lower than their white peers. Test-makers might argue that race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included, but the method used was inherently racist and biased toward knowledge held by white students. Beyond the issue of affirming whiteness as a marker of neutrality — as questions are deemed to be good when white students do well on them — the SAT is mired in a long history of racism, classism, and nativism.

The story of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now Scholastic Assessment Test) begins with [Army IQ tests] that were ( developed during World War I. In 1917, a group of psychologists, led by then-president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Robert M. Yerkes, created the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the Army identify those of “superior mental ability” and those who were “mentally inferior,” among other things. In 1923, Carl Brigham, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, published A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: “The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.” This was the era of Jim Crow, de jure segregation, and lynchings.

Armed with the pseudoscience of these American psychologists, eugenicists promoted laws and movements for the preservation of “racial purity.” States began passing laws (later confirmed to be constitutional by a Supreme Court case that permitted the forced sterilization of people with “defective” traits, preventing them from “polluting” America’s ruling class.

In an essay, titled “Hiding Behind High-stakes Testing: Meritocracy, Objectivity and Inequality in U.S. Education,” professor Wayne Au of the University of Washington Bothell wrote, “…the assumptive objectivity of standardized testing was thus used to ‘scientifically’ declare the poor, immigrants, women, and nonwhites in the U.S. as mentally inferior, and to justify educational systems that mainly reproduced extant socioeconomic inequalities.”

Carl Brigham eventually used his experience with Army intelligence tests to create another standardized test, this time for the College Board]. Together, they restructured the Army intelligence tests and came up with the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” which was administered to high school students for the first time in 1926.

Almost a century later, the use of high-stakes standardized testing is ubiquitous in our educational system. And no matter how many iterations of the SAT have been produced since 1926, it still has explicit roots in classism, nativism, and white supremacy. This truth will never change, good intentions notwithstanding. In many ways, the SAT continues to be a tool of the same structural system of white supremacy that it was originally meant to undergird. As long as liberation for all is a thing of the future in this country, high-stakes standardized testing can never be neutral, color- blind, or fair.

If the first wave of widespread high-stakes standardized testing in education came in the 1920s, the modern wave was spurred by the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in 1983. The report read: “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” And so began the modern period of relying on data gathered from standardized tests to tell the story of America’s classrooms and as the primary means of understanding the needs of our nation’s children.

From the beginning, the use of high-stakes standardized testing was a bipartisan effort. In 2002, the Bush administration signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. Mandated by NCLB, schools whose students did not perform high enough on state tests faced sanctions in the form of the loss of federal funding. In the aforementioned essay, Au wrote, “NCLB represents the culmination of a 20-year trajectory of education policy that centered on high-stakes, standardized testing as the tool for enforcing educational reform in the United States.” Barack Obama’s secretary of education Arne Duncan exacerbated this “test and punish” system by doubling down on the use of high-stakes standardized tests to assess teacher and school performance. During this time, federal laws became driving forces behind teacher firings and school closings, which disproportionately affected (and continue to affect) children of color, namely black and Latinx students.

The insistence of far too many people in the field of education to obsessively quantify and measure students, districts, and states while simultaneously disregarding the reasons why discrepancies between groups exist has been the driving force behind a full-frontal attack on black and brown communities throughout the country.

If anything, the SAT — its ubiquity, its usage, its results — is proof of the miles we have left to reach social justice and liberation for all in this country. From the beginning, educators, scholars, and activists have steadily challenged this country’s preferred model of education. Still, the desire and willingness of people to breath life into the fallacy of America’s meritocracy persist.

NEA: The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

From grade school to college, students of color have suffered the effects of Biased testing

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.

At the time, psychologist Carl Brigham wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum. Brigham had helped to develop aptitude tests for the U.S. Army during World War I and was influential in the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). At the time, he and other social scientists considered the SAT a new psychological test and a supplement to existing college board exams.

In the 21st century, the SAT and the ACT (American College Testing) are part of a wide range of tests students may face before reaching college. The College Board also offers SAT II tests, designed for individual subjects ranging from biology to geography.

The marathon four-hour Advanced Placement (AP) examinations—which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes—remain common: Nearly 350,000 took the U.S. history AP test in 2017, the most popular subject test offered.

There’s also the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) taken primarily by eleventh graders as preparation for the SAT and as an assessment for the National Merit Scholarships.

Biased Testing from the Start

Brigham’s Ph.D. dissertation, written in 1916, “Variable Factors in the Binet Tests,” analyzed the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who developed intelligence tests as diagnostic tools to detect learning disabilities. The Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman relied on Binet’s work to produce today’s standard IQ test, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.

During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and by test scores. The tests were scientific yet they remained deeply biased, according to researchers and media reports.

In 1917, Terman and a group of colleagues were recruited by the American Psychological Association to help the Army develop group intelligence tests and a group intelligence scale. Army testing during World War I ignited the most rapid expansion of the school testing movement.

By 1918, there were more than 100 standardized tests, developed by different researchers to measure achievement in the principal elementary and secondary school subjects. The U.S. Bureau of Education reported in 1925 that intelligence and achievement tests were increasingly used to classify students at all levels.

The first SAT was administered in 1926 to more than 8,000 students, 40 percent of them female. The original test lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 315 questions focused on vocabulary and basic math.

“Unlike the college boards, the SAT is designed primarily to assess aptitude for learning rather than mastery of subjects already learned,” according to Erik Jacobsen, a New Jersey writer and math-physics teacher based at Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J. “For some college officials, an aptitude test, which is presumed to measure intelligence, is appealing since at this time (1926) intelligence and ethnic origin are thought to be connected, and therefore the results of such a test could be used to limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities.”

By 1930, multiple-choice tests were firmly entrenched in U.S. schools. The rapid spread of the SAT sparked debate along two lines. Some critics viewed the multiple-choice format as encouraging memorization and guessing. Others examined the content of the questions and reached the conclusion that the tests were racist.

Eventually, Brigham adapted the Army test for use in college admissions, and his work began to interest interested administrators at Harvard University. Starting in 1934, Harvard adopted the SAT to select scholarship recipients at the school. Many institutions of higher learning soon followed suit.

Since the beginning of standardized testing, students of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most from high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools.

Decades of research demonstrate that African-American, Latino, and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.


By the 1950s and 1960s, top U.S. universities were talent-searching for the “brainy kids,” regardless of ethnicity, states Jerome Karabel in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”

This dictum among universities to identify the brightest students as reflected by test scores did not bode well for students from communities of color, who were—as a result of widespread bias in testing—disproportionately failing state or local high school graduation exams, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest.

The center addresses issues related to accuracy in student test taking and scoring, while working to eliminate racial, class, gender, and cultural barriers posed by standardized tests.

According to Fair Test research, on average, students of color score lower on college admissions tests, thus many capable youth are denied entrance or access to so-called “merit” scholarships, contributing to the huge racial gap in college enrollments and completion.

High stakes testing also causes additional damage to some students who are categorized as English language learners (ELLs). The tests are often inaccurate for ELLs, according to FairTest, leading to misplacement or retention. ELLs are, alongside students with disabilities, those least likely to pass graduation tests.

African-Americans, especially males, are disproportionately placed or misplaced in special education, frequently based on test results. In effect, the use of high-stakes testing perpetuates racial inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test takers, according to FairTest.

A Flawed Science

In his essay “The Racist Origins of the SAT,” Gil Troy calls Brigham a “Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot.” Eugenics is often defined as the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. It was developed by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race. Only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis in World War II was the theory dismissed.

“All-American decency and idealism coexisted uncomfortably with these scientists’ equally American racism and closemindedness,” Troy writes.

Binet, Terman, and Brigham stood at the intersection of powerful intellectual, ideological, and political trends a century ago when the Age of Science and standardization began, according to Troy.

“In (those) consensus-seeking times, scientists became obsessed with deviations and handicaps, both physical and intellectual,” Troy states. “And many social scientists, misapplying Charles Darwin’s evolving evolutionary science, and eugenics’ pseudo-science, worried about maintaining white purity.”

Today, a reform movement is growing across the country to resist testing abuse and overuse, and to promote authentic assessment.

In some communities, according to FairTest, parents, students, education support professionals, and teachers are boycotting and opting out of tests. Also, demonstrations, rallies, forums and town halls focusing on testing reform have been organized.

For guidelines on how to launch a petition, organize a drive for a resolution, or how to push legislators for new testing policies, visit

Learn more about the history of standardized testing in the U.S. at,