Posted on March 25, 2022

The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

John Rosales and Tim Walker, National Education Association, March 20, 2022

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.

Furthermore, the education system he argued was in decline and “will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”

The SAT debuted in 1926, joined by the ACT (American College Testing) in the 1950s. By the 21st century, the SAT and ACT were just part of a barrage 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.Brigham had helped to develop aptitude tests for the U.S. Army during World War I and – commissioned by the College Board – 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.

Brigham also pioneered the Advanced Placement examinations. These marathon four-hour Advanced Placement (AP) examinations—which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes—are widespread across the country: In 2019, more than 1.24 million public high school students took an AP exam.


In his essay “The Racist Origins of the SAT,” Gil Troy calls Brigham a “Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot.” {snip}


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 (FairTest).

According to Fair Test, 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.