The roots of the PARCC test

It's Testing Season, folks! This month we have both the NWEA MAP and the PARCC. Yes, again! I know, we just had them in March. But we've had two months of test prep and it's time for more!

I've been thinking about where these things came from. I mean, way back in the beginning. It's an interesting story and it still has so much bearing on our current practices. Let me know if you think so too.

Standardized testing has its roots in the effort to select and sort America to greatness since the the 1930s. The SAT is the granddaddy of all standardized tests, instituted initially as the Army Alpha Test to determine officer material from the madding crowd of recruits; the test was later altered for academic purposes in order to find worthy scholarship recipients to Harvard. A testing foundation was established to oversee all American standardized testing in the 1940s--the Educational Testing Service. You may have heard of it.

Early testing advocates had important reasons for their work. Some of them may sound familiar.

James Bryant Conant, one of the shapers of American public education, sought a democratic, classless society based on virtue and intelligence rather than wealth and heredity, just like the one envisioned by Jefferson at the beginnings of the republic. The way there was to separate out a governing intellectual elite, and the way to find worthy candidates was not reliance on wealth and family name, but via academic testing to root out innately intelligent youth. In establishing his classless society Conant sought fellow "radicals" who believed "in equality of opportunity, not equality of rewards."

Carl Brigham, the father of the SAT, was the one who adapted the Army Alpha Test for academic use, and it was then that it came to the attention of Henry Chauncey, currently assisting Conant in expanding educational opportunity at Harvard. Brigham worried "that American education was declining" based on his analysis of the American Alpha Test.

Chauncey expanded the use of the SAT. First he pushed it as a means to find deserving students to attend Harvard. In 1943 he administered the SAT to 300,000 young men in one day for use in officer selection, and after that, broader possibilities were seen with the test. As the first president of the ETS whose tenure lasted until the 1970s, Chauncey oversaw the expansion of this test to 1.5M students annually.

Raymond Cattell is a towering figure in American psychology much of whose work was based on intelligence and personality testing. He wore the 20th century hope for human advancement proudly, and felt that bolstering human intelligence would help us beyond our societal problems.

These founders of all that is American may sound familiar to us at first glance. They wrote the script people like Arne Duncan and all the education reformers still use.

But they had a slightly different flair or fervor in their work that sounds perhaps less familiar, or anyway, is not uttered out loud anymore. We need to look at it. These people had a purpose and we need to ask if theirs is the same as ours. If we are carrying on their methods, and we use their exact words, and we have their same hopes and dreams, we ought to know what it was they were really after.

Let's look.

Carl Brigham connected American education decline to race in his book A Study of American Intelligence, fearing this "decline would 'proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.'" He "fully accepted the prevailing division of the population of Europe into three races -- Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean -- and shared the eugenicists' alarm over the predominance of the supposedly inferior latter two of these in the American immigrant population."

Raymond Cattell was throughout his life and until his death something called a "Beyondist," a science-religion hoping and aiming for an advancing human gene pool; when he was chosen for a lifetime achievement award in 1997 by the APA for his inestimable influence on American psychological disciplines, his Beyondism came out as well as overt racist remarks over the span of his life. Though he was accused of advocating eugenics--the idea that controlling human breeding can improve human characteristics--in his own defense he said he didn't believe in eugenics except voluntarily.

Our Harvard visionary James Conant wrote a book on education in 1961 called Slums and Suburbs. His vision for black children is perhaps not quite in line with his strong hopes for a classless society, as we see in a 1961 review in Commentary: "'The educational experiences of youth,' Dr. Conant writes...'should fit their subsequent employment.' Most Negroes, it seems, are going to fill slightly skilled or unskilled jobs; thus we need occupational programs and vocational schools to take care of them."

And Chauncey worked to advance and expand the test battery of the ETS far beyond the modest vision of Conant--finding scholars worthy of Harvard--carrying assumptions about the accuracy of testing and the value of native intelligence as a fixed trait decades past the time when eugenics had been completely discredited and the goal of a test-determined, intelligence-based meritocracy had been set aside. Millions of students were now tested in dozens of tests. By 1979, Ralph Nader complained that "the only thing ETS hadn't tried was a 'test for admission into heaven.'"

I haven't mentioned in this narrative of the roots of standardized testing that, developing at the same time as the expansion of testing, was the growth of the automatic test-grading machine from the 1920s going forward. One begins to see how many motives can lie behind the expansion of testing.

Many, many critics have pointed out that testing has its roots in extremely unsavory practices and beliefs, particularly eugenics. This fact seems to have dissuaded not one single contemporary proponent of standardized testing. Either they do not know that their language is exactly the same as early-20th-century race-based sorters, or they do not care. Either they do not know that their antecedents did what they did largely in order to separate by race and maintain white dominance, or they do not care.

Because we can see that standardized testing has not elevated a wise, meritocratic class of leaders. Standardized testing has not created an equality of opportunity. Standardized testing has never revealed innate intelligence.

Even Carl Brigham himself, the determined eugenics apologist who created the SAT, knew this. In his later life he sought to distance himself from his earlier work, abandoning eugenics altogether and claiming that there was no proof of fixed, race-based intelligence, that his own studies were flawed and his own tests inaccurate. He wrote words which echo eerily today about what might happen in American education if testing went on without being course-corrected by better research.

"If the unhappy day ever comes when...the present weak and restricted [testing] procedures get a grip on education, then we may look for the inevitable distortion of education in terms of tests. And that means that mathematics will continue to be completely departmentalized and broken into disintegrated bits, that the sciences will become highly verbalized and that computation, manipulation and thinking in terms other than verbal will be minimized, that languages will be taught for linguistic skills only without reference to literary values, that English will be taught for reading alone, and that practice and drill in the writing of English will disappear."

Of course, Brigham would be surprised that American education is now far more constrained than he could have ever predicted--entirely because of standardized testing. Under the educational regime now supported by the PARCC test, math and reading are the only two remaining disciplines. Based on these two subjects quite narrowly defined, American children, schools, and teachers are now sorted, separated, and segregated in the name of opportunity and equality.

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