The SATs Are Bunk

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The genetics
of the groups involved cannot have changed in the space of a few years. A hundred
millennia would be more like it. What have changed are the social conditions
under which people with different pigment live. And–large-sized surprise!–how
they live affects how they do on tests, as well as what food and music they
choose, what color disco shirts and dinette sets they prefer and what they think
of salt cod and uncles. If kids are doing less well on the standard tests of
academic prediction, it’s because they know less, care less or are prepared
less, not that they are less.

But the
plausibility of a link between genes, ethnicity and smarts remains a vital American
political and moral issue that requires continued exploration. It has its origin
in long-standing hierarchical notions of the great chain of human being. Self-appointed
arbiters of human value have routinely ranked different groups according to
various categories, ranging from missionaries concerned with whether people
had souls and prayed to just one god, to cultural elitists who wonder if they
dug Dvorak, to straight racists who focused on whether they needed sunscreen
on their white skin and shades for their blue eyes. The Nazis carried this to
both logical and biological conclusion, with phenomenal industrial efficiency.
And they are with us still. Every day, somewhere in the world, when even low-tech
ethnic cleansers go to work in the morning with plain old hammers or machetes,
they are following in the Nazi goosesteps.

In America,
this great-chain-of-human-being template was applied readily to slavery. The
practice of owning and relentlessly exploiting people from Africa was justified
by the claim that they were inferior beings. It was easy to pick out in a crowd
the individuals defined as inferior. Their pigment made the situation easier
to dominate, and before and after the Civil War the consequences of this discrimination
have bedeviled the community.

The modern
version of this has to do with tests. There has been a consistent argument to
the effect that the reason that people with dark skin don’t do as well
on various tests as people whose skin is blindingly white is not that they started
from rural slavery, but that they are different not only in color but competence.
Again, that’s why the growing gap between light and dark respondents to
SAT tests is so reassuring–because it means that since the genes haven’t
changed, it must mean the social conditions have changed. They’ve worsened
in the case of the dark-meat people. It is hardly surprising that the sharply
increased gap between rich and poor in the USA has an impact on the work children
of rich and poor people have to do, which is take tests.

And what
are these tests? In a book I published in l987 (still in print, thanks, world),
The Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System,
I argued that tests were the quintessential tools of "the psychological-industrial
complex." They permitted a large, heterogeneous society to try to identify
people who would work and play well with others in the economy we created. The
tests were supposed to be fair and reach out and identify the essence of an
applicant–their core quality, almost at the cellular level. The tests were
claimed to be then, and still are claimed to be, "culture-free." Their
first major use was to select people for the U.S. Army during World War II.
Afterward they became a cause for a variety of reformers, who with well-meaning
enthusiasm sought to reduce the impact of the accidents of birth, class, ethnicity,
gender and the like, by finding a common central factor called intelligence
or scholastic aptitude or call it what you will. It was to be a method of choosing
an elite of competence without simply repeating the existing economic elite.

The story
of this has been told by among others A.J. Strenio, myself and, most recently,
Nicholas Lemann. There are interesting components of the tale. One is where
the tests are created. The SATs are generated by the Educational Testing Service
in Princeton (which looks like a country club, especially in its luxurious conference
center). The earliest widely used IQ test was the Stanford-Binet, a product
of Princeton-on-the-Coast, Palo Alto. These locations cannot be without impact.
What if the tests were formulated and produced in Harlem and Watts by people
who lived there, rather than Princeton and Palo Alto? It is not wholly silly
to predict that scores would be different for the groups now taking these remarkably
powerful instruments of social and hence economic selection.

You also
have to know how the tests are created. To reduce cultural differences, ETS
removes all questions that are answered with significant difference by Catholics,
rural folk, Peruvians and any other definable category. The assumption is that
there aren’t and can’t be differences of any consequence between such

differences continue to show up because–guess what?–cultural life
matters. More fundamentally, in structuring the responses of males and females,
ETS removes from its lists any question that distinguishes clearly between the
sexes. A kind of sanitized unisex test remains. Does one reason for the persistent
differences in test results between different groups reflect the fact that ethnic
or cultural groups with sharply defined sex roles and stereotypes, or different
ones from the white-bread norm, will have no questions to answer that tap their
particular skills and experience as males and females? Does the test penalize
macho males and spaghetti-strap females, who may have ample smarts but reflect
relatively unusual notions of sexuality in all its forms? Nevertheless, despite
ETS’ article-of-faith presupposition that there are no real and basic difference
between males and females, and its best efforts at managing the tests, differences
stubbornly reappear–obviously because there are differences between males
and females in cognition as well other areas of life.

The problem
is that these tests have no real way of translating differences of response
into anything other than invidious differences of better or worse. In fact,
this creation of a great-chain-of-human-being picture takes exquisite and potent
forms. For example, anyone who takes the SAT receives back in an official envelope
from the Educational Testing Service (good words, all) located in Princeton,
NJ (prestigious town), their score on the tests, which were basically graded
by machine. The recipient is told their test score–say the average this
year of 1018. But they are also told where they fit in the great-chain-of-human-beings.
A kid who does really well will be told that she is, for example, in the 94th
percentile–that is she ranked higher than 93 out of 100 other test-takers.
That can make a person bound for college feel really fine, especially since
the directories to colleges in the USA contain data on the average SAT scores
of students already admitted to the school, so applicants can gauge their chances.

But for
every kid opening her mail in the nice part of Chappaqua to receive a 94th percentile
grade, another in the dicey area stares at an envelope containing news about
the inevitable reverse image–she is in the sixth percentile. Remember,
she is an essential part of a normal curve of distribution, albeit in not such
a desirable part of it. She practically doesn’t exist. She is doomed, sixth
from the bottom. Not only that: She cannot attribute her terrible score to the
lucid quotidian realities of her alcoholic parents, the fact that Dad became
a paraplegic in an industrial accident, the fact that her school had the worst
teachers in the system. No: The test is culture-free, and she is obligated to
ignore these very tangible factors. She is defective at the cellular level.
How does she get up off the floor? What happens to children who are in the second
percentile? Does anyone follow them and know, or care?

there is bitter national contest for the few spots at privileged institutions.
To coordinate and sanitize that particular and very limited struggle, the whole
student world has to be graded largely by machine. And colleges proudly advertise
the high SAT scores of incoming students to assure bill-paying parents they’re
getting their $30,000 worth.

It used
to be the case that the best predictor of success in the first year of college
was parental social class. It may still be so, but now the test scores are also
good predictors–even though they may be surrogates for social class generally.
Clearly, fair-minded institutions need to try to find relatively fair measures
of competence to fit oval pegs into oval holes. No one actively sets out to
create a mean and dysfunctional system. There does not seem to be an easily
generated alternative to the current ruthless steeplechase, which is becoming
worse by the year as the bimodality in income and power in the country put ever-greater
pressure on them that has to get more.

So you can
be sure it’s the youngsters of Princeton and Palo Alto who have the costly
private tutors, the expensive courses that are not, according to ETS, supposed
to improve SAT scores–but of course do, because they game the game–and
school systems that bend what they teach not necessarily to what students need
as people, but to what they need to succeed during a portentous afternoon answering
questions. It is an extremely dire process. And it is made grimly worse when
its own power is mistranslated into psychologically violent associations between
human competence and skin pigment.

the most highly educated single demographic group in the United Kingdom is West
Indians, who provide a poor market for sunscreen peddlers. Maybe it’s genetic.