Standardized Testing’s Racist Origins Disadvantages Minority Students

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The Army Alpha was the first mass administered IQ test created by psychologists to test U.S. army recruits during World War I. After the war ended, a psychologist named Carl C. Brigham adapted the test to use as a college admission test by making it more difficult. In 1926, the new and more difficult test was first administered to college students at Princeton University.

Around that time, Brigham published A Study of American Intelligence based on the results of the Army Alpha test. In the book, Brigham concluded that America will face a quicker decline of intelligence than European national groups due to its Black population. “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,” Brigham said in his book.

Brigham blames minority groups, specifically the Black population, for the decrease in American intelligence. During the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation, many American psychologists agreed with Brigham and actively encouraged movements to preserve “racial purity.”

After Brigham adapted the previous Army Alpha test, he developed another test to be used by a wider group of schools as requested by the College Board. This version became known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and was used to “discern the intelligence of people on the basis of race.”

In 1959, the American College Testing (ACT) was created to rival the SAT. By the early 1960s, prominent educational institutes used SAT/ACT’s test scores to identify bright students. In 1985, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, commonly known as FairTest showed that this precept put students of color who were failing local or state high school graduation exams at a major disadvantage, due to the widespread bias in standardized testing.

FairTest also revealed that students of color, on average, often score lower on college admission tests compared to their white counterparts, which is why they are denied merit scholarships. This leading factor “contributes to huge racial gaps in college enrollments and completion.”

Over 2.2 million students in the class of 2019 took the SAT according to a report released by the College Board. Both the SAT and ACT were commonly taken by students for college admissions. In 2018, the combined SAT scores for Asian and White students averaged to be over 1100, while all other ethnic groups averaged a score less than 1000.

Experts believe that the racial bias for the test scores is accredited to test preparation. The average cost for SAT/ACT tutoring is between $45 to $100 an hour. Such expensive rates are only affordable for middle to upper-class students and lower-class students are unable to pay for them. While underprivileged students are deeply affected by the lack of affordable educational opportunities, wealthier students are benefitted.

Dr. Wayne Au, a professor at the University of Washington Bothell, specializes in teaching critical education theory and social injustice. In the International Education Journal, Au describes standardized testing as “scientifically’ declare[ing] the poor, immigrants, women, and nonwhites in the U.S. as mentally inferior, and to justify educational systems that mainly reproduced extant socioeconomic inequalities.”

Au believes that the high stakes of standardized testing are heavily prevalent in school systems today. The K-12 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act signed by President George W. Bush became the main law for K–12 general education in the U.S. from 2002–2015. It held schools solely accountable for how kids learned and achieved and set specific standards for each grade level, making it extremely controversial. According to The Washington Post, “[Once the NCLB was signed], the country began an experiment based on the belief that we could test our way to educational success and end the achievement gap.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, schools were forced to reform their college admissions process and college application requirements. In April, thousands of universities across the nation waived the SAT/ACT requirement until 2021. The collapse of the two-decade bipartisan consensus that standardized testing is vital for academic success has proven that these tests are not the only measure of a students’ intellect.

Through Teen Lenses: What is your opinion on the racist origins of standardized testing? Do you think that standardized tests should be abolished?

“Honestly, I’m not really surprised by the racist origins of standardized testing. The education system has always revolved around the separation of race and there has always been a gap between the rich and the poor, which usually revolves around race. In my opinion, the tests should be abolished because a test shouldn’t determine a student’s worth – it puts poor people at a disadvantage due to their inability to afford the expensive test preparation and allows for those who are more wealthy or just better test-takers in general, to do better on the standardized tests.” Amrita Talwar, 15, Rising Sophomore at Battlefield High School, Gainesville, VA
“The origins of standardized testing have been rooted within our systems for years, so it makes it really hard to abolish the system that colleges rely on for admissions. I believe that the racism that these tests were built on makes it unfair, for minority groups such as women, people of color, and lower-class students but rather than throwing the entire standardized test system away, it needs to be reformed. Reforming the system by providing free test prep and eliminating forms of bias will allow for all test-takers to be better prepared and have equal chances at reaching their true potential on these tests.” Anonymous teen who is a rising junior at Fairfax High School, Fairfax, VA
“I think that no race deserves to be considered less or more academically smart than another, just because of their background. Their academic success should be solely based on the amount of effort and hard work that they put in, not the color of their skin. This is why I believe that standardized testing should be abolished because it is not very useful in determining a students true potential and it just shows how good a student may be in Math or English.” Dhruv Addanki, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, VA

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