The SATS were literally invented by a eugenicist to uphold white supremacy

From the article:

In other words: a eugenicist literally invented the SATs to prove his theories, then was disappointed to learn that they failed their intended purpose. And yet, we continue to use them — ostensibly, for the same reasons that Brigham thought they were bad.

The author’s inherent bias meant that he assumed that if he made the tests neutral that it would prove the superiority of the white race. Instead he got his null hypothesis and spent the rest of his life lamenting that his grand plan to prove the superiority of his race was ironically undermined by his attempt to prove it. Sadly he didn’t take the further step of re-evaluating his own biases and discovering that racism is dumb and wrong. So close and yet so far.


What is your alternative? Remember that if it requires the teachers to do extra work or put extra thought into it or check their own inherent biases it will fail. Also if it requires all children to be highly motivated self starters it is dead on arrival.

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As a kid I never questioned it, but I think this is a BIG point. So much of education is geared as a competition to determine who’s the best and reward them with more. There were very few classes I had that were set up to try to help each student equally, and none that fostered a we’re all in it together attitude. Elementary education designed so that the students that learn something first are then tasked with helping teach it to others, rather than trying to surpass them, would have a large cultural impact


no, just no. what it seems to do a really good job of measuring is how large of an effect differences in social class have on outcomes and also how large of an effect more and better test prep has on outcomes.

as a 25 year veteran teacher with experience at intermediate (4-6) and high school (9-12) campuses in four different municipalities who has seen the effect three decades of high stakes testing has had on educators, the idea that there is currently some large pool of laziness among teacher is both erroneous and offensive. if your social circle doesn’t include many teachers i can forgive you for your misperceptions but your statement here is not really rooted in reality.


I understand there are a lot of problems with standardized tests, and how they are used in the US today, but I also understand the appeal of the concept: a simple device to measure how students are doing beyond grades or classroom participation.

This is not my area of expertise, but I am genuinely curious: if current tests are biased is it possible to create a test that isn’t biased? Or is the very idea of standardized testing a wild goose chase that does more harm than good?

[ETA: I think the whole idea of “test prep” for standardized tests is nuts, completely at odds with their supposed intent, akin to cheating.]


The test scores have been a reasonably significant predictor of scholastic success. Nevertheless, that sentence is itself fraught. First, further scholastic success is often founded on the ability to excel at more tests of the same format: those who excel at the 4th and 8th grade tests are likely to have the tools to excel at the SAT and ACT, and later at the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT and so on. Second, social privilege itself is a significant predictor of scholastic success, so if the tests select for privilege, they are bound to correlate.

When you fit to data obtained from a biased system, you wind up modeling systemic bias. The tests yield unfair results because they are overfitted to an unfair system.

To be sure, 1980’s affirmative action, as implemented, was not much better. In my academic days, I had the dubious privilege of attempting to teach freshman computer science to some students who had not yet mastered fourth-grade-level arithmetic, with the expectation that if they failed, it was my fault for not having offered enough additional help - virtually an order to pass them in order to keep the department’s numbers from looking bad. I bent over backwards to try to teach some out of class, and kind of managed over the course of a semester to take some from the fourth grade to the ninth. That was not nearly enough to have them actually ready for the course, but maybe the basic numeracy helped them farther along the line. (It was most emphatically not my job at the university to do it. It was my job as a human being.)

I know this isn’t what you’re saying, but it’s easy to misread this as saying that we shouldn’t teach mathematical skills, or evaluate students’ performance at them. The privileged have outperformed the underclasses at … well, at practically anything intellectual. But that’s a reason to teach more, not less.

As far as the ‘not for girls’ thing goes, my daughter came close to buying into it: some of her teachers were all too willing to accept, “This is hard for me. I must not be good at it.” It’s no longer an explicit, “girls can’t do math,” but more a tacit, “this individual girl is struggling, I’m going to pat her on the head and tell her not to worry about it.” And in my daughter’s experience, the female teachers were the worst offenders at that!

It sometimes seemed as if her mother and I were the only ones to tell her, “Of course it’s hard for you! It’s hard for everyone! The people you know who are good at it, whatever it is (music, dance, art, mathematics, athletics, writing, …) put in a lot of hard work getting good at it.” That’s a lesson that we all too often fail to teach whenever anyone is trying to get good at something that’s non-conforming to gender roles, or class roles, or other social expectations.

In many cases, privilege consists in being given the opportunity and encouragement to put in the hard work, and the privileged see only that the achievements were the fruits of their labours, without also seeing that those labours were possible only on a foundation of privilege. The protest, “I worked hard to get where I am today!” is often entirely true; what is false is the assumption that the opportunity to put in the hard work was open to everyone.

Challenge the testing process, and the abuse of the test results, all you please, and I’m with you! Challenge the system that has damaged students, possibly irreparably, long before they see an SAT, and I’ll agree - although I have very little idea what to do about it.

Challenging the material being tested - when the material comprises things like basic physics and mathematics - is, in effect, challenging the assumption that there is a quantifiable reality anywhere. If you want to have airplanes that don’t crash, steam boilers that don’t explode, electrical wiring that doesn’t burn down the house, you simply can’t just measure everything every time. You need those abstractions to be able to cope with designing the things, and then take lots of measurements on top of that to verify that the system you’re building actually behaves as your model predicts. The abstractions that we work with were built from a couple of thousand years of cut-and-try - a couple of thousand years of experience that we can’t simply rebuild from scratch for every job.

That may be an elitist, technocratic statement. Mother Nature doesn’t care about the labels. She doesn’t reward or punish. She doles out consequences. One of my engineering professors once told me, “Every number in every engineering handbook was measured because something failed. Most of them are written in blood.”

That’s a valid enough point, I suppose. Then again, a working knowledge of Freedom Units is probably essential to functioning within US culture. That’s a separate problem entirely, and I curse Imperial measure every day. But there’s an interesting philosophical question: to what extent is it reasonably to have a culturally biased test, when the goal is to predict academic performance or social functioning in the context of a particular culture? In the US, even a truck driver needs to know how to work with feet/inches, or pounds/tons, because figuring whether things like axle loads fall in the permissible range is part of the job. It’s most assuredly not a metric of innate ability, but possibly a measure of a teachable skill that will be useful in the current milieu.

Of course, knowing that manipulation of US customary units will be on the test, and drilling in them, is something that’s itself a marker of social class; students of a certain stratum are carefully taught and drilled in what is going to be on the test. It makes a huge difference.

Given everything else that’s screwed up about the system, the teachers are among the last people I’d blame! (I also hold that ‘lazy teacher’ trope with considerable suspicion. It sounds far too much like a soundbite from Prager U, advocating the demolition of public education.)

And now our society loves to hold up East Asian-Americans as a ‘model minority’ in order to discriminate by contrast against Those Other People.

In an ideal world, which we don’t inhabit, it’s a cross-check, so that a total idiot with rich parents can’t just buy his way through the entire system. (Even if all the teachers can be bribed or bullied into giving stellar reviews, the test will reveal something.) It’s also, ideally, a way for schools to calibrate their own performance standards against those of their peers.

Yes, I know. That’s not how it’s worked out.

We’re surely on the same page.

In the fields where learning has to be rigidly sequential (because you can’t understand something without being familiar with everything that has gone before), there may be a role for placement testing, not as competition, but simply to sort out what to teach to whom. Throwing kids who are learning complex analysis into the same room as ones who are still learning kitchen arithmetic is not going to help either cohort very much.

And still, I want to live in a society that has people who can do both. I’d have been dead long ago without them. (My life has been extended several times by medical interventions that have depended very much on modern technology. I also depend - for the supplies of daily life - on truckers’ being able to figure their axle loads, or aircraft load masters being able to calculate a weight-and-balance schedule.)


Yet, it was created by a white supremacist and very much is a problematic test that does little of actually proving that someone is educated?

There is a whole entire world of things we can do to improve education, which includes, but is not limited, to:

Smaller class sizes, more engaging work, more hands on work, especially for younger children who learn more effectively through concrete activities, less focus on rote memorization and more on helping students come to grips with underlying principles, work that reflects their lives better, more effective anti-bias training for teachers, and until that sorts itself, more people of color as educators, getting rid of authoritarian systems that makes students feel like prisoners instead of students, giving teachers far more latitude to do what they do, better pay for them, not treating education like a fucking commodity, not assuming that people are “stupid” and instead trying to figure out how to help them learn better, not assuming it’s a competition and if you win (get good grades, game the system, etc), then you are a “better” person than others.

There are many, MANY things we can do better, and there have been plenty of people who have thought about this problem and come up with real world solutions. People like Maria Montessori came up with solutions nearly a century ago, by doing the work of trying new techniques out in the field. Much of how we structure pre-school and kindergarten came directly from her ideas (which her insights into how the human brain develops were later confirmed by sociologists like Piaget), but most schools shift to butts in the seats, often out of necessity (or they assume so). If you have children who feel like they have a stake in the classroom, like it’s their class room, and their educational journey isn’t just about jumping through hoops, children DO rise to the occasion.

And I see @navarro has weighed in, and he is very much someone who knows his stuff on education!



Dude’s own personal “disappointment” does not in any way mean that standardized tests are somehow not used as a powerful tool to weed out POC, denying us access to institutions of higher learning and countless other opportunities to this very day.

Your skewed perspective would be puzzling to me… except for the fact that I’ve encountered it before from other people with a vested interest in maintaining it…


If that’s what you took away then you’re not paying attention to what I’m writing over all here.

No. They have better access to tools to help them excel. Donald Trump didn’t get into Wharton because he was more intellectually adept.

A test isn’t teaching.

Our whole god damn society is structured to tell those of us who aren’t white men that we are lesser than.

Yes, because it’s all around us all the time.

Yes. I know what privilege is. That’s what I’m discussing here.

I don’t agree. Education is a human right. As soon as we stop treating it as evidence of value of individuals, as job training, as a means of sorting people into boxes, and start to see it as a means of helping our children grow into the adults that they want to be, we might be able to improve our public education system and serve ALL children, not just the kids with privilege.


I don’t think you read that part right. He was disappointed that the test wasn’t racist enough, not that it wasn’t racist at all. His goal was 100% rejection of POC and only achieved partial success.


One of my former students will be taking the ASVAB, and I am working on her to improve her Math Reasoning and Arithmetic scores.

This last session I got 2 wrong. I teach technical math at the local CC. I had never heard of Distributive Property of Division, but it is a “Real” thing.

The other wrong answer was written in such a vague way, I could not figure which of the two answers that worked was “correct”. I chose wrong.


Precisely what I’m saying! They have achieved better results - where they have - because they have had the opportunity to achieve them, an opportunity that’s been denied to others. They have
performed better - and that performance has depended on a combination of ability (which as far as I can tell, is not a great respecter of social class), motivation (ditto) and opportunity (which is critically dependent on social class). All three are needed, and the customary ‘lower’ classes have been deficient in only the third.

(Sufficiently privileged folks have also had ample opportunity to cheat - hence your appeal to Trump’s evil - but cheating has not, until now, been the main point of the arguments.)

And I agree that education is a human right. I’m talking about the situation of, “I am facing someone, whom I don’t know well, who wants to learn what I know. How do I figure out where to start, so that I can teach effectively?” I’ve gone far astray in the past, trying to teach something and assuming a background that the student simply does not have. I need some tools to correct those faulty assumptions. In some cases, testing might help, and the results don’t need to go any farther than me and the student.


Not even a little bit. They created a measurement tool that PURPORTED to measure everyone equally but really just gave a veneer of impartiality and fairness that still put people of color at a disadvantage.

If you create an “impartial test” evaluating a student’s answers to questions that assume a middle-class suburban background then poor minority kids will score worse than well-off white kids. You’ve simply moved the problem of biases from the person conducting the class to the person writing the test.

  1. You mean (a±b)/c = a/c ± b/c? (In which case, it’s surely more important to know the rule than be able to name it! I recognized it immediately only because I’ve studied modern abstract algebra, and distribution is one of the fundamental properties that an algebraic structure might or might not have.)

  2. Heh. That may be an indication that a community college math professor knows more about the subject than the designers of the test. (Off-topic anecdote follows)

The first time I took the SAT, I got just short of a perfect score on the math portion. (Yeah, I’m both privileged and freakishly good at bubble tests - better at those than at the skills supposedly being tested, I’m afraid. I’ve had a lifetime of unearned benefits accrue from those starting advantages.)

A few weeks later, I saw in the New York Times a discussion of ‘truth in testing’ laws, and an example of a defective question from that season’s SAT, which I immediately recognized: Take a square pyramid with equal edges, so that its faces are one square and four equilateral triangles. Glue to it a regular tetrahedron whose edges are the same length. How many faces has the resulting figure?

The desired answer was 7, with the reason being that the pyramid has 5 faces, the tetrahedron 4, and the gluing operation destroys 2: 5+4-2=7. But I realized on visualizing the problem that two pairs of the triangular faces would be coplanar, so that the resulting figure would have faces consisting of one square, two equilateral triangles, and two rhombi made from pairs of the original faces, and answered 5. (Which was one of the multiple-choice answers!)

Which answer reflected the better mathematical insight?


That seems to be a core problem, and with a culture that emphasizes “entertainment” above all else, it’s very easy for people to overlook that getting good at something requires practice. Professionals can make very difficult tasks look easy.

Excellent point, and I’d add that another part of privilege is being given the opportunity to fail and recover from failure. Most small businesses fail, but someone who has sufficient privilege can get investments, financing, etc. far more readily than one who doesn’t.


One of the popular ‘intelligence’ tests (Stanford-Binet? Wechsler? Don’t remember) at one point had to be updated and recalibrated because the poorer kids were starting to outscore the rich ones on some of the questions! Why? The questions were pictorial, and had such artifacts in them as a candlestick telephone, a wringer washing machine, and clothes hanging on a line. The rich kids were familiar with dial telephones, automatic washers, and clothes dryers, and didn’t recognize the older objects, which the poorer urban kids, using the rich folks’ castoffs, recognized immediately.

The worst example I can remember of cultural bias was a test that immigration officers used to prove that German kids were feeble-minded. A picture showed a girl bending over a dead rabbit, a boy with a spade digging a hole, and another boy with a bow and arrow running away, and the question was, “tell me the story of this picture.” Kids from the ‘right’ background gave the preferred narrative, “that naughty boy shot the girl’s rabbit, and the other boy is digging a grave for it.” The rural German kids came out with, “that boy with the bow shot a rabbit for dinner, and the other boy is digging some potatoes and carrots to go in the Hasenpfeffer. The girl can start cooking once he’s finished.” The question was nothing more nor less that a cultural test: do you come from a place where rabbits are pets, or food?

Of course, that last was intentionally and consciously a cultural screening test: how likely would an immigrant be to fit in with the local culture immediately? We’re all tribal enough to think that anything another tribe does differently is inferior, if not evil. Some of us are able consciously to resist the idea, but it runs deep.


This is the key to the argument. If success is based upon ability to excel on bubble tests, then that same ability would absolutely predict success on further bubble tests.


At this point, “X was invented by a eugenicist to uphold white supremacy” isn’t so much a surprise as increasingly my assumption about… everything. Especially in education, government, city planning, the workforce, psychology and medicine, public institutions…

All sorts of things that aren’t obviously supporting white supremacy turn out to be inherent parts of it if you poke into them, and the revelations make sense once they’re made.

Especially given what’s going on in the UK right now with their A-levels… whoo boy what a dystopian horror that is.

(If you don’t know - the SAT-equivalent exams that would be determining university placement aren’t being taken because of covid, so the government had schools generate “predicted scores” based on the existing grades and test performance of students, “adjusted” it with a magic AI algorithm, and told kids what their test scores were going to be. A big adjustment factor seems to have been socio-economic background, significantly reducing the scores of less advantaged kids. Those kids who were on track to be the first in their community to go to Oxford/Cambridge? Nope.)


The two main points I have been focused on are, covering topics she did not know when they come up in practice, factorials and radicals for examples, and to give her pointers on getting through the problems with as little involved math as possible. No calculators permitted on the exam. Thankfully, I keeps calculators to a minimum in class.

If the answers vary widely, I showed her how to approximate the answer quickly. Otherwise, I try to improve her feel for the numbers.

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One key point is that you don’t need to assume conscious bias in designing the tests. Let’s just start from the assumption that you have a group of schools who wish to admit the students most likely to do well (by some metric that’s probably already unfair) and wants to test impartially for the likelihood. Presume that’s done with the best of intentions: they want to have an impartial test (or other evaluation procedure).

Let’s say they go at it with scientific rigor, and carefully evaluate each test question on an existing pool of students, selecting the questions with the greatest correlation with their success metric. The end result will be that they design a test that selects for privilege, because the privileged students in the existing system have done better than their less-privileged counterparts. It will, without any conscious meddling, become a test of privilege!

Of course, any evaluation targeted at stratification of people will turn into a test of privilege, if only because wealthy parents will naturally and rightly want to ensure that their children enjoy any possible advantage. The privileged kids will therefore also get the best possible enrichment outside of school. If nothing else, a kid with well-educated parents will hear well-educated discourse around the house!

We won’t get far trying to squelch that aspect of human nature, so a completely level playing field is a chimera.

But let’s not make it a cliff, shall we? The sort of advantage I talked about in the last couple of paragraphs is of a whole different sort than the advantage that the rich kids enjoy over those who lack sound nutrition, adequate housing, stable family life, regular health care, or fundamental education with competent teaching. All of those are basic human rights, which can be recognized without denying the right of parents to try to provide their own children with the best possible start in life.

Sigh. And to think that once upon a time, Cambridge was rather a leader in breaking down that sort of system, with Churchill College reaching out to admit its students mostly from the state schools, rather than casting its net chiefly toward such institutions as Eton, Harrow or Rugby.