"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Jay Mathews and the History of Testing for Dummies

Tuesday's column in WaPo is Mathews at his best, which is to say, Mathews at his worst. For what Mathews does best is to somnolently assault the truth through conflation, distortion, mollification, over-simplification, and by generally or specifically debasing the facts. His apologia yesterday to the racist origins of high stakes testing does not disappoint those who have become accustomed to his not-so-stealty rightwing revisionist ragging of the truth.

He begins with a typical smear by broad-brushing intellectuals as elites who care not for accuracy or correct responses:
In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. To them, accuracy was for shopkeepers.
So subtle. The truth is, of course, that Socrates and the foundations of Western knowledge that he spawned considered correct knowledge as the basis for moral action. According to the Ancients, the bad deeds of men are the result of having bad knowledge. Having good knowledge, i.e., the truth, would result in doing good acts. And this good knowledge, for Socrates, was arrived at through public dialogue that should be a concern for politicians, playwrights, potters, or pipe fitters. Thus, right knowledge (education) became the path to becoming a good person. This truth, for Socrates, Plato, and their inheritors, was something that could be brought to the surface from any soul if the proper methods and persistence were undertaken—which had nothing to do, by the way, with #2 pencils or scantron machines.

These knowledge assumptions from the Greeks have remained largely at the center of education until challenged at the beginning of the 20th Century by a group of education reformers who were essentially racist social-engineering efficiency zealots, who exploited racial and cultural fears to mold public education into a business efficiency model. Mathews, however, cites unnamed historians who view the rise of testing as an “inevitable” byproduct of technology:
Historians call the rise of testing an inevitable outgrowth of expanding technology. As goods and services are delivered with greater speed and in higher quantity and quality, education has been forced to pick up the pace.
The truth, of course, is something quite different. The rise of testing was driven by a desire to have a scientific way to engineer a society that would be devoid of defectives, by nurturing and breeding more of the intellectually gifted (Plato’s logico-mathematical elites), by restricting entry to the country by lesser types, and by sterilizing or segregating those immigrants and citizens of “lower mentality.” Sociologist, Edward Ross, whose Social Control (1901) provided the social theory for much of this movement, argued that there was an urgent need for schools to take the lead as public instititutions for initiating social control, and he later urged that the “beaten members of the beaten breeds” do not infect the purity or impede the progress of those who possess the “ancestral foundations of American character” (Black, 2003, p. 23).

Elwood Cubberley, head of Stanford’s program to prepare school administrators during the early part of the 20th Century, argued that “we should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes. . . . One bright child may easily be worth more to the National Life than thousands of those of lower mentality.” John Franklin Bobbitt, another leading education pioneer and efficiency reformer of the era, published a 1909 article entitled “Practical Eugenics.” In it he presaged Pat Buchanan by a hundred years, as he waxed poetic on good old days of racial purity and offered dire consequences for an unstaunched flow of immigrants: “In primal days was the blood of the race kept high and pure, like mountain streams,” and he warned that the “highest, purest tributaries to the stream of heredity” were being replaced by “a rising flood in the muddy, undesirable stream” (p. 29).

It was, in fact, the fear of infecting America with “defective germ plasm” that inspired H. H. Goddard to co-opt Alfred Binet’s early intelligence test for the purposes of sorting, labeling, segregating, and/or otherwise limiting the propagation of undesirables and encouraging the breeding of those exhibiting desirable traits. And it was no less than former President, Teddy Roosevelt who noted in a 1913 letter to lead eugenicist, Charles Davenport, that “some day, we will realized that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type” (p. 99). Not one of the more widely-publicized TR qoutes.

What the education efficiency experts and race planners (eugenicists) of the early 20th Century brought with them was the belief that education should function as a social sorting machine to weed out the defective and to train the rest in the appropriate adult work behaviors and roles. Education became focused on producing compliant and efficient workers, rather than creating, as had been the custom since the Greeks, good people. This was not driven by expanding technology, as Mathews would have it, nearly so much as it was by an elitist social ideology and the eugenic pseudoscience that became, in fact, the inspiration for the social policies of the Third Reich.

Mathews’ interpretation, however, offers this palliative to the virulent racism of Henry Goddard, inventor of the psychological label “moron” and pal of Stanford professor, eugenicist, and racist, Lewis Terman:
Still, modern testing had a clumsy start as psychologists experimented with exams to help employers, schools and others rate applicants. In one early case, testing expert H.H. Goddard identified as "feeble-minded" 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of Hungarians, 79 percent of Italians and 87 percent of Russians among a small group of immigrants assessed at Ellis Island.
Clumsy, Mathews says. There was, in fact, nothing clumsy about Terman’s and Goddard’s appropriation of Binet’s new-fangled intelligence test as a “scientific” instrument to identify mental defectives in order to segregate them, sterilize them, or to keep them from immigrating to this country. Their had the backing, in fact, of the Carnegie Foundation, which also funded the Eugenics Research Office at Cold Springs Harbor, which now has a fascinating website documenting its own sordid history.

It was the College Board’s SAT that would become the inheritor of the foundational standardized testing work done by Terman, Goddard, and Carl Brigham. And even though Mathews quotes unofficial Business Roundtable historian, Diane Ravitch, who holds to her misleading and disingenuous claim that there was some kind of egalitarian motive that inspired the SAT, the fact is that the SAT was just another in a long line of pseudo-scientific tools developed to insure the continued economic and social privileges of those who had always had same, while using the fig leaf of science as justification for an “objectivity” that was born and bred from seeds that were virulently racist in origin. Of course, it is, indeed, the sad ruse of meritocratic testing that gave James Conant and his white liberal descendants at Ed Trust their woefully-barren moral justification for educational practices that are so systemically unfair to the same poor, brown, and immigrant that were getting shafted a hundred years ago by "intelligence" testing.

That that kind of monstrous policy could begin all over again a hundred later, after Goddard, Davenport, Bobbitt, and the other scientific racists have long been moldering in their graves, says everything about the work that is requried to keep history alive--and everything, too, about the high stakes involved in the perpetuation of power and privilege by those who will never voluntarily relinquish either.

For those wanting to know more about eugenics, there is Black’s War Against the Weak website, which is quoted above—and many others, too. Here is a clip from an interview with Mathew Jacobsen that appears on the PBS website:
In this country, eugenics really starts to come into its own right after the turn of the century, particularly with the establishment of the Eugenics Research Center in Cold Springs Harbor on Long Island. A Chicago biologist named Charles Davenport is given a lot of money from the Carnegie Foundation to do eugenic research and genetic research. And that gives what had been a kind of vague intellectual movement; that gives it a kind of infrastructure. It gives it a place. It gives it some money. It gives it some laboratories. It gives it a name. It kind of becomes a focal point for eugenicists of every walk of life to kind of get into the picture and treat eugenics, this idea of biologically engineering society, as a serious idea and an idea that is not only practicable but is a good one.

[For] Davenport, immigration represents the importation into the country of genetic material that is unalterable, and it's also readable. You can read racial character. You can see it. You can measure it. You can define it. And ultimately, if you understand it well enough, you can use those ideas for breeding a better society or, you know, keeping procreation down among certain elements of the population who aren't desirable. And ultimately, of course, you can also use it in deciding who should be able to come into the country and become a naturalized citizen.

And ultimately that not only is the spirit of thought that carries the day in the debates in the '10s over immigration and restriction, but it's the same folks; it's the same people. You know, Davenport has connections with some of the people who are involved in intelligence testing, people like H. H. Goddard, who does intelligence testing on Ellis Island and determines, from a psychological or an intelligence point of view, that certain races are undesirable.

. . . .

It has never been the case that democracy in this country has been wide open. There [has] always been some kind of presumption that certain people are fit for self-government and certain people aren't. And that's a phrase that we don't use anymore. In fact, from the beginning, democracy and racism have been [inextricably linked, and] the notion of democracy was based on racial presumptions, about fitness for self-government for that very narrow circle in the late eighteenth century of "We the People," and that circle has been expanding over two centuries and more now. But I don't think that the presumption [is] that democracy is just something you can throw the doors open to and allow anyone to participate. And I think that's something that a lot of Americans misunderstand about their political culture.


  1. Anonymous8:16 PM

    You should have included something from "The Mismeasure of Man" on Yerkes and the Army. Fine post overall, though.

  2. Anonymous3:30 PM

    I'd like to share a simple "mom" story about my observation of a Stanford-Binet "Intelligence" Test given to my daughter at about 4 years old (around 1994). Since she didn't read yet, it was a pictorial test. The psychologist flipped through pages with 4 (bad) drawings on each page, asking my child to point to this or that. The test is scripted and she was not allowed to deviate. Later I asked her if instead of saying, point to the "luggage", she could have asked "suitcases" (the word we use in our home). The answer was no - it must be luggage, and my child therefore got it wrong. Another sample - point to the "drill" - which luckily, my husband owns (and uses!) a drill and has verbalized to our daughter that this gizmo was called a drill - so she got that one right! One more - point to the "hinge" - now what 4 year old has been introduced to the concept of a door hinge? To add to the confusion - the line drawing was horrible. She got it wrong.

    We are a white family and I had wondered how minorities could say that these kinds of psychological tests were biased. That day I saw the inane bias myself - and my respect for psychological educational testing left the building with me and has not returned.