Assessment Opinion

Testing and Unmistakable Links to Social Status

By Deborah Meier — May 15, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

We’ve both now had a chance to read Charles Murray’s recent essay. I’m of two minds: to ignore it (bury it) or to take it on. You’ve settled it. But I’m not sure I’ll be happy about it a week from now. First of all, it means I’m suggesting people read his essay! Ye Gods!

He’s been a controversial figure for years in our circles—both of ours. He’s had no compunction about taking IQ as “the measure of the man” (close to the title of a wonderful attack on IQ by Stephen Jay Gould.) His scholarly book, “The Bell Curve,” written with Richard J. Herrnstein was much admired and detested a few decades ago. His thesis—very roughly speaking—was that we were perpetuating a myth when we contended that all people were capable of high levels of thought, and/or that there weren’t serious differences—on average—between different groups, sorts, races, classes of people. And finally, that social policy—especially education policy—that ignored this was just asking for trouble. The gap was a gap of fact, not the fault of schooling or nurturing (although aided and abetted by both perhaps), but innate and unchangeable.

From the start of NCLB I had the fearful feeling that nothing was more likely to play into his hands than the relentless assault on the test-score gap, the data about which he had been promoting for years.

The racism of Murray’s argument (or put another more neutral way—the claim that race and intelligence were connected) has a lot of “common” sense behind it. If IQ tests measured intelligence, it was well-nigh irrefutable. The claim, after all, was common sense even before tests were invented with regard to women vs. men’s intelligence, the rich vs. the poor, and whites vs. blacks, Indians, etc. (I’ve just finished reading “Oliver Twist,” and as always am amused at the fact that Oliver learns to speaks the King’s English although born in the poorhouse in which no one else speaks it. Yet it never seemed absurd to those in the story, or his readers, or me when I first read it.)

Modern psychometrics is a century-plus old, based on the development of an instrument intended not only to sort individuals but verify such long-standing assumptions. All modern tests are updated variants on the originals. And they all demonstrate, over and over again, the unmistakable social status of the society itself. Scores go up for every dollar more the family earns, for example. It places an enormous burden of self-doubt on those declared unfit by IQ. Many—such as Jews—overcame the description by the clever dodge of getting rich, and then becoming smart, too—speaking of Oliver Twist. For some white immigrant groups, it took longer.

It works to the advantage of first-borns as a whole. Women have finally managed to beat it. Asians have. So what’s wrong with African-Americans? And Native Americans? The sting, the injury is deep and enraging. And the implicit accusation, which Murray makes explicit, is not easily overcome. And year after year of headlines proclaiming these “self-evident” truths does much to vindicate Murray’s argument—or so he claims. (For many African-Americans, as you note Diane, it is equally self-evident proof of racist schools, racist teachers, curriculum, personal or systemic, or both. I buy their argument, at least in part.)

I argue, in a set of chapters in “In Schools We Trust,” that most, if not all, can be explained in quite natural and equally commonsensical ways. But it requires starting off by believing, as I try to demonstrate, that tests are not what they seem. They are, I claim, a reflection of the “common sense” of a particular stratum of society at a particular time and place and of their particular form of thinking about the world. I try to show it by specific examples of specific questions and the ways test-takers respond to them. I note secondly that the very nature of the psychometric tool itself requires this to be the case. And where it doesn’t work that some fiddling sometimes makes it work, e.g. the unused items in the SAT tool as noted by Jay Rosner. (And the ways test-makers fiddled with gender differences.) I argue that “thinking like” the dominant high-IQer helps. There are ways to make such thinking easier or harder and society and schooling can contribute to doing so. It helps if you imagine you could be and would like to be them. (I note that first-born, even within the dominant white middle class, are more likely to think “like/”identify with grown-ups, for example.) Claude Steele’s “stereotype threat” theory accounts for some of it also—as a good test-taker must rely on a certain brash self-confidence that status-anxiety erodes. Related to Steele’s theory—that you not only have to “care” about doing well, but you have to have good reason to believe that your efforts will work to help rather than hurt you. And, finally, if test-prepping ever eliminated these gaps, psychometrics demands that we reinvent them since differentiation is the name of the game.

Of course, being rich and being white goes along with having both a bigger and a “richer” vocabulary (one more likely to show up on tests). Yes, of course, being rich and being white goes along with having the experiences that will help you recognize right answers from wrong ones on tests better than kids who are poor and black. And on and on. Would a test that produced results that went against this “common sense” even get off the drawing board—one in which lower-class test-takers scored higher than those from high-status families? Would even a single test question survive under such scrutiny?

It even works, as Rosner notes, on apparently neutral math test questions! One of his examples from the SAT pool is below.

If they are a reflection more of social status than intelligence or schooling, then maybe the solutions are different. Richard Rothstein has argued that we could do more to raise test scores by providing everyone with good medical care than good test-prepping.

The stakes are too big to keep avoiding this argument. The decision by the DOE in NYC to start the testing of children at age 5, the use of low test scores as a rationale for depriving kids of playtime and as a reason for increased focus on test skills and less on higher-level subject matter are powerful reasons to explore the meaning of such test differentials (aka gaps) themselves. Shall we, Diane?



If the square root of 2x is an integer, which of the following must be an integer?
a. square root of x
b. x
c. 4x
d. x squared
e. 2 times (x squared)

If the area of a square is 4 times (x squared), what is the length of a side?

a. x
b. 2x
c. 4x
d. x squared
e. 2 times (x squared)

Blacks outscored whites on the first, and whites outscored blacks on the second.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.