Taught by the test

How college entrance exams rigged the game for white students like me

Lately I’ve been thinking about standardized tests and how good I was at taking them and how I was a beneficiary of a system rigged to uphold the hegemony of people like me.

Let me be more specific.

I’m a white man in the American South. I got a 1420 out of 1600 on the SAT in 2006. The generous pile of scholarships I received, partly as a result of that SAT score, helped me sail through the University of South Carolina Honors College in four years without taking out any loans.

In a lot of ways I hit the jackpot, although I should say that’s not an accurate metaphor because a jackpot implies random luck rather than design.

One thing I learned recently is that my alma mater’s leaders started using the SAT as an entrance exam in the 1950s so they could exclude as many African-Americans students as possible. This is not conjecture but a matter of historic record.

For the first half of the 20th century, the University of South Carolina had a more or less open admissions policy for white students, promising a seat to any student who graduated from a high school accredited by the state. Most public universities in the region had similar policies.

That all began to change as school desegregation cases, including South Carolina’s own Briggs v. Elliott, wended their way through the courts. In 1952 the university started requiring applicants to submit a photograph of themselves. That same year, the all-white South Carolina College Association endorsed the use of standardized entrance tests as “a valuable safeguard should the Supreme Court fail to uphold segregation in the state’s schools.”

(R. Scott Baker brought all this dark history to light in his provocative 2006 book Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972, which has a real humdinger of a title but which I highly recommend.)

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Ten days later, University of South Carolina President Donald S. Russell successfully ramrodded a new policy requiring university applicants to submit standardized test scores.

Other universities soon followed Russell’s lead, helping to fuel the growth of the multi-billion-dollar standardized test industry we know today.

***

There was a time when black and progressive lawmakers in South Carolina had the racists on the run. During the hopeful years of Reconstruction, with black board members sitting on the university board of trustees, the University of South Carolina became the only Southern university to grant degrees to African-American students. 

That didn’t last long. After the admission of the first black student in 1873, the state’s white conservative ruling elites closed the university in 1877 and re-opened it as an all-white agricultural college in 1880.

Today black enrollment at UofSC hovers around 10 percent, way out of sync with our state’s population, which is about 27 percent black. And it’s more diverse than the other large public institutions of higher education in our state.

On the Horseshoe, an idyllic tree-lined enclave near the center of campus where I used to sit in the grass and eat lunch with my friends, a plaque identifies the university as the “Faithful Index to the Ambitions and Fortunes of the State.” The university has not been faithful to the ambitions of all its citizens. Neither have our K-12 schools.

One way we euphemize our gaping inequities is by saying we have a “pipeline problem.” Judging by SAT and ACT scores, for example, we have entire high schools in South Carolina that didn’t produce a single college-ready graduate last year.

The test scores in those counties do not shock me. I have seen what the NAACP meant in a 1954 legal brief when it wrote that Southern politicians were “seeking to utilize the product of their own wrongdoing as a justification for continued malfeasance.”

In 2018 when I worked as an education reporter, I traveled across South Carolina and saw firsthand the condition of majority-black rural grade schools. They were not much improved from the middle of the 20th century. I saw children without art teachers, teachers without a living wage, and ceiling tiles caving under the weight of rainwater and black mold. I met people doing their best but running up against the limitations of their surroundings. This is no historical accident; it is the work of a state legislature that systematically under-funds its own meager promises in education.

I have come to believe that the malfeasance never ended. To the extent that the malefactors used (and use) testing as a tool, it is worth reconsidering what that tool does.

***

“We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification,” the French philosopher Michel Foucault proclaimed in his 1975 book Discipline & Punish.

To Foucault, school examinations are part of a “carceral archipelago” — encompassing schools, hospitals, courts, and prisons — that exercises control over human bodies through immense social pressure. Seriously, just read this:

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them. That is why, in all the mechanisms of discipline, the examination is highly ritualized. In it are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth. At the heart of the procedures of discipline, it manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected.

Foucault saw testing as ritualized, like a sacrament of power. Anyone who has proctored or taken a modern standardized test can appreciate that ritual aspect. The oaths of secrecy, the ambient paranoia, the papering-over of elementary classroom walls during testing season — the eerie aesthetic springs from some ancient well.

Foucault had certain obsessions that may have distorted his view or clarified it, depending how you read him. If you were going to make memes about Foucault, the easiest joke would be to label pictures of ordinary buildings with all-caps captions like “SCHOOL: PRISON FOR CHILDREN,” “HOSPITAL: PRISON FOR SICK PEOPLE,” “SUPERMARKET: PRISON FOR EGGPLANTS,” and so on.

But if you were going to take him seriously, you would have to consider whether he was speaking prophetically about our current outgrowth of high-stakes tests, which have spread from college entrance exams all the way down to preschool entrance exams necessitating private tutors.

Consider that he wrote this sentence, in the past tense, 44 years ago:

... the school became a sort of apparatus of uninterrupted examination that duplicated along its entire length the operation of teaching. It became ... increasingly a perpetual comparison of each and all that made it possible both to measure and to judge.

Sound familiar?

***

Foucault didn’t say much specifically about American politics or education in Discipline & Punish. So he may or may not have known that in the United States, the Scholastic Aptitude Test — Patient Zero for the spread of “infinite examination” — was causing one of several rounds of panics and paroxysms in the 1970s.

Between 1961 and 1977, the number of SAT tests administered in the U.S. doubled, and the average verbal and math scores dropped by 50 and 30 points, respectively. As you can imagine, this made the news.

The College Board, which has administered the SAT since 1926, set up a blue ribbon panel to investigate and come up with suggestions on modifying the test, a routine they’ve repeated several times since then.

In the introduction to the College Board report, before getting down to any serious statistical analysis, the panel paints a broad, unsubstantiated picture of bad parents and flagrantly incurious children:

More and more high school graduates show up in college classrooms, employers’ personnel offices, or at other common checkpoints with barely a speaking acquaintance with the English language and no writing facility at all. Parents watch children come home from school, without homework, to sit passively hour after hour and day after day in front of television sets until they have spent more time there than anyplace else except in bed.

Replace the television with the smartphone, and this is the exact script that children of the 1970s are now reading when they lament the state of the youth in the 2010s.

If I am reading Foucault correctly, I think he would have rolled his eyes at all of this moralizing panic. I doubt he would have shared the College Board’s concern over the supposed dumbing down of the modern child. He was more interested in why and how tests like the SAT became such pervasive, intrusive, and potent tools of social control.

***

Anyone lamenting the decline of American ingenuity need look no further for reassurance than the legal maneuvers of families trying to get their kids into college.

Did you see that students in our country’s wealthiest school districts are twice as likely to have disability plans allowing them extra time on college entrance exams? Did you read about the suburban Chicago families who gave up legal guardianship of their children so they could qualify for federal Pell grants?

Here in South Carolina, our leaders have used test scores as a cudgel to blame poor and minority children, parents, and teachers for their struggles. But could we also use those test scores as a prod in the backs of intransigent state lawmakers, shaming them into funding decent teacher salaries and non-flammable school buses? It’s a cheap tactic, but people tend to listen when you tell them we’re falling behind Mississippi in education.

Maybe it will work. To the extent that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” I’m skeptical.

Lately I’ve been reading South Carolina history because they barely taught it to us in school. One consistent thread since the arrival of the colonists is that whites seized power and clung to it ferociously. The power struggle begins in school.

In the course of their activism in the 1950s, the NAACP and other advocates for progress made some concessions to entrenched local power. In Baker’s estimation, this may have been a mistake, as local politicians exploited whatever loopholes they could find to prop up the status quo.

“Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues failed to question the good faith of southern school officials, referring to them as the ‘finest people in the community,’” Baker wrote.

As we resume the struggle, let’s not repeat that mistake.

***

All of the above Michel Foucault quotations come from Alan Sheridan’s 1977 English translation of Discipline & Punish. You should give it a read! I need more people to talk to about this book.

R. Scott Baker’s Paradoxes of Desegregation is available via University of South Carolina Press or perhaps at your local library.

I spent some time reflecting on my own privilege in this essay, but I also need to give a shout-out to my parents for preparing me for school and for this world. I owe extra gratitude to my dad, who graciously agreed to re-take the SAT with me for an article I wrote in 2014 and even let me publish his scores in the newspaper (he did a great job).

Big ups to Tim Monreal on Twitter, who sent me this fascinating paper about how Bloom’s Taxonomy was meant as a model of assessment but became a model of teaching.

And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Furman University’s Paul Thomas, who almost certainly understands Foucault better than I do, and who wrote this thoughtful piece about Foucault’s “age of infinite examination.” His blog is consistently worth reading, even when he’s criticizing my work.