This article, from a recent issue of The Atlantic, highlights two “progressive” issues that are hurting Democrats: the “defund the police” campaign, which has gone nowhere (thank goodness, though we do need a rethink of policing), and—the real subject of the piece—the elimination of standardized testing requirements and “advanced placement” classes as admission criteria for secondary schools and colleges. In contrast with police defunding, says author David Frum, this is a serious issue that is hurting the Left. The elimination of testing and advanced classes are, of course, part of the dismantling of the meritocracy that “progressives” deem necessary to achieve equity (proportional representation of groups) in schools as well as in jobs.
Here are Frum’s contentions:
But as unpopular as “Defund the police” is, local progressive activists have found a cause even more anathema—and are pushing it with even greater vigor. Eighty-three percent of American adults believe that testing is appropriate to determine whether students may enroll in special or honors programs, according to one of the country’s longest-running continuous polls of attitudes toward education.
Yet across the U.S., blue-state educational authorities have turned hostile to academic testing in almost all of its forms. In recent months, honors programs have been eliminated in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle. On Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, curricula are being rethought to eliminate tracking that separates more- and less-adept student populations. New York City’s specialist public high schools are under fierce pressure to revise or eliminate academic standards for admission. Boston’s exam schools will apply different admissions standards in different zip codes. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School has switched from academically selective admission to a lottery system. At least a thousand colleges and universities have halted use of the SAT, either permanently or as an experiment. But the experiments are rapidly hardening into permanent changes, notably at the University of California, but also in Washington State and Colorado. SAT subject tests have been junked altogether.
Frum then adds that these programs face more resistance when pollsters stipulate that the programs would result in the admission of fewer black and Hispanic students, but then adds that the enthusiasm for testing returns when respondents are told that everyone, including students of color and the poor, would get free access to test-preparation courses.
This presumes that test preparation works, and it does a bit (especially when the “prep” consists of actually taking the test several times, which allows you to get an idea of what the questions are like), but it doesn’t do nearly enough to reduce the disparity of scores between Asian and white students on one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other (see here and here).
A quote from the first source, Slate:
For many decades, the testing industry denied that it was possible to raise a student’s scores to a significant degree. If coaching worked, wrote Nicholas Lemann in his essential history of testing from 1999, then “it made the SAT look like a series of parlor tricks and word games, rather than a gleaming instrument of scientific measurement.” Yet it’s clear that even the most elementary form of test prep—simply retaking the exam, multiple times—seems to have some benefit. The best independent research suggests that formal coaching can further boost a student’s score, but only by a little bit.
A quote from the second source, the New York Times, writing about the ridiculously low number of black students admitted to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City, which has an entrance exam. (Only 8 black students were admitted out of 4,262, while more than half of those admitted were Asians.)
Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, launched a multimillion dollar lobbying and advertising campaign in 2019 to defeat the mayor’s push to eliminate the specialized school exam. As part of that effort, Mr. Lauder and his partner in the initiative, former Citigroup chairman Richard D. Parsons, promised to shower test preparation companies with money to better prepare Black and Latino students for the exam.
Despite over $750,000 spent on test prep over the last two years, most of which was funneled to existing nonprofit programs across the city, their plan has not made a dent in the numbers.
No, test prep is not a good way to even out inequities, and certainly not a way to assure equal opportunity. While eliminating all standardized tests will create more equity by reducing the disparity among groups in test scores, it also deprives schools of valuable information about a student’s potential and makes it harder to identify outstanding minority students.
What to do? The disparity we’re seeing might be the end result of decades of bigotry against blacks that has created, as John McWhorter suggests, a culture that values street smarts more than academic achievement, and has also led to a surfeit of families with single-mother parents. To remedy this takes a lot more than test preparation. It takes substantial investment in providing families with stability, improving teaching, and tailoring instruction to individual students. And it takes a huge social investment in effacing differences in opportunities available to minority students.