By Akil Bello
Originally appeared in Word in Black
In his continued assault on public education and American ideals of equality, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has exposed that assessment creation and adoption is far from objective.
In a statement announcing the approval of the Classic Learning Test (CLT) for use to admit students to Florida institutions of higher education, the Florida Department of Education touted that the test will “reach a wider variety of students” and “better serving students.”
Despite this lofty rhetoric, this is merely the latest example of DeSantis’s very public attempts to remake public education to align with his vision.
Sadly, using hyperbolic word salad to justify and disguise other ulterior motives is as American as apple pie.
The Racist Roots of Aptitude Testing
The SAT’s origin story as a scholarship test developed to bring more under-resourced students to Harvard University is a prime example of ideology guiding test selection and marketing disguising motivation. The myth of the “scholarship test” hides that its guiding principles were that intelligence was innate, racially determined, disconnected from learning, and measurable using Greek, Latin, vocabulary, geometry, and algebra.
The retellings of the test’s origin gloss over that the SAT was used to provide numeric confirmation of the scientific racism that guided the Harvard-led field of measurement science. In the years that followed, the founding fathers of admissions testing recanted their beliefs, but by then, it was too late.
Losing faith in the notion of aptitude testing also led Everett Lindquist to leave the College Board and create the second most popular college admission test, the ACT. A purported achievement test, the ACT was presented as a less elitist test of learning. This pitch fueled ACT’s growth among Midwestern colleges, and competition for students led to its acceptance nationwide.
Why the SAT Changed
The question of which theory of testing, aptitude or achievement, was best has never been answered but in 2014, after selling fewer tests than ACT for the first time, the College Board’s CEO David Coleman essentially conceded. That year Coleman not only announced changes to the test but also said the SAT “has removed every last trace of an aptitude test.”
It wasn’t research or benefit to students that shifted the underlying theory and format of SAT but the competition for customers.
Since the ’60s, the needs and desires of the University of California system (UC) have arguably had more impact on the construction and use of admission tests than any research or psychometrician. The 1968 decision by the UC to require the SAT or ACT for all incoming students was driven by the need to restrict eligibility to 12.5% of graduating seniors and implemented — despite the UC’s own research showing the negligible role the tests played in predicting success.
The UC’s adoption of the tests contributed to public universities across the country requiring admission tests. In 2001, a threat by the President of the UC to stop requiring the SAT caused the College Board to again completely revamp the test.
It’s Not Just the SAT Playing Games
Despite giving lip service to how their products measure needed skills, test publishers have consistently changed their products and marketing to make sales.
Where once the GMAT was billed as a test of skills required for business school, the LSAT for law school, the MCAT for medical school, and the GRE for graduate school, that stopped when the Educational Testing Service (ETS) lost the contracts for GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. ETS has since engaged in a campaign to convince all professional programs that the GRE, a test of vocabulary and math, was equally predictive of performance in business, law, and science.
In addition to rewriting the history of the purpose and efficacy of the tests, test publishers have been racing to produce the shortest (yet the same) test. In the past year, the GMAT removed a third of the testing time. Shortly afterward, ETS made the GRE what they called “the shortest test of general skills for admission to graduate and professional programs (shorter than the GMAT exam, the GMAT Focus, and the LSAT)!”
Despite content and format changes, test publishers continue to claim these tests to be effective measures of ability, merit, aptitude, readiness, or whatever jargon will enable the greatest sales.
Furthering Racism Through Testing
Worse than ideological, marketing, budgetary, or competition motivations, racism has also long driven choices, and tests have long been tools to disguise, defend, or reinforce those choices. Literacy tests were used to restrict Black people from voting.
The University of Texas at Austin adopted the SAT in order to “keep Negroes out of most classes where there are a large number of girls. ”The Hecht-Calandra law in New York that overrides local control of 4 of the city’s 600 high schools to mandate, against scientific recommendations, admission solely by test ensured the white monopolization of the city’s most resourced schools. IQ tests in California were used to track droves of non-white students into special education classes.
What is new in the adoption of the CLT is how blatantly its proponents have shown that their support of this test is guided by belief and ideology.
CLT board members have publicly stated that this test is a “Christian and classic” alternative. It’s not surprising that a board that includes Chris Rufo, Mark Bauerlein, Erika Donalds, and others either directly or ideologically aligned with right-wing group PragerU (not a university) and Hillsdale College would equate older, whiter authors to a “Christian tradition.”
Company founder and former SAT prep tutor Jeremy Tate seems to avoid directly referencing Christianity, but does claim that his test’s intent is to change curriculum by creating a test that includes content he would rather schools teach.
Tate also claims that “the SAT/ACT neglect the great philosophical and theological traditions.” But this contention is somewhat suspect given that an analysis of authors on the small percent of official SAT tests publicly available showed that at least 15% of the passages were from the authors on the CLT list.
Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Benjamin Franklin are all on the CLT’s author list and have appeared on the SAT. Even a passage by Pope Leo XIII has appeared, which is not on the CLT’s list but would seem to meet their criteria of being old, European, and theological.
By approving the CLT, Florida’s powers-that-be are signaling they care more about belief in what the test might do, rather than the actuality of what it’s shown to do.
In voting to approve the CLT, only one member of the state university system’s Board of Governors, Professor Amanda Phalin, objected to the “lack of empirical evidence” and that the “test’s reliability and validity have not been independently demonstrated or verified.” DeSantis’ office and the Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for research supporting use of the CLT.
Unfortunately, institutions adopting tests or making claims about tests without providing support or research isn’t unusual.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Tennessee (UT) both returned to requiring tests without clear demonstration that the tests provide educational value or better outcomes for students.
MIT claimed its return was intended to aid in building a diverse college, but did not release any institutional research and all available national research suggesting the opposite. UT cut short their announced 5-year test optional research pilot despite a board report that explicitly stated that test scores have almost no effect in predicting 4 or 6-year graduation rates and are only statistically significant with first-year retention.
Additionally, several states have adopted the ACT exam as its statewide assessment despite research demonstrating that the test was poorly aligned with the state standards.
The belief in a particular test and what it signals wouldn’t be as problematic if performance and scores weren’t misrepresented and misused.
Perhaps Wayne Camra, former chief researcher at ACT and the College Board, said it best: “Policy-makers or folks who hope to sell tests or get the ear of policy-makers will make unfortunate statements, will not listen to the folks in research who try to educate them and try to contextualize the scores.”
There is no evidence that the CLT, which Tate claims he created with one other person, is either more accurate, more fair, improves education, or tests anything truly different than the SAT or ACT. There is evidence that it has been marketed to a particular subset of politicians, and they aren’t interested in asking any questions.
A simple translation of the research and marketing of the CLT amounts to “since about 40% of test questions draw from whiter, older authors, the test is better and will drive curriculum towards whatever a classic education is.”
At best, it’s not different. At worst, it’s a cosplay of the SAT from the 1990s. The acceptance of this test by Florida reveals that the idea of standardized tests is one of rigorous quantitative measures but the history and reality of test design, selection, and use has been anything but.