The following excerpt is from the opening chapter of STANDARDIZED MINDS: THE HIGH PRICE OF AMERICA’S TESTING CULTURE AND WHAT WE CAN DO TO CHANGE IT by Peter Sacks. (Perseus Books, Cambridge, Mass., February 2000).
Most Americans take standardized mental tests as a rite of passage from the day they enter kindergarten. Gatekeepers of America’s meritocracy—educators, academic institutions, and employers—have used test scores to label people as bright or not bright, as worthy academically or not worthy. Some, with luck, are able to overcome the stigma of poor performance on mental tests. But others do not.
Indeed, not only is it a stigma, but one largely unrecognized in our culture. Meritocracy’s gatekeepers brand those who score poorly on standardized tests as somehow deficient, incapable. Educators have used a quasi-clinical term for such people: Remember the teacher or counselor who scornfully labeled an ambitious, competent child an “overachiever” because her academic performance exceeded what the tests predicted? Or recall the hand-wringing over the “underachiever,” the student whose brilliant test scores predicted greater things than what he actually accomplished.
These terms are disappearing from public discussion, a result of concerns about standardized testing and its role in the American merit system. Some scholars have forcefully argued against the narrow views of ability measured by traditional mental tests. Many educators have sung the praises of new, authentic alternatives to standardized testing, such as performance assessment. Advocates of performance assessment say schools ought to focus more on what people can do and less on how well kindergarteners, high school students, and prospective teachers take tests.
Although the antitesting bandwagon has gathered new adherents, the wagon itself has crashed head-on into an entrenched system that is obsessed with the testing of American minds. With roots in intelligence testing that go back generations, the mental measurement establishment continues to define merit largely in terms of potential ability rather than actual performance. The case against standardized mental testing is as intellectually and ethically rigorous as any argument about social policy in the past twenty years. And yet such testing continues to dominate the education system, carving further inroads into the employment arena as well, having been bolstered in recent years by a conservative backlash advocating advancement by “merit.”
How has the standardized testing paradigm managed to remain entrenched, despite the many criticisms against it? Like a drug addict who knows he should quit, America is hooked. We are a nation of standardized-testing junkies.