Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies”
Source: citizenstewart.org
Source: citizenstewart.org

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the academic achievement gap–built and continuously renovated by the 100-year-old standardized testing movement. It is a centennial that hardly anyone knows about.

These days, many people are criticizing the testing movement. Colleges are slowly diminishing the importance of standardized testing in admissions decisions. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of wealthy white parents opting their school children out of these tests.

But few testing critics are bursting its biggest bubble: the existence of the achievement gap itself. To believe in the existence of any sort of racial hierarchy is actually to believe in a racist idea. The achievement gap between the races–with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinos at the bottom–is a racial hierarchy. And this popular racial hierarchy has been constructed by our religious faith in standardized testing.

Americans have been led to believe that intelligence is like body weight, and the different intellectual levels of different people can be measured on a single, standardized weight scale. Our faith in standardized tests causes us to believe that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers–and not the tests. And the belief that “inferior” Black minds are capable of doing as well as the “superior” White minds does not take away from the racist belief in the existence of the racial hierarchy itself. Let me explain.

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911)
Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911)

In 1869, Charles Darwin’s cousin, English statistician Francis Galton, hypothesized in Hereditary Genius that “[t]he average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton pioneered the western eugenics movement, but failed to develop a testing mechanism that verified his racist hypothesis. Where Galton failed, France’s Alfred Binet and Thodore Simon thought they succeeded in 1905 when they developed an IQ test that Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman revised for Americans in 1916.

Lewis Terman (1877-1956)
Lewis Terman (1877-1956)

An avowed eugenicist, Terman introduced and defended the viability of the nation’s first popular standardized intelligence test in his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence. These “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture,” Terman maintained. He imagined a permanent academic achievement gap, a permanent racial hierarchy.

Terman’s IQ test was first administered on a major scale to 1.7 million U.S. soldiers during World War I. Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham presented the test results as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in A Study of American Intelligence, published three years before he created the SAT test in 1926.

Famed physicist William Shockley and educational psychologist Arthur Jensen carried these eugenic ideas into the 1960s. But by then, these genetic explanations—not the tests and the achievement gap itself—had largely been discredited. In other words, the construction of a permanent racial hierarchy had been replaced by the construction of a temporary racial hierarchy.

bell-curveWell-meaning environmentalists had shifted the discourse to disclosing and closing the “achievement gap,” a shift that powered the testing movement through The Bell Curve controversy in 1994. “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences” in test scores, wrote Harvard experimental psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray.

The Bell Curve sparked such an intense academic war in 1995 that the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a Task Force on Intelligence. The APA report rejected all the existing explanations for “the differential between the mean intelligence test scores of Blacks and Whites,” from “biases in test construction” to genes, class, and culture. “At this time, no one knows what is responsible for the differential,” they concluded.

No one will ever know what doesn’t exist. And yet, the racist idea of an “achievement gap” lived on into the new millennium. The testing movement rejoiced over the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.

Progress has been slow in closing the statistical gap. In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average Black 12th grader scored in the 13 percentile, meaning 87 percent of White 12th graders scored higher on their tests than the average Black 12th grader. The Nation’s Report Card fifty years later found that the average Black 12th grader scored in the 19th percentile. And in 2015, Blacks still had the lowest mean SAT scores of any racial group.

At 100-years-young this year, standardized tests have come to literally embody the American doors of opportunity, admitting and barring people from the highest ranked schools, colleges, graduate schools, professions, and jobs. Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies. However, some of the greatest defenders of standardized testing are civil rights leaders, who rely on the testing data in their well-meaning lobbying efforts for greater accountability and resources.

But what if, all along, our well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?

Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite. Relegating the non-elite to the basement of intellect because they do not know as many abstractions has been the conceit of the elite.

What if we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life?

What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual’s mind is to self-critique and new ideas?

What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are? What if we realized the best way to standardize a highly effective educational system is not by standardizing our tests but by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?

But intellectual difference, and multiple literacies, languages, and vocabularies, are only valued in a multi-cultural society that truly values diversity and difference. The testing movement does not value multiculturalism. The testing movement does not value the antiracist equality of difference. The testing movement values the racist hierarchy of difference, and its bastard 100-year-old child: the academic achievement gap.

Ibram X. Kendi is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea

  • Thank you for a superb article! Through disseminating factual information like this, we can begin to dismantle racist ideas that were always in the background. And I am not even talking about racist Whites. I am talking about US. We absorb these negative ideas about Blacks as much as Whites do. Time for that to change.

  • This is well written and I agree with many of the sentiments and the notion of racial and class warfare. However, at the end of the day, the reason our black boys and girls are struggling to read and write at the same rates as white students is overwhelmingly due to a lack of value placed on the educational process combined with a lack of knowledge on how to build academic capacity from large pockets of the black community. What we need most in our community, even more than a revamp of testing ideologies, is more parents-as-teachers educational opportunities beyond pre-k and kindergarten. Parents must reinforce what is pushed in schools without excuse. From a practicing educator’s lens, that is the largest contributory factor between black students who excel and those who don’t. Instructional practice in the classroom is a strong second.

    • Yes. Blame the parents. That makes perfect sense. Because systemic and structural racism do not affect the individuals who are targeted by it. Blame the parents because, apparently, in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps no matter what. Blame the parents because it’s easier and more comfortable to blame individuals than it is to blame a corrupted society.

      There is absolutely no way to even begin to repair what is, so obviously, broken without naming (unapologetically) what is broken and acknowledging and reversing the ways in which the break was welcomed by many and allowed to happen by a few.

      The pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps argument does not fly and never has. That is the epitome of some Booker T . Washington logic when we should have understood when he was spitting that logic that it made no sense.

      • How is this a “blaming the parents” sentiment as opposed to acknowledging an important variable impacting the educational process of all children, regardless of class or race? To dismiss the importance of the parental role as a first an ongoing educational resource for a child is not even supported by any research. To acknowledge the role of parents is not to dismiss systemic or internalized racism. Dr. Davis’ comments creates a “both and” lens that simply reflects what we in public education experience – the more successful students of color who come from a low SES background by far have parents or other extended family actively engaged in the student’s educational process. To know better is to do better. This is no different an assertion about the role of parents in learning as it would be with diet and nutrition. Parents matter and they must understand the importance of consistently providing healthy and whole foods to a child. If a childwho is overweight and develops a condition like diabetes, we don’t say it’s blaming the parent when we state that a parent needs to make better choices about food and also have the resources for that healthier food.

      • I have served in education for the past 17 years, and I agree with Phillip Boyd; is not each an issue-parenting and the system? Parental support is the key protective factor related to resilience in youth. Resilience is ones capacity to overcome despite trauma and barriers. Do we wait on the system that has oppressed us to suddenly change its mind, or do we take matters into our own hands with regard to the development and success of our youth? To do anything less is to wait for a handout from your oppressor. You’ll be waiting another 100 years!

    • Too simplistic! You are ignoring the insidious effects of poverty and centuries of racism. Your position assumes that black parents have no knowledge of the importance of education. Yes, blame the victim! If they could only know that education is important they would do better. Forget about the fact that the schools in the suburbs are better funded and the white parents are more educated and economically better equipped to fund their children’s education. I have seen firsthand the products of our inner city schools and have seen the effects of racism. When would people realize that the very soul of our people has been damaged and work to improve the lives of our people rather than digging in with this normative-educative theories?

      • Ezekiel Ette, you are so right. Being white I can never know what our black citizens go through. I do get very angry when white people refuse to acknowledge that institutional racism exists. It does and we need to accept our part as whites in maintaining it and put a stop to it. Dr. Kendi is so right in his assessments.

    • Well said.

  • For a list of 880 colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT from some or all applicants, see http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional. [The second link in this article, ‘colleges,’ does not lead to a page with that sort of information.]

  • This is a well written article and thought provoking. I as a Black parent knew about this bias and prepared my children for testing by reading to them and using the books from the library and other educational materials. I asked about colors and we compare sizes of cans and boxes as we put the groceries away. We cook together. We spent time in the museums, gardens, parks and any free performance. My children score high on their IQ test. I think Black children have many skills but they are not part of the test. I have watch low income Black children know exactly the amount of bottles they needed for a certain amount of money but was unable to translate that same information to school math.

  • Thanks for writing this. Not sure if you’ve followed the discussion on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for science.
    https://aas.org/posts/news/2015/12/presidents-column-rethinking-role-gre and the article by Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun, A test that fails, http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7504-303a
    with research showing the strong correlation of the GRE with demographics and very weak correlation with success in science.
    I am so frustrated by the obsession with comparing groups of children using standardized tests especially given evidence that the tests are not predictive of success.

  • “What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?”

    So are you saying we shouldn’t try to change that environment? If we reject standardized measure for comparisons and say instead children are equally intelligent just in different ways, is there anything that you want to improve in the schools? And if so on what grounds?

    • Let’s make sure that the schools have buildings that are well maintained, books, computer labs, librarians, arts, music, science labs, reading specialists, after school programs, nutritious meals, supportive administration, engaging curriculum, trained educators, parent programs, sports, recess… It’s not that we don’t know what makes a good school. Look on google at the middle school in a place like Wellesley, MA that has tennis courts and one in Boston and make them equal.

  • Seems like someone is plowing some a fallow field.

  • Seems like someone is plowing a fallow field.

  • You really cut the issue here. As a teacher, I’m all too aware of how perverse the system of test and punish is and hurts teachers and kids alike. You are also spot on about the different types of intellect and how biased the measures are. The model they used in Finland to turn their educational system around is polar opposite of ours (they actually WANTED to address economic inequality) and they are now number one consistently in the world. They don’t focus on standardized testing, either. Granted, they don’t have the racial baggage we do, true, but I can’t help but think we could learn something from them. Certainly the corporate people that want to privatize and divide and conquer our communities for profit (and their own interests), are NOT the ones who have the answers. It is so
    important for great intellectuals like yourself to beat this drum- no one listens to K-12 teachers, that’s for sure. Bravo.

  • Thank you for so adequately readdressing the truth that those of us who’ve spent 30 or more years in the trenches of urban education have known.
    However, may I add to your insight, that the testing and test products driving this unfortunate attitude are now almost entirely created and controlled by one monopoly educational publisher who has never shyed from stressing proudly, that policy and product is equally driven and directed with the stockholder in mind.
    When both the curriculum and the test are controlled by the same corporate
    Behemoth, there is not much chance that these children you mentioned will be given one(chance).
    I spent my final years before defeat; continuing to teach my students how to research, question, create and debate their knowledge. Most of all, I taught them to cherish the written word; because the reality for them was not a shortage of natural ability or a lack of curiosity . It was the sad reality that they lived in homes with no , or few books.
    I would be willing to venture far out on a limb and say , that one of the greatest predictors of educational success for any child in this country is a well worn library card.

  • Thank you for this well thought out and well researched article. We need much more research to be done on all the skills children DO have, all the ways they ARE brilliant. I teach in New York City in a school that is almost 100% black and brown, and my students are brilliant in so many ways. But no matter how many rimes I tell them that, they get test scores that make them feel otherwise. And I have seen nearly two decades of these tests now. They are boring, they are ambiguous, and they are not developmentally appropriate OR culturally relevant. They drone on for days of my students lives, sucking joy out of an entire month. In many ways these tests do not even test things that I feel are important skills for kids to have. Yet somehow so much cultural, political, and economics power is gained by the results of these tests. Schools on the Upper West or Upper East Side are deemed “excellent” as the result of these tests. It is really a travesty, a great injustice.

    When I was applying to graduate school I refused to take a graduate admissions test. I wrote a letter explaining how I, as a white woman, would probably score just fine on this test since it would be culturally relevant for me, but that I felt it was a racist test that discriminated against people who were otherwise brilliant but could not demonstrate their brilliant through a test that was biased against them. After reading this article I am happy I took that stance, but I have since felt powerless when it comes to doing something about the devastating effects of these tests on the students I love. I feel complicit when I administer these tests that devastate their self confidence and their willingness to learn. That is why we need researchers and writers like you to point the racism underlying these tests, and how they are nefariously used to oppress black and brown and poor people, and to make rich whites feel superior. Thank you!

  • While I agree with your contention that standardized tests are inherently flawed, wrongheaded, and should be eliminated, it seems to me that your argument in this post amounts to an academic version of the old schoolyard contrast between “street smarts” and “book smarts.” While it is certainly the case that “street smarts” are important, the fascinating and thorough research of this very post is sufficient evident of the superiority of “book smarts.” That is, if we want our children and students to be able to be successful outside of the confines of specific neighborhoods and communities.

    You write that the difference in environments between wealthy white children and black children living in poverty is the source of a difference in intelligence and aptitude. This is undoubtedly the case, and, as a result of this, these wealthy white children develop a set of skills and background knowledge that will allow them to perform well at tasks like, well, taking standardized tests, whereas the African-American child in a poor neighborhood and from a book-deprived household develops an altogether different set of skills and knowledge which enable him or her to perform exceedingly well at a number of tasks necessary to life within such a setting. The same could be said when contrasting suburban and rural white children as well. Rural children tend to perform worse on standardized tests, but I am certain the rural child possesses a great many skills the suburban child does not. The problem, however, is one of transferability of these skills and this knowledge. Whereas the skills and knowledge being developed by the wealthy (mostly suburban) white child will allow him or her to go on to a college education and career achievement, those developed by the white rural child and the black child in urban poverty will not.

    While, again, I agree with your call for the elimination of standardized tests, to eliminate them for the reason you posit is merely to hide the problem rather than to confront it. The problem is a difference in culture that has produced a difference in skills and knowledge and, therefore, a real (not standardized test-oriented) achievement gap. There is no simple solution to this problem, but ignoring or pretending that it is not a problem will not make it go away.

    E.D. Hirsch’s research in the 1970s and 1980s that found large cultural knowledge discrepancies between members of different socioeconomic groups and resulted in his (and others’) creation of the Core Knowledge (not Common Core, in spite of the similar sounding names) curriculum is, I think, a large step in the right direction. I don’t want to spend too much time selling it–he’s not paying me after all–but it may be worth looking into for those unfamiliar with it. At the center of it is the notion that there is a large set of ideas, names, places, events, etc. that one must be familiar with in order to be “culturally literate”–a functional and potentially successful citizen of the United States. I am a teacher in a school whose students are largely African-American and from low-wealth households. We use Core Knowledge in K-8 and I have found it very successful at doing precisely what it promises. I’ll admit that it hasn’t significantly raised our test scores (though our reading scores do seem to be rising at a faster rate than other schools in the districting, but we are only four years old and have to wait to see how this bears out longterm). What it has done, however, is enabled our students to have a much wider conception of the world than they had before, to understand and partake in political discourse, to converse with confidence about the culture around them, and to see the potential this knowledge has given them for their futures. And that is, of course, exactly what we all want for them.

    • You missed the entire point of the article (and your own comment). How does one conclude that a persons skills and knowledge are transferable if the tests are DESIGNED to tell that they are NOT????

      • *designed to only conclude that they are not

  • This is just my opinion based on more than a decade of teaching at a predominantly black school as a white educator…I think the biggest obstacle resides in getting the students to believe that they can succeed. I’ve lost track of the number of times that my students have said they don’t test well or are bad at science (I teach Chemistry). I am truly thankful that I’ve convinced numerous students that they can be successful in science without foresaking their foundational roots.

  • Tons of standardized tests are flawed, such so the GRE which does not correlate with success in the school it is used to apply to. I agree they should be less abstract. But sorry, are you suggesting giving our black children different tests that assess just the things they are good at? Which you say are able to assess their intelligence based on the environment they’ve grown up in? I’d be really interested to see such a test, if you can give a few assessment items. Wouldn’t giving different tests to different backgrounds of people be just as racist move, though?

  • Excellent article and equally thought-provoking comments. Currently in the political arena, I am a permanently certified teacher, K-6, and have taught in Western New York, Westchester County and New York City schools. In addition, I attended and graduated from an HBCU with a degree in Elementary Education and received my graduate level degree in Public Administration state university in New York. It is my opinion that those of us who are in a position to influence, teach, educate, inform, set policy or in any way impact the educational outcomes of African American youth in this country must understand the most basic and fundamental underlying facts regarding the original intent of leaders in this country to educate all children through the public education system and African American children, in particular. There are no known documented laws, in this country, prohibiting Caucasian/ White children from being taught to read and write. After the Civil War, public education was created to provide basic and rudimentary skills required to support adequate functioning and performance in factories and, eventually, create “working class America.” During the Antebellum era children of the so-called elite were, initially, educated in Europe and, later after Ivy League colleges were built with the use of funds and resources generated by African Americans through their free labor, (read the book, Complicity as it documents how families in the Northeast, acquired wealth used to build Ivy League colleges from the slave trade and the cotton sent to textile industries in Lowell, Mass to produce fine textiles sent to Europe for purchase and trade) Management level positions and other social as well as economic factors gave rise to the burgeoning middle class in America.

    The earliest known origins of education for African American children were associated with a system that applied harsh penalties and punishment including the loss of life or liberty as well as heinous acts of brutality to those caught teaching Black children (or adults) to read. Thus, the earliest documented policies and practices associated with education in this country were designed to deny Black people the right to read, write and have access to the same educational resources or quality facilities afforded White children. Nevertheless, documented evidence of “Pit Schools” reveal that African Americans, during the period of enslavement in this country, were willing to risk life and liberty when they would gather in deep pits built into the ground covered by tree limbs and camouflage to teach each other how to read and write. Throughout these past 100 years, millions of Black children have achieved academic success in spite of the early and sustained principles, beliefs and practices implemented to impede their progress. However, no one could deny Black children the quality of care, concern, instruction, confidence and consciousness building, emphasis on respect, behavior and demeanor, values-oriented and high-achievement focused education provided by Black teachers, pre integration, as these attributes were derived from a desire to see Black children succeed – practices and values still prevalent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I am not necessarily suggesting, here, a return to segregated public schools, however, we need to take more and more responsibility for supplementing the education of African American children in and outside of whatever schools they attend as well as holding administrators of schools where their children attend accountable for providing the academic support required to ensure their success. Teaching is not easy and, as a former teacher (but lifelong learner and educator) my heart goes out to those who are expected to produce miracles with thirty children in a classroom, when some people give up on efforts to ensure the success of just one – their own. (not intending to sound critical, but we have to face the facts) Be that as it may, (we)African American teachers, educators, administrators, professors – all of us, must get into the communities, perhaps through churches, as well, and demonstrate for parents how to read to their children, teach them the reading and writing strategies, Bloom’s Taxonomy of questioning, etc., (parents can support their children in developing “higher-order” thinking skills with specific types of questions following a reading or, even, television viewing activity at home) how to create appropriate study space (even if in the middle of the living room floor like my mother did), homework focus time and encourage leisure reading/writing time at home.

    I didn’t interpret the comments above as “blaming parents;” I understood them to suggest the urgent need for African American parents to take more active roles in supporting and ensuring the academic involvement and success of their children. Young people have so few options in an advanced technological society, one that is on a continuous upward trajectory, globally, without completing high school and acquiring relevant training or a degree that will allow him/her to successfully compete for meaningful employment in the legitimate world of work. May God bless all.

  • “Academic achievement” is a ploy to erode democracy, democratic schools, democratic classrooms, democratic education and degrade the development of citizens capable of participation in democratic society. On top of that, corporate education reformers are stealing public education right out from under the noses of US citizens. The evidence is all around. Young people do not vote. US voter participation rates are the lowest of any major democracy. Classroom instruction and teacher pedagogy is based on authoritarianism, information processing, data collection and Pavlovian psychology. Instead of a curriculum of abundance, the richest nation on Earth offers it’s youngest citizens a curriculum of scarcity deployed under the structure of behavior modification in pursuit of “academic achievement.” What affect does driving the cold hard spike of inappropriate pressure for 16000 non-consensual hours in pursuit of “academic achievement” have on the malleable minds of children? The affect is the perpetuation of the sorting and disengagement of this nation’s most vulnerable children. The school-to-prison-pipeline. Rates of crime, poverty, apathy and civic disengagement the highest of the industrialized world.

  • Seems to me the mere fact that the creator called it an “expirament” is grounds for never using it to gather information on ANYONE’S intelligence. Let alone African-Americans who most don’t understand, in anyway, in general.

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