Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 715-730
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Teaching Compliance While Testing Like A State
David H. Price
Saint Martin's College
"The idea of measuring the progress of millions of individual students by subjecting them to standardized tests is absurd. This does not measure the progress made by the student; it measures the progress made by the system. Our schools are really factories of mass production where the object isn't to educate and inform, but to produce a homogenous culture of non-thinking conformists and consumers. The finished product is like a fast food hamburger from McDonald's. It's uniformly the same no matter where you buy it from."
The Roots of A More Activist Anthropology
During the last century anthropological research challenged racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination in American society. Among anthropology's most significant activist contributions to 20th century American public policy are its arguments against uniformist visions linking race and ethnicity with intelligence. Given anthropology's past role in challenging the determinative applications of standardized I.Q., it is surprising to find most anthropologists sitting on the sidelines as America prepares for a standardized testing revival—a revival [End Page 715] whose outcome stands to be as discriminatory and punitive as the I.Q.-linked immigration or placement schemes of the past century. 1
In the early 1900s anthropologists like Franz Boas criticized the biased nature of intelligence tests, and challenged the uses of standardized test results by educational, immigration and law enforcement officials (see Boas 1912 & Wax 2000). Otto Klineberg's critiques of biased I.Q. tests established the social dangers of assigning significant meaning to tests that measured cultural participation more than they measured "innate intelligence" (Klineberg 1935 & 1963). Gene Weltfish suffered the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy for publishing The Races of Mankind (co-authored with Ruth Benedict)andclaiming that "Northern Negroes" had higher I.Q. scores than "Southern Whites" (Price 2004). 2 A host of popular anthropologists such as Ashley Montagu, Margaret Mead and Marvin Harris wrote popular articles, essays and books to educate the general public on the dangers of relying on standardized I.Q. tests to sort individuals in any meaningful way. And anthropological critiques of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's 1996 best-seller, The Bell Curve, clarified how economic and social stratification continues to overlay measurements of intelligence and other realms of competency (i.e., Alland 1996; Brace 1996).
At the heart of anthropological critiques of I.Q. tests is the observation that these tests do not objectively measure some quantity of "intelligence;" instead these measures are themselves biased tools used to justify the maintenance or creation of systems of stratification. Measurements of human mental capacities are seldom "just measurements," they are themselves social statements: statements of power, desire, hierarchy and ultimately statements of control. These measurements transpire within preexisting political economies and their use tends to reify rather than challenge extant hierarchies.
Methodological critiques of standardized tests have historically been met with viscous renunciations by social conservatives. Anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists critiquing the use of culturally-biased tests to sort conscripts during the First World War were attacked as unpatriotic dupes, while critics of racist abuses of IQ tests were frequently labeled "Communists" in the mid-twentieth century (Herman 1995; Price 2004). Today neoconservatives similarly dismiss those who oppose standardized testing regimes as being welfare-state-devotees fearing the loss of their dependent constituencies once they get hooked on phonics and shake their dependency on government cheese. 3 But while such reactionary grousing strikes a cord with some Americans, the tilted logic supporting the drive for excessive high stakes testing should be critiqued and challenged in ways that move beyond such caricatures of motivation and agency. [End Page 716]
Current commitments to improving educational standards through an increased reliance on high stakes standardized tests are historically linked to American social engineers' attraction to standardized I.Q. tests. 4 And just as I.Q. tests served as useful "scientific" props allowing policy makers to avoid confronting difficult truths about the...