June 15, 2018   

Standardized Test Is the Best Tool We Have to Fight Racism

This is a continuation of my fight against de Blasio’s bill to scrap SHSAT. You can read my previous post about this if you have not read it.

In this article, I’m going to argue that a standardized test, like SHSAT, is a better tool to combat racism than an interview, or any multi-factor selection process that includes subjective evaluation, because, as soon as subjectivity is involved, it becomes impossible to identify racist biases (both conscious and unconscious) and to hold anyone accountable. And, when we allow subjective evaluation, the dominant racial group, which is to say white people, would have unfair influences in the process. This is how institutional racism persists even if nobody has racist intentions. Just as nobody in this country is above the law, nobody, not even the school principals or chancellors, should be above the admission process for public schools.

SHSAT vs. Interview (Objective vs. Subjective)

Let me start by defining what I mean by “objective” and “subjective.”

Let’s say you gave me a math test and scored it. I got 75 out of 100. Everyone, including myself, can review the result and agree with you. That is all I mean by “objective.” What exactly this number is assessing is an entirely different matter. Many people will object to this and complain that a math test cannot fairly evaluate a whole person. I agree. It cannot. The people who design these tests are not claiming that it can either. A test can only evaluate a very small aspect of a person. What aspect a test can evaluate is a separate issue from what constitutes “objective.”

In contrast, let’s say you interviewed me and gave me 60 out of 100. I’m not going to agree with you. And, if someone else were to interview me, he might give me 80 out of 100. There is no way to establish the validity of your score. This is what I mean by “subjective.”

Here is a real-world example we can analyze. The chart below compares Beacon High School against the city-wide racial proportions. Beacon is the equivalent of Stuyvesant among the “Screened” schools. If you want to know what happens to elite schools if we allow subjective admissions criteria like interviews, here is the result.

The people of color represent only half of their respective percentages while white students represent three and a half times the proportion of white students city-wide. Can you think of any fair, unbiased criteria that can select the proportions Beacon has? I can’t. It’s reasonable to suspect institutional racism but there is no way for us to audit their process to identify racist biases because their selection process includes subjective criteria. We cannot make any progress in fighting institutional racism if the process cannot be audited.

“Subjective” means that certain people are given the power to use their own judgment to decide who is good enough for their schools. How do we make sure that these people are not abusing their power? Even though white students account for only 15% of the entire school system, those who hold power at the top are predominantly white. From Beacon, we can already see what happens if we introduced subjective admissions criteria. If white people actually cared about the plight of black and Hispanic students, they would have already let fair shares of them into Beacon as they have the power to choose anyone they want.

In contrast, Asians do not have control of the SHSAT schools. Not even the principal of Stuyvesant can favor his/her own child. Nobody can use their connections on the inside. Nobody can leverage recommendations from rich and famous people. Not even the president of the United States can do anything about it. If you want to get in, you have to study hard to score high enough on SHSAT. That is the only way, and I would argue that it is the American way.

The admissions process that is too complex and opaque for the average people creates uncertainty, which leads to fear and frustration for the parents and students. It also allows the administrators to unknowingly perpetuate institutional racism. It is the duty of the parents to do whatever they can to advocate for their own children, so when we give power to a specific group of people, the abuse is unavoidable. The admissions process needs to be like our legal system where nobody is above it. Complexity and subjectivity generally encourage abuse. The financial crisis of 2008 is a good example. Wall Street’s financial products are so complex that the government cannot hold anyone accountable even when a massive fraud takes place.

Furthermore, why should the administrators of public schools have the power to use their own subjective values to judge our children? We the taxpayers are paying them. What gives them the right to subjectively judge some children to be better than ours?

The common complaint about standardized tests is that they only measure a few small aspects of each student, but think about what interviews evaluate. The interviewers have all the power, and the candidates are completely powerless. It’s not like going out on a date where both sides are evaluating one another from the equal position of power. When there is a large power imbalance, it is impossible to evaluate anyone accurately, honestly, or fairly. The candidates have no choice but to guess what the interviewers want to hear. The interviewers would naturally say, “Just be honest,” but that is easy for them to say. It’s not like there are hundreds of great schools to choose from. If someone is pointing a gun at you and telling you to relax and be honest, would you? Interviews select candidates who are great up sucking up to people in power. It is selecting for lack of integrity.

It is true that all standardized tests are culturally biased to a degree but such biases are nothing compared to the degree of prejudice, ethnocentrism, and institutional racism in interviews.

It’s not that I’m opposed to subjective evaluations in general. For private businesses, it makes sense to use subjective selection criteria because there are literally thousands of businesses to choose from, and they need skilled workers just as much as the applicants need the jobs. Furthermore, they are not funded by our tax dollars. Naturally, they are entitled to do whatever they want. The more diverse their values are, the more we have to choose from.

Can a Standardized Test Be Racist?

A standardized test can be used as a racist tool if it can conveniently select the particular race you want. But unfortunately for most racists, this is not possible. For instance, Harvard used to be like Stuyvesant where they selected their students based solely on their academic achievement, but this lead to more Jewish students than they wanted. In an attempt to covertly impose a racial quota, they introduced many subjective criteria including interviews. Now Asians are accusing them of using the same tactics to discriminate against them.

In other words, while the nature of the standardized tests remain the same, who they end up selecting can change over time. A standardized test is not inherently racist but it can be used as a racist tool if it happens to select the race you want.

If a white supremacist wanted to exclude people of color through a standardized test or interview, which one do you think would be easier? With the current dismal quality of K-8 education in NYC for black and Hispanic students, he could potentially use a standardized test to exclude them, but he won’t be able to exclude Asians and Jews. In contrast, with interviews, he could easily exclude all the people of color. He could even exclude specific white people he doesn’t like.

An inanimate object like a test by itself cannot be racist without someone using it to discriminate. Objects cannot think or posit one thing to be superior to another without a human behind it. With the current controversy over SHSAT, many people are calling SHSAT “racist” without explicitly identifying who the racists are. Just because something is drawing a disproportionate percentage of a particular race, it does not necessarily mean it’s racist.

The reason why the elite high schools are predominantly white and Asian becomes clear if we dig a little deeper. As the chart below shows, the proficiency rates of black and Hispanic students in K-8 are half those of Asian and white students.

The racial disparity we see in high school was created before high school. It is a symptom of the problem in K-8. Obviously, our primary and middle schools are failing black and Hispanic students. Fudging the appearance of high schools isn’t going to fix this problem. If we artificially removed the symptom, the politicians would have no incentive to solve the real problem, and black and Hispanic students will suffer the consequences of it at the college level. And, even if we artificially removed the symptom from colleges, nobody would be able to do anything about it in the real world. Standardized tests help expose the ugly truth so that we can solve the real problem. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Going back to whether a test can be racist or not: For SHSAT, the only possible racists are Asians since they are dominating the SHSAT schools, but it’s not possible for them to exercise their racist ideologies even if they were racist. As I said above, not even the president of the US can favor his own children. There is no room full of powerful Asians designing the test to favor Asians either. In fact, some Asian students are at a disadvantage because English is their second language and/or because their parents cannot help them as they do not speak English well. They also may not be familiar with some of the cultural references in the ELA test.

Some people I know are claiming that the Chinese community likes SHSAT because they can protect most of the seats at these elite high schools for themselves. This would be true if the selection criteria were subjective. At Beacon, the white people have a vested interest in keeping it white dominant because it would make it easier for other white students to get in. They have the power to. They can even covertly impose racial quotas like Harvard did.

Because we expect many schools to play favoritism, we are used to thinking of a dominant group controlling the racial proportions, but this is not possible at the SHSAT schools. Some people are imagining the Chinese community secretly discussing how many seats to reserve for themselves, but this is idiotic. It’s not possible. No matter how many Chinese students attend Stuyvesant, even if all students were Chinese, each student would still have to work just as hard to get in. In contrast, if you know someone on the inside at schools like Beacon, or if your father is the mayor of New York City, your chance of getting in dramatically increases without making any more effort. Ultimately, each Chinese parent cares only about his own child getting into the SHSAT schools. Everyone else is a competitor; whether he is Asian, black, Hispanic, white, or Jewish is irrelevant as it would not make it any easier for his child.

Besides, Stuyvesant is often criticized for being “cut-throat” instead of collaborative. Just think about it rationally; if the Asians wanted to scheme a plan to make it easier for their kids to get into Stuyvesant, they could all agree to study less since most of their competitors are themselves. But they are doing the exact opposite; they are making their own lives harder by fiercely competing with one another.

For most Asians, Stuyvesant is just a prep school for college, just like it was for the Jews before them. The ultimate goal is college. As long as they can go to the colleges they want, I doubt they care what color other students are. It’s not like the Dalton where they have to maintain their reputation/prestige through their appearance. These are people who believe in and must rely on meritocracy to get ahead in life, unlike the elite white students who rely on the prestige and connections to the powerful.

Is It Unfair If a Test Requires Tutoring?

Many people in this debate have argued that SHSAT is unfair because it requires tutoring, and because tutoring costs money, poor people are at a disadvantage.

I agree that, for the vast majority of students, getting into the SHSAT schools would require tutoring, or at least test-prepping beyond the standard 8th-grade curriculum. I also agree that this means money. But any goal we set out to achieve in life costs money because time is also money. To afford the time to do anything in life, we need money. If we don’t have money, we wouldn’t have time to do what we want to do because we would have to be earning money simply to survive. This is part of the problem many low-income black and Hispanic families face. Their parents do not have enough time to pay attention to their children. Some public school teachers have told me that low-income parents generally do not come talk to them about their children, so the teachers also lack the information to help these kids effectively.

So, what are these critics of SHSAT suggesting as a solution to this problem? Drag down the people who are better off in order to make the competition fair? How about helping the people at the bottom to come up instead?

Many exceptional kids will always study far beyond their grade levels. I’m pretty sure all students who make it into MIT, for instance, have knowledge far beyond the standard high school curriculums. If studying beyond the standard curriculum is unfair, we would be literally “dumbing down” the entire country.

If some middle school students love math and study calculus, they would be called “unfair.” The students who privately study piano would also be “unfair” by the same argument too as private teachers and pianos are expensive. We would then have to prevent everyone from studying beyond the standard curriculum and anything that cost money. And, because time is money, we would also have to stop these well-off parents from helping their kids in their free time. That would be “unfair” too since the low-income parents cannot afford to do the same.

All these would be absurd.

This country is actually driven by these exceptional people who go beyond the standards and expectations. Part of the reason Japan’s economy has been stagnant for so long is that they do not have many exceptional people even though their average academic proficiencies are higher than in the US. We need to, not only allow but, encourage academic diversity. If some students want to push far beyond our expectations, we should be praising them, not calling them “unfair.” But this does not mean that everyone needs to push beyond expectations academically.

If you are going to study computer programming for the first time, you should not take an advanced programming class. If you did, you would learn nothing. If learning is what’s important to you (not the prestige attached to the names of the schools), then the best school for you is one that matches your proficiency level. If you force yourself to a school beyond your level, you will learn less, not more. You should be happy with the school that matches your proficiency level. It would be silly to be bitter and envious of the people in the advanced computer programming class.

People have to stop being so bitter and envious of these “elite” schools. They are not for everyone. (I suck at taking tests too and I went to art school.) We cannot solve the problem of our school system by attacking the top schools. The problem is at the bottom. It would be irresponsible to ignore these real problems at the bottom, and think that we can solve them by simply cramming more students into the top schools. The SHSAT schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech are already too big.

Differences in Values

At the heart of this problem is ethnocentrism, our tendency to believe that our own values are universal. Let me try to explain how different value systems form based on race.

White parents value education but they realize that, after a certain point, academic excellence can only do so much in the real world. This is true with IQ also. To a certain point, a higher IQ correlates to greater economic success in life, but after a certain point, it begins to plateau or even invert. Whom you know becomes much more important than what you know. For this reason, what you learn at Harvard becomes less important than whom you can meet through their network. Often all you need to become highly successful in life is to meet one right person. White people know this consciously or intuitively, so they feel studying as hard as Asians do is not worth the effort or even counter-productive. They tend to focus on intangible skills like emotional intelligence, confidence, social skills, and leadership skills which are useful for management level jobs. Since they are well-connected, they can climb to these positions relatively quickly in life. For them, it makes sense to value these intangible skills. Most white parents I know do not want to send their kids to Stuyvesant even if they can get in. They do not feel it’s the right school for them. This makes sense within their value system.

In contrast, let’s look at the world from the perspective of Asians. Particularly immigrant Asians cannot rely on connections to move up the ladder since the people in power are mostly white and they would naturally favor other white people. Without the connections to those in power, the only way for Asians to compete is with what they know. They need to be able to measure and prove their worth since they are handicapped in building rapport with white people in power. They cannot expect to quickly climb the ladder to the management level, so tangible skills like engineering become more valuable and realistic to them than leadership skills. It’s not that they do not value leadership skills; it’s just that it’s not a realistic option for many Asians as they may never get to a point where their leadership skills would come in handy. Just doing the best they can academically, like those students at SHSAT schools, makes sense for their situation.

Now, let’s look at the reality black people face. For many of them, just getting decent (or legal) jobs is hard. This is why many of them end up dealing drugs. In this reality, studying trigonometry, world history, science, and literature would feel too abstract. In the type of jobs they can get, how would the knowledge of calculus or Shakespeare help? What most high schools and colleges teach feel too removed from their own reality, so they tend to focus on more trade-specific skills, the skills that have immediate market values. It’s not that they don’t value general education; it’s more that they cannot afford to value it since their need for survival is immediate. This is a vicious circle that keeps black people down.

Each racial group, therefore, value different types of education and they tend to assume that theirs is the norm and superior to others because they do not understand how these value systems form for others. Many white parents, for instance, find “high stakes” tests abhorrent and opt out of them. It’s hard for them to see how anyone can value such a seemingly dehumanizing way of evaluating children, but that’s only because they can afford to take that position, and for them, the alternatives are much more effective in climbing the social ladder. The lack of standardized assessment in K-8 would not affect white students because their parents can privately have them assessed and provide support where needed. Without the standardized tests, the racial disparity seen in the DOE chart above would go unnoticed.

What Exactly Should We Measure in Students?

The biggest gripe the opponents of standardized tests have is that they cannot evaluate a whole person. Because the tests can only evaluate a small percentage of the whole human capacity, they feel it unfairly favors talented test-takers. This is true, but let’s carefully think about what we are asking for.

When schools select students subjectively, their assumption is that they know how to look at a whole person and rank them. Naturally, we all think this. This is what ethnocentrism is. We observe a bunch of kids and say, “He is a great kid,” and assume that this child should be universally regarded as a “great kid.” And, what we imply in our evaluation is that those kids we regard highly are more likely to succeed later in life.

No measure, whether it’s single or multiple, will ever be an accurate predictor of success because it’s not possible to universally define what “success” is. Everyone should have his/her own definition of success in life. People who do not have their own standard of value are constantly looking for and rely on external standards to measure themselves against, like the size of their wallets, what cars they drive, job titles, institutional affiliations, awards, etc.. These are the people who complain about the unfairness of tests like SHSAT precisely because they are deeply attached to them. People who have their own internal compass understand that SHSAT measures only a small aspect of ourselves. They are not bothered by it since they have their own standards. They do not feel the need to standardize what “success” is.

The test designers of SHSAT do not claim that it can predict the future success of students. The opponents of it are simply assuming that an admission process should. If you were faster than your friends in a marathon, does that mean you are a superior person? If you beat your friend in chess, does that mean you are a better person than your friend? If you win the first place in spelling bee contest, does that mean you are going to be more successful in life than the other competitors? If you can pass the SHSAT and get into Stuyvesant, are you a better person than those who couldn’t? The answer to all these questions is no. Somehow the opponents of SHSAT assume that the answer is yes (otherwise they wouldn’t be complaining), and we have to wonder why.

Our society is full of people I call “closet-competitive.” It’s like a gay man who becomes homophobic because he cannot come to terms with his own desire. People with competition phobia are so competitive deep inside that they become afraid of competition and see no good in it at all, like a recovering alcoholic who wished alcohol was banned because any sight of alcohol can seduce him into drinking. They don’t want to see any competition because they are seduced and drawn in by it uncontrollably. They do not know how to harness their competitive spirit as a positive force to improve themselves and their peers.

Many progressive schools ban competitions outright and teach their kids to repress their competitive spirit as if it’s an evil desire. Even when they allow competitions, they declare everyone to be winners. The kids cannot learn how to lose if they are always winners. Since they were never taught how to embrace their competitive spirit, later in life, when they win, they just gloat, and when they lose, they feel bitter. They don’t know how to appreciate their competitors, which is an important aspect of learning martial arts. Eliminating SHSAT or alcohol would not solve their problems because there will be other competitions or substances that they will obsess over.

What a standardized test should predict is whether the students can successfully achieve their academic goals in high school. For this purpose, a good metric of success is a graduation rate. If you sort all the high schools by graduation rate and college enrollment rate, you will see that SHSAT schools achieve close to 100%, which means SHSAT does an excellent job of evaluating what students need, in order to achieve their goals in high school. That is all that an admission process needs to be concerned with.

Think about it: Do you really want all of our children to be evaluated based on a standardized definition of “success” in life? Do you really want to standardize what a great person is? That is what totalitarianism is made of. We would end up creating a Clone army like in Star Wars.

When we select students based on a small number of criteria, we leave them free to be different in all other aspects. Somehow most people have been lead to believe that “well-rounded” evaluations of students are better, but such an attempt forces our children to be homogenious. Its underlying principle and assumptions are the same as those of eugenics—that we know what makes a person superior overall.

Life is a journey to define “success” for ourselves. The last thing we want is for school administrators to figure it out and indoctrinate our children with it. The students who deviate from such a definition would be made to feel like failures. The students who can think critically and for themselves would always reject it. Sadly, there are many students who cannot think critically and would just mindlessly accept this type of indoctrination, and live someone else’s idea of “success” for the rest of their lives. That to me is a sad life, not even worth living.

Our schools should stick to teaching the tools of thinking like math, science, and English, not what they should value in life or what a “successful” person is. Everyone should find his or her own passion in life. SHSAT does a fine job for students who love the challenges of standardized tests. Personally, I don’t and I suck at it, but I wouldn’t try to take it away from those who love it. If some schools want to use it as their selection criteria, so what? As long as the process is transparent, auditable, and accountable, it’s much better than interviews where you leave your fate to some random strangers who think they know what is best for all human beings.

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