Workers Vanguard No. 1057
28 November 2014
Reformism Ad Absurdum
The ISO and the SAT Exam
(Young Spartacus pages)
Last March, the College Board announced that it was going to redesign the SAT, the college-entrance examination originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Faced with the public relations problem that scores on the three-hour-long exam reflect test takers’ race and class, the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS)—“nonprofit” companies that rake in millions of dollars managing and designing the exam—have announced changes aimed at making the exam less biased. These include eliminating the penalty for guessing, lessening the emphasis on esoteric vocabulary words, making the essay optional and attempting to align the math section to what is actually taught in high schools.
Cynics have observed that this makeover comes at the same time that the SAT’s rival, the ACT (formerly known as American College Testing), has grabbed the lion’s share of the market. Others speculate that the change reflects declining knowledge of math and vocabulary among today’s elite students. Some liberals accept the College Board’s rationale, although they may disagree with this or that change.
Absurdly, the reformist “socialists” of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) published an article bemoaning the new test’s focus on “job skills training” as opposed to “critical thinking” or “intellectual curiosity.” As Marxists, our starting point is not to complain about the SAT (or demand it be changed in one way or another) but rather to attack its entire premise: that education is some sort of rare commodity that must be rationed to the select few. Instead of a “fair” way to exclude working-class, black and Latino students from higher education, the Spartacus Youth Clubs call for open admissions with no tuition and a state-paid living stipend for students to make open admissions economically meaningful.
We also call to nationalize the private universities, the most elite of which formed the College Board more than 100 years ago to keep their institutions the preserve of the ruling class. This includes Harvard, whose president, chemist James Conant, wanted a more “objective” way of maintaining the academic standing of Harvard’s bastion of class and race privilege during the Great Depression (in between spearheading development of poison gas during the first interimperialist war and atomic weapons in the second). Conant spurred his dean of students, Henry Chauncey, to make the SAT more “scientific” by creating ETS to develop the exam. The goal of the SAT is to create a perfect bell curve, so that those to the left of some cutoff can “scientifically” be excluded from decent higher education.
Entrance exams like the SAT and ACT are necessarily biased because they reflect class society, which in the U.S. is also inherently racist. Even leaving aside the fact that certain types of questions are in themselves biased (such as one infamous analogy about regattas and oarsmen), scions of the wealthy do better on such exams because they have all the privileges that allow them to do so: better high school education, access to technology, books and other educational materials; higher-paid teachers and tutors; access to bourgeois culture. Failing that, their parents can pay for private test-prep lessons that can run to thousands of dollars. If all the questions on the exam were reduced to just one crude measure of familial income—say, “how many bathrooms are in your house”—the bell curve would not change very much. Poor and minority students do not have access to the same advantages of the elite few; they face countless obstacles and pressures brought on by their oppression—from the need to work jobs to support their families to worrying over how to pay for their next meal. Furthermore, the fact that black students on average score worse than their white counterparts of the same wealth and parental education is evidence of a segregated and very unequal educational system.
No amount of test-tweaking can make this disappear. For the ruling class, the value of the SAT is that it creates the fiction that such differences are based on inherent “psychometric” differences that can be “scientifically” plotted on a bell curve, instead of reflecting social conditions. When on occasion the bell curved the wrong way—for example, when white Southerners originally scored lower than their Northern counterparts—the data was hidden from view to avoid public reaction against the exam.
While Marxists oppose the entire idea of rationing education, some self-styled socialists do not. Thus, ISO’s Socialist Worker (“Meet the New Test,” 20 March) argued:
“For future SAT takers, these changes will hopefully be an improvement to a test that helps to determine their futures and yet is based on discredited pedagogical theories from the distant past....
“But as a reflection of how our society values education, the new SAT is another step toward the restructuring kindergarten [sic] through college into a 16-year unpaid internship program for Corporate America, which has never placed a high value on critical thinking and intellectual curiosity as workforce skills.”
The implication is that there should be a test, based on sound “pedagogical theories,” that values “critical thinking and intellectual curiosity” as well as more traditional “workforce skills.” The other implication is that education for the mass of the population under capitalism has ever served America’s bourgeois rulers as anything but a mechanism for training the next generation of workers. (Of course, the education they provide for the elite is a different matter entirely.)
Rather than advise the College Board on how to better ration education, the Spartacus Youth Clubs fight to win youth to the perspective of socialist revolution. Under the rule of the working class, the economic, natural, cultural and educational resources of society can be placed at the disposal of those who toil, not those who exploit. Only then can there even begin to be an educational system that aims at the full development of the talents and intellects of all.
As our forebears, the Revolutionary Communist Youth, put it in their program:
“We believe in the value of education and professional training as it reflects the development of man’s productive capacity. Therefore, our focus of attack is not on grading systems and technical standards in themselves—indeed, the future socialist society will require some means of measuring competence. Rather, our target is the class divisions which are institutionalized though the educational process.”
—Youth, Class and Party: Basic Documents of the Revolutionary Communist Youth (1971)