‘Inheriting Possibility’ Offers Critique of Standardized Testing

Author discusses new book in which he takes a long-term and philosophical look at what he sees as the flaws in the way society evaluates talent.

October 2, 2017
 

Many books contain critiques of the SAT or standardized testing.

Inheriting Possibility: Social Reproduction and Quantification in Education (University of Minnesota Press) offers a much more philosophical critique, mixing history and social science. The author is Ezekiel J. Dixon-Román, an associate professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: What is the basic idea of "inheriting possibility"?

A: Inheriting Possibility is a reworking in between multiple dualisms that have undergirded philosophy of social science, social and cultural theory, and quantification. These dualisms include nature and culture, matter and meaning, and quantitative and qualitative. Philosophically, these dualisms go back to Descartes’s idea of the cogito, or "I think, therefore I am." This proposition separated the mind from the body, knowledge from being and culture from nature and became foundational to Western philosophy and the later theories and methodologies of the social and natural sciences. Nature became associated with fixed, universals of "truth" and objective knowledge, while culture became characterized by the vagaries of the social world and subjective human processes.

This later developed into theories that made one of three general assumptions of human development and social reproduction: (1) fixed, universal processes of genetic heritability determine human capabilities; (2) social and cultural socialization or constructionism are what structure or shape the human; or (3) behaviors are based on an interaction or interplay between the body and genetic structures with that of the environment and cultural processes. This is one instantiation of how the dualism between nature and culture influenced social and cultural theory that Inheriting Possibility takes up directly.

Cover of Inheriting Possibility: Social Reproduction and Quantification in Education by Ezekiel J. Dixon-RománIn addition to social and cultural theory, the same assumptions of the radical division between nature and culture undergirded philosophy of science on quantification. During the Renaissance, the natural world became understood to be made up of signs and the language of those signs was mathematics. Thus, the only way to unlock the truths of the world was to use the logic and reasoning of quantification.

This produced not only the quantitative imperative for the social sciences but a false binary between quantitative and qualitative …

Inheriting Possibility deconstructs the assumed radical division between nature and culture in order to rethink quantification and theories of social reproduction beyond the analytical limits of the above dualisms. I develop what I call the forces of inheritance in order to reconceptualize social reproduction from a perspective that accounts for not just cultural processes but also their entanglement with a natural world that is assumed to be, not inert, but rather dynamic and vibrant. In other words, cultural processes are not predated by nature but rather are nature …

Q: You write critically of testing. Many advocates for testing (at K-12 levels especially) say it draws attention to educational inequities and can help those who are in low-income areas. How do you answer them?

A: To an extent, I would agree with these advocates. It is true that prior to the policy regimes of accountability testing there was much less policy focus on concerns of achievement and test performance differences (though researchers had been debating these concerns for a long time). And, yes, accountability testing policies enabled a gaze on not just the publicity of how particular social groups were performing in particular schools but also, in particular, how social groups were performing in relation to one another. Although these aims seem socially just, there are a number of concerns that one needs to hold in tension …

First, the focus on test score differences (or what’s more commonly referred to as "gaps") are not about educational equity but rather a neoliberal gaze on equality in outcomes. I understand educational equity to refer to the appropriate and necessary social and pedagogical conditions, resources and processes for human learning and development. Educational equality refers to equal or similar conditions, resources and processes. Still yet, accountability testing policies brought about a different focus on equality: the equality of particular testing outcomes that are believed to be associated with or tied to the labor market. Under this political ideology, justice is understood to be addressed via market-based decision making even on educational and social policies. Here, a backwards logic assumes that the homogenizing of differences in outcomes is a just end that will produce just means. This discourse seems to miss that equality in outcomes does not necessarily ensure equity in conditions, resources and processes.

The second reason pertains to the focus on testing rather than assessment. Testing is summative and void of the context and process of teaching and learning transactions. Not only are they not pedagogically helpful they are also contrived hegemonic reductions of a student’s capabilities. Assessment is arguably a cultural practice that is part of the enterprise of being human … While there are summative assessments that do have the function of making an evaluative decision about something or someone, even some formats of those are not divorced from the context and process of teaching and learning transactions (e.g., the College Board’s Advanced Placement studio art program). Education is fundamentally a social process that enables human learning and development. Testing has social and political functions, but not educational. Assessment practices are inherently part of the social process of education, but when they become instruments of testing that seek to culturally freeze that which is always in process they constrain rather than enable educational equity.

Finally, as argued in Inheriting Possibility, it is assumed that the instrument of testing is separate and socially distant from the human subjectivities and social arrangements that developed and administer the instrument. As such, it is assumed that the instrument is free of ideology, sociocultural or sociopolitical influence. The instrument is a mere prosthesis to human knowledge production. What’s missed in this positivist lens to measurement is how (1) the object of measurement is tied to and entangled with the test developers and administrators and (2) how the instrument and the produced scores are a product of and associated with many forces including the material arrangement of the context of measurement, the sociocultural assumptions of the test and practices of the test taker, the phenomena of measured interest and its history, policies, and political economic forces …

Q: In your chapter on the SAT, you challenge the idea that a pure meritocracy is possible. Why is that?

A: Meritocracy, as defined by Thomas Jefferson and rearticulated by James Bryant Conant, assumes that social mobility is possible regardless of social inequality via a system that enables equality of opportunity for education. This conceptualization of meritocracy is what U.S. society continues to strive for and what the SAT was developed based on. I argue that the fatal assumption in this ideal of meritocracy is that equality of opportunity is possible regardless of inequality. Inequality of conditions will always compromise the goals of equality of opportunity unless there are policy interventions to mitigate the effects of unequal conditions.

In Inheriting Possibility, I empirically demonstrate the meaningful association between family wealth (i.e., total illiquid assets) and paternal grandparents' education with grandchild SAT scores. As the quintessential measure of merit, these associations will always compromise the aims of equality of opportunity, unless the appropriate policy interventions are developed and implemented.

Q: Has the SAT improved in fairness over the years? Once there was a notorious question about a yacht, but these days the test makers appears much more conscious of such bias. Is the SAT better than it was? Could it be a good test?

A: The rigorous item sensitivity analysis … has definitely helped to address these concerns. There are a number of examples like [the] yacht … The College Board has even recognized how the test is endogenous to the unequal opportunities of test coaching and tried to address this by teaming up with Khan Academy.

This is all laudable, but the more important question is how the apparatus of the SAT is designating what matters and doesn’t matter and, as such, delineating boundaries of possibility. That is to say, first, the phenomena of the SAT should not be reduced to the instrument but includes every other entity that it functions in relationship with, such as test coaching, the material arrangement of the context of measurement, the policy context, the political economic context, sociocultural and sociopolitical forces, and a number of processes that I began to speak to above.

The instrument does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it separable from societal forces. In fact, it is a byproduct of those societal forces. Thus, the question is how and in what ways are those forces configured into the architecture of the phenomenon of the SAT and, as a result, what is being demarcated to matter for merit and future possibilities. As a simple example, quantitative reasoning, critical reading and writing are not the only important skills for a technologically advanced capitalist society; moreover, each of these measured objects are shaped via material bodily experiences in entangled association with sociocultural practices. If these processes were acknowledged and taken seriously in the design of the SAT, then we’d likely be talking about something radically different.

Q: What kinds of changes would you suggest in college admissions to deal with the issue you identify in your book?

A: There are a few implications from Inheriting Possibility that need to be given serious consideration. First, legacy admissions need to be ended. They serve as an institutional mechanism to reinforce multigenerational inequality and social privilege, and, for Ivy League institutions, they help to maintain who is of the political elite. The donor argument in favor of legacy admissions just doesn’t hold empirically, nor is it ethically appropriate on the grounds of equity and fairness. If society and selective institutions of higher education are going to hold true to the democratic ideals of equity and fairness, then more of a focus is needed on first-generation and second-generation college admissions policies.

There is also the movement of hundreds of colleges and universities toward test-optional admissions. This admission policy enables the applicant to choose whether they want their test scores to be submitted and considered as part of their application or not. Evaluation research has indicated that there are no significant differences in completion rates or cumulative GPA between test score submitters and nonsubmitters and, moreover, nonsubmitters are more likely to be first-generation college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with learning differences.

One of the arguments for continuing to require the SAT is that the test is correlated with family background, like many other factors of admissions decisions. Thus, rather than get rid of it, simply use it as another piece of information for making admissions decisions. This argument rests on a faulty assumption. It assumes that a universal rule is more equitable than a nonuniversal rule. The pretended universality in evaluating the singularity of each student application will always defer the possibilities of equity and justice. In other words, requiring test scores for admissions does not acknowledge all of the forces that make ’em up. Test-optional admissions build into it at least one contingency and enable the applicant to make that decision.

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