The Social Production of American Identity: Standardized Testing Reform in the United States


When White northern teachers flocked to the South after the Civil War to educate the newly emancipated Blacks, there seemed to be one common sentiment among the educators in regard to their new pupils, made clear by the following assertion from a White female teacher: “they need so much instruction.” Slavery did not, despite a master narrative that until recently had us believe otherwise, construct an undifferentiated mass out of Black people. However, it did render most of the millions of those subjected to chattel slavery illiterate, despite heroic efforts by many slaves to learn and teach literacy. The illiteracy, in and of itself, was an enormous problem in slavery’s aftermath. However, the former slaves lacked far more than literacy. In the eyes of their northern instructors, slavery had inculcated primitiveness. Their teachers were idealistic in that they typically, though not universally, presumed a common humanity that allowed them to perceive the former slaves as their potential equals. However, this common humanity did not extend to a common American civilization. To be American was to be the binary opposite of primitive; to be American was to be civilized. The northern White teachers were mandated to civilize, and thus Americanize, the former slaves. The term “civilization” was to the American colonial project as it was to European colonialism as a whole: it summed up in a single term American pride in the significance of their own notions of progress and humankind.1

Organized education in America, although it has differed across space and time, has consistently acted as an agent of Americanization, and thus, standardization. The above narrative of the northern White teachers and their southern Black students exemplified the agency of standardization, and signified the following: standardization was, and still is, theoretically both liberating and constraining. This dynamic-the tension between liberation and constraint-is what forms power and knowledge. For the Black former slaves, being granted the opportunity to learn how to read and the possibility of being allowed participation in American civilization must have been truly emancipating,ntrast to their then recent servitude. Thus, rather unsurprisingly, large numbers of African Americans gained literacy in the aftermath of emancipation. On the other hand, a standard American identity assumed a boundary between American and un-American, and it presupposed that, if the American standard were to become that of an integrated society, Blacks rather than Whites would have to accommodate to this standard. This burden was, and still is, constraining in theory, and it formed the link between power and knowledge. In practice, a culture of segregation, as described by historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, became the violent manifestation of American standardization being equated with the standardization of Whiteness. Yet Whiteness in American culture has carefully avoided being pinned down to something beyond amorphous definitions.2

But, as historical change has altered standard American identity, so too has it altered the way education acts to standardize this identity. Standardized testing, as an education reform effort, needs to be posited within this broader context. Standardized testing has become an ingrained cultural entity, seemingly as natural as the air we breathe and the water we drink. The goal of this paper is to historicize American education reform efforts to increase the use of standardized testing. Rather than accepting standardized testing as an essential entity, and argue for or against increasing it, my intention is to unmask standardized testing as an important form of social production that has served the American political economy. As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. For Whites, the only identity of any consequence was the “American” identity. For Blacks, who suffered from what can be described as “double consciousness,” their racial identity was always a barrier to American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.3

So, to state the obvious, education reform efforts in American history did not occur in a vacuum. Standardized testing reform, gathering momentum directly after World War II, was part and parcel of the new techniques for ordering human beings, and America was at the forefront of these new social scientific approaches. For example, the development and implementation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was one component of an American response to the Great Depression and World War II, developments that fundamentally reworked ways in which American society was planned, without radically altering the hierarchical structure. The seminal text on the origins of the SAT is Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, which is discussed below in detail.4

Like the efforts to establish the SAT, the more recent exertions to impose standardized testing nationally can be unmasked and historically situated as one aspect of the global march of neoliberalism, which can also be described as unfettered capitalism. Neoliberalism has entailed far more than the proliferation of free trade agreements and investment deregulation, although these have both been vital components of its ideology and practice. This new era of capitalism, in part ushered in by the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution,” demanded the deconstruction of New Deal-style institutional organization. This has in large part contri- buted to what theorist Michael Hardt refers to as the “withering of civil society.”5

Although the dismantling of public education as a vital institution of civil society is not yet a certainty by any means, there is evidence of cracks under the weight of the incredible tensions inherent in neoliberalism. Civil society, much like standardized testing, can be both liberating and constraining. This paper neither romanticizes civil society as an invented tradition of democratic utopia, nor rejoices in a withering of civil society in favor of the logic of the market. Rather, the very real disappearance of civil society is important to my argument because the role of standardized testing is shifting. In this context, standardized testing has taken on a new and even more important role in American public education, helping to explain the recent stan- dardized testing craze. Standardized testing has become, more so than before, a necessary external apparatus of control. There is a litany of texts-some arguing for or against the standardized testing reforms, some attempting to explain these reforms-examined at length below.6

Although racial categories, and thus racism, have been exploded (within the academy) as social constructs that serve larger purposes in American society, ignoring these fabrications and their contemptible results is not the correct response. A neutral position on racial identity- reducing all members of society to mere abstract citizens-obviously favors the dominant, majority race. Within this inquiry into the nature of standardized testing reform, Blacks, historically the group most consistently categorized as outside an acceptable norm, serve as the control group. An assessment of standardized testing must include an account of how it has both served and failed Black Americans. At the same time, however, it must recognize the broader context of stan- dardized testing: as a form of social production, and thus American- ization. For while charges that the system fails are an understandable and reasonable response to the standardized tests that have neglected the Black student population, these charges ignore the broader picture. When African Americans and other marginalized groups do not fare as well as their White counterparts, perhaps the system of standardized testing is operating exactly as intended. Black educators such as Anna Julia Cooper and Fanny Jackson Coppin, as I shall show, understood the possibilities and constraints of education for Blacks and other “peripheral” identities. The goals of this paper are to further such an understanding and extend a just conceptualization of education, standardization, and standardized testing to the current context of reform debate.7

Early Standardization: The Logic of Capitalism and Racism

Prior to an analysis of standardized testing specifically, a basic understanding of early standardization developments in American education reform is helpful. The U.S. system of organized education, despite seemingly always existing as a decentralized entity, underwent systematic standardization rather early relative to other industrialized nations. The reformers who fomented this change in education ideology-a transformation from libertarian notions of local control to progressive ideas of central bureaucracies-were nationalists interested in preserving the American hierarchical order. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rapid metamorphosis from an almost entirely rural nation to a burgeoning set of urban communities, accompanied by massive immigration from previously non-traditional locales such as Southern and Eastern Europe, permanently altered America. This coincided with a radical shift in economic organization, toward corporate concentration. In the eyes of the educational reformers, among other elite segments of society, these transformations introduced mass chaos to a previously orderly “agrarian” society. Education was part and parcel of progressivism’s rationalization of American society, and rationalization was based on the tension between “social order” and “social justice.” Yes, going to school rather than working in a sweatshop was a far more just life for a young immigrant; however, schools were more than a respite from the brutality of industrial society. Schools were sites of coercive reprogramming. More mechanized forms of discipline were deemed necessary, and pedagogical methods were standardized to quickly and rigidly Americanize the immigrant. Not coincidentally, the systematic mobilization of police forces across America coincided with the mobilization of disciplinary forces in the urban schools.8

Rural schools were not exempt from the processes of standardization. As farming techniques became more mechanized, so too did more standard forms of education, including basic literacy pedagogies-a requirement enabling future farmers to operate modern agricultural machinery. Whether urban or rural, the impressively efficient and centralized networks constructed by modern American industry (the railroads being the foremost example) struck the school reformers as excellent models of system building. Education became just such a system, institutionalized as the disciplinary apparatus of an urban-industrial order. School reformer William T. Harris argued that “the modern industrial community cannot exist without free popular education carried out in a system of schools.” Students, particularly immigrant children, were indoctrinated with the incentives of the so-called Protestant work ethic, an important component of American and capitalist ideology. The progressive rationalization of American society demanded that non-Protestant immigrants be taught what Max Weber described as the “spirit of capitalism.” This “spirit”-perfectly represented by the activist and interventionist “worldly asceticism” of Protestantism-ensured both a disciplined labor force and the regularized (re)investment of capital. Punctuality and other forms of orderly behavior became increasingly valued forms of knowledge. The Americanization of the immigrant, a concomitant aspect of progres- sivism in general, could perhaps be labeled the largest standardization program in the history of American education reform.9

For White immigrant children, and even more so for the parents who witnessed their children being driven from their traditional cultures, the Americanization process was difficult and sometimes constraining. But immigrant loss of tradition was certainly not an unusual cultural development. The following John Rawls observation communicates this process: “The culture of the poorer strata is impoverished while that of the governing and technocratic elite is securely based on the service of the national ends of wealth and power.” But this standardization program was not solely a constraint, as it included some liberating qualities, particularly in comparison to what Blacks were offered during the early centralization of American schools. Immigrant children, theoretically, were granted an equality of opportunity, however narrow and limited this opportunity was in reality. Some immigrants, through education and Americanization, were able to improve their standards of living and gain more access to the growing culture of mass consumption. Many immigrant groups were able to accomplish this by “earning” their Whiteness, including Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. In fact, when immigrants entered the Black-White binary of America, often the first slang they learned was the word “nigger.” Most Black children, never able to “earn” Whiteness, were also never afforded the theoretical equal opportunities of the early American education system.10

The industrial standardization of the American public schools occurred at the same historical moment as scientific racism-the pseudoscientific classification and ordering of race according to White supremacist ideology. Eugenics, scientific racism taken to its extreme, combined industrial notions of technological innovation with assembly techniques of efficiency in attempts to modify and control humanity’s composition. In many cases, eugenics was a method of enforcing White supremacist policies through sterilization of the “unfit,” more often than not a label attached to non-Whites. The early use of standardized testing was an education reform response to the scientific racism and eugenics movements. Early American standardized tests-referred to as intelligence tests-were a method of tracking, classifying, and ordering students. The Stanford-Binet test, an intelligence test developed by psychologist Lewis Terman at Stanford University (built on the work of French researcher Alfred Binet), was widely applied in schools. Intelligence testing became recognized as acceptable practice during World War I when the United States Army organized itself according to the results of intelligence tests. In the schools, the Stanford-Binet test planned education, funneling students according to presumed innate ability. The results were predictable: Blacks were placed in the lowest tracks, often vocational schools, and were thus further marginalized. Terman believed that the role of the intellectual (in this case, the psychologist/intelligence tester) was to rationalize the world according to scientific methods of intelligence. His tests would, in his words, “bring tens of thousands of high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness.” In other words, “high-grade defectives,” which more often than not was a metaphor for racial and class distinctions, were institutionalized and sterilized due to poor test scores. To restate and emphasize this point, in the era of scientific racism and eugenics, the liberating aspects of standard- ization that benefited some immigrants eluded most Black students.11

In this context, the heated early 20th-century debate on edu- cation between two of the more prominent African American intellectuals, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, can be more easily understood. Unfortunately at the time, Black educators were often forced to choose on which side of the Washington-Du Bois fence they stood. The politically powerful Washington, who advocated a utilitarian model of industrial education for Blacks, embodied by the Tuskegee Institute he founded, gained the support of both White southern segregationists and White northern industrialists. Washington’s philosophy of industrial education, conceptualized by his infamous 1895 Atlanta Compromise, in which he stated that “there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” was lauded by southern and northern Whites alike. White southerners supported it for its adherence to the fortified racial hierarchy; powerful northerners endorsed the plan in accordance with the exigencies of the growing industrial economy. Washington theorized that for Blacks, “it is at the bottom of life we must begin, not at the top.”12

On the other side of this vexing contest, a young W.E.B. Du Bois questioned the industrial strategy of Washington as being the best mode of education for the Black population. Du Bois argued that a sole reliance on industrial education would preclude the possibility of a future Black leadership. He advocated the need for a classic, liberal academic education as the best route for Black liberation. According to Du Bois, this type of education would allow for the development of a Black “talented tenth” who would then be situated to lead the Black population out of its imposed state of despair. With respect to his “talented tenth” he asked in 1903:

Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character? Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters.13

The Washington-Du Bois debate shaped the struggle of Black education, but it presented a false dichotomy. Although Du Bois saw the difference between his educational design and that of Washington as significant at the time, he later realized the immaturity of his stance. He came to understand that the differences between the two were, in the words of philosopher Cedric Robinson, “insignificant when compared to what they did not comprehend.”14 In his autobiography, written years after Washington had died and the debate had subsided, Du Bois the Marxist comprehended that both were fighting for scraps from the master’s table. He wrote:

These two theories of Negro progress were not absolutely contradictory. Neither I nor Booker Washington understood the nature of capitalistic exploitation of labor, and the necessity of a direct attack on the principle of exploitation as the beginning of labor uplift.15

In other words, Du Bois had come to realize that both he and Washington were involved in a narrowly defined struggle, and that perhaps both of their educational approaches were useful for Blacks. But neither theory would be a liberating force without a more encompassing and radical understanding of the interrelations of American capitalism, racism, and patriarchy, and of how education was one component in the systematic reproduction of a compliant labor force.

Black feminist educator Gloria Joseph, in response to the theory that education in America acted merely to produce and reproduce the labor force (beyond Du Bois, further conceptualized by political economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis), argued this framework to be wrong because it ignored the dimension of race. Joseph theorized that because a disproportionate number of Blacks were not included in the workforce, education did not act as an apparatus of social production and reproduction. Joseph’s assessment is at once true and misguided, as will be made evident throughout this paper. The charge that schools do not offer Blacks the same opportunities as Whites is valid and serious, and demands rectification; however, this also ignores the broader context of the American political economy.16

Blacks were, and are, less often included in the American workforce, but this is not proof that the economy, nor the education system, has failed. Rather, the opposite is true. A capitalist economy requires a “flexible workforce,” including unemployed and partially employed segments of the population. More often than not, although with differences by period and region, the poor in America have been people of color. For example, in the Jim Crow South, which can be described as the extreme manifestation of the national culture and economy rather than an anomalous outgrowth, Blacks were the segment of the population that bore the brunt of unemployment. The culture (and economy) was constructed so that poor Whites, although socio-economically more similar to the vast majority of the Black community, affiliated themselves with the wealthy White community. This relationship benefited the wealthy because class alliances were not formed between Whites and Blacks-a dangerous possibility in a region with stark economic polarities. However, this relationship also benefited the poor Whites in that they were much more likely to fill the job openings that paid a living wage.17

Early standardization reforms, much like later standardized testing reform, played a key role in the American political economy. When farmers needed to be able to read directions in order to operate new machinery, the schools provided standardized literacy. When rising immigration brought in large groups of people unfamiliar with the American economy, the schools provided standardized industrial discipline. Because the conditions that drove education reform also compelled the continued marginalization of Blacks, examples of educators interested in liberating educational experiences for African Americans were few and far between, and were the product of people working on the figurative periphery. Historian David Tyack paraphrased just such an early 20th-century educator, Doxey Wilkerson: “the task of ‘differentiating’ education for Black children was to discover what (they) should know and do about such injustices as job discrimination, economic exploitation, denial of civil liberties, high rates of disease and death, stereotypes of inferiority, and inadequate opportunities for education.” Unfortunately, this early model of teaching for social justice was not included in the standardization reforms. Educators who wished to apply it remained at the margins; we shall look at some of them in this essay’s concluding section.18

SAT: Apparatus of Americanization

In response to the capitalist crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, he United States empowered the state to be a social and economic force through regulation and the beginnings of centralized planning, without ditching capitalism in favor of socialism and without the opportunistic utilization of fascism to protect capital from socialism. The U.S. thus ensured the survival of capitalism as the preeminent economic system through an expanded state and a Keynesian political economy. This massive reform effort-the New Deal-along with the immense planning efforts required after American entry into World War II, allowed the U.S. not only to endure the harsh global economic depression, but also to take advantage of its unprecedented postwar global dominance. The United States, constituting 5% of the global population, controlled access to 50% of the world’s natural resources, estimates made by the American governing elite itself, including George Kennan.19

One result of the New Deal was that civil institutions became more powerful than ever in the United States-before or since. Government planning and regulating necessitated a place between the state and society where planning and regulating could be mediated. A strong civil society, including the education system, served this role; but due to the decentralized nature of organized education in the U.S., institutional education as an agent of national change came later than most other New Deal-style projects. Education reform was, and is, a slow mechanism for organizing.

The New Deal, employing the state as an active economic regulator, gathered and positioned the labor of Americans in a much more organized and systematic fashion. Of course, this was as much a reaction to labor resistance to the standardization of capitalist production as it was a preemptive action, but this is consistent with capitalism in general. As theorist Slavoj Zizek writes, “the history of capitalism is a long history of how the predominant ideologico-political framework was able to accommodate-and to soften the subversive edge of-the movements and demands that seemed to threaten its very survival.” As a result, more so than ever before, Americans became components of the larger industrial (and military) machine. In this context, a program of standardization equipped to more efficiently funnel the young masses according to their utility was inevitable. Through the sheer will and political savvy of those who advocated the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the SAT became the mode of measurement most often used. The SAT, as the standardized test ideally equipped to coordinate the nation’s young people according to the new mandates, filled a vacuum.20

The primary SAT advocates-test enthusiast Henry Chauncey and Harvard president James Conant were not unaware of the political/economic exigencies of the nation. These men explicated the need for a better-trained and more organized class of managers to replace the American leadership system-described by them as a stagnant, New England-style aristocracy-which lacked the prerequisite imagination and authority for such a massive task. Chauncey and Conant helped devise and enact the SAT as the regulatory apparatus of this plan-first at Harvard, and then later expanding it to almost the entire American university network. When Conant became president of Harvard in 1933, he anticipated the post-war mandate to reorganize the managerial classes, and wanted a new crop of students whose primary focus would be intellectual growth. In order to achieve this he deemed it necessary to expand admission beyond the traditional New England nobility, specifically because most of these traditional Harvard students were thought to be unmotivated scholars. With the help of Chauncey, Conant sought an exam that would determine whether or not a future student would succeed intellectually at Harvard. He wanted his test to be an “intelligence” test rather than an “achievement” test, for he believed an achievement test would be biased against students with disadvantageous regional and class backgrounds. His overall stated aim is summed up nicely by journalist Nicholas Lemann: “to depose the existing, undemocratic American elite and replace it with a new one made up of brainy, elaborately trained, public-spirited people drawn from every section and every background.”21

The theoretically liberating possibilities of the SAT, with Conant and Chauncey as the vanguard of this new radical freedom, were fashioned thus: Americans would now be able to advance socially through the access accorded them by this test, rather than through an anachronistic system of heritage. Lemann’s thesis, although somewhat flexible, conceptualizes the SAT as the historical agency of a new American hierarchy based on merit. In this regard, the historical context of the SAT was similar to other historical instances in which the rhetoric of democracy and opportunity spearheaded change. For instance, the American Revolutionary War included Black participation on a number of different fronts, including military battle-the last instance of American troop integration prior to the Korean War. To effectively counter the retrogressive monarchical forces of Great Britain, the ideology of democracy actuated a broad enough popular base of support for a successful rebellion. Blacks were impelled to join the war effort, in the expression of historians James and Lois Horton, in the “hope of liberty.”22

Just as Blacks in 1776 joined the revolutionary movement in a desire to extend the surge for freedom, Blacks recognized the liberating possibilities of the SAT. Previously, Blacks were almost universally denied access to the upper echelon American universities thanks to systematic and arbitrary discrimination. Hypothetically, after the invention of the SAT as a so-called meritocratic measuring tool, if Blacks were able to succeed on this one exam, they would be granted access to the university system and the concomitant network of opportunity. Yes, the tests were difficult, and the standards were high, but the standards were the same for all students, Black or White. When these possibilities unfortunately and predictably failed to materialize, just as emancipation did not immediately follow the American Revolution, and the constraining qualities of standardized testing were realized, Black discontent increased. Although Lemann’s conception of meritocracy is extremely problematic, he does recognize some of the weaknesses of the SAT-induced meritocracy. For example, he writes, “If you create an organized system to distribute opportunity, then there might be complaining about its unfairness, complaining of a kind that is impossible when there is no system at all.” Race, forever the ultimate contradiction between theory and practice in America, was not unexpectedly the central tension generated by SAT outcomes. From the beginning, Blacks fared significantly worse than Whites on the SAT.23

But Blacks were not the only segment of the population unable to realize the promise of freedom that the SAT represented. Results invariably determined that socioeconomic status was the single most important factor in scoring well on the SAT. For example, it was recently estimated that every additional $10,000 earned by a household translated into a score of thirty points higher on the SAT, a significant result to say the least. Although over time there were attempts to reformulate the SAT to compensate for these types of bias, discrepancies continued. A recent study done at the University of Maryland reported that “the SAT is not as valid for women as for men (as it) consistently underpredicts” the future college performance of females. The study continues:

Whereas the SAT and other standardized tests tend to measure componential intelligence-the ability to interpret information in a hierarchical and taxonomic fashion in a well-defined and unchanging context-research findings suggest that individuals who experience bias tend to demonstrate their abilities through experiential and contextual intelligence.24

According to Gloria Joseph, Black female culture counters and transcends these “biases,” more aptly referred to by Joseph as “multiple structures of oppression.” She constructs a Black, female pedagogy according to the following four alternative learning styles: the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, the centrality of personal expressiveness, the ethics of personal accountability, and concrete experience as a criterion of meaning. These Black female modes of learning as described by Joseph are antithetical to the learning styles that ensure success on the SAT.25

This is telling: the SAT, although designed to more fully systematize and reorder U.S. society, and thus redefine American identity, failed to stray from past definitions of what it meant to be American. Sure, after the implementation of the SAT Blacks and other peripheral groups were able to gaze upon increased opportunity. But this gaze was merely an apparition for most. The SAT, consistent with other integration projects, did not accommodate Black or female identities-in this case, differing learning styles. In order for a more fully integrated society to emerge from the SAT, the onus was placed upon Blacks to accommodate to American identity. The SAT further entrenched a seemingly elusive White identity as the de facto American identity.

Lemann, although critical of the size and shape of the so-called meritocracy, and unimpressed by who was and was not allowed to “earn” their way into the new hierarchy, falters by framing the argument in terms of a concept as deceptive as “meritocracy.” The men of the SAT, specifically Chauncey, believed that testing offered a scientific and rational method for organizing society more effectively. But Conant, Chauncey, and their like, who supported the notion that a single standardized test offered “proof” of aptitude, failed to recognize that a standardized “intelligence” test is every bit as biased against certain people as is a standardized “achievement” test. If a test is “standardized,” that test is a measurement of a “standard” as defined by particular interests. Familiarity with language, style, and other subjective qualities unavoidable in the creation of a standardized test, is a clear advantage. More often than not in the United States, and the SAT is no exception, a standardized test represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness. For women, people of color, and poor Americans, not to mention people unfamiliar with the New England culture from which the test emerged, the SAT has been a cruel message of future tidings within the American “meritocracy.” The SAT sets a standard that people then must strive for, and those who are better equipped to assimilate to the norm the test represents are also deemed better equipped to be successful in the larger economy. The truth is that the SAT became the method for weeding out the unwanted through “science” rather than prejudice. Despite recognizing some of the faults of the SAT, Lemann fails to explicitly designate this essential reality. A national testing apparatus may have eliminated some of the arbitrariness of teachers, administrators, and those who decided the fate of college applicants, but it replaced the old intolerance with a new form of arbitrariness justified as empirical, rational, and even scientific.26

Civil Society: Liberating, Constraining, Disappearing

Understanding education to be one critical aspect of civil society is an essential component of my analysis. What is civil society? According to Michael Hardt, “civil society is proposed as the essential feature of any democracy: the institutional infrastructure for political mediation and public exchange.” Communist political theorist and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci highlighted the democratic characteristics of civil society, and theorized that civil society would eventually subsume the state and allow for the rule by the revolutionary class through democratic consent. Gramsci analogized “the superstructures of civil society [to be] like trench systems of modern warfare” that allow people to access power. In other words, Gramsci recognized and highlighted the liberating aspects of civil society as channels of democratic opportunity. In this context, education in general, and specifically a standardized test such as the SAT, could be utilized to overcome American historical constraints such as racial hierarchy. According to the Gramscian framework, resistance is part and parcel of civil society, and thus standardized tests can be utilized as a method of resistance.27

By the 1960s, the SAT became more of a diagnostic tool than a tool for quantifying hypothetical innate ability. The SAT was refined as the predominant measuring stick that monitored the educational progress of racial minority groups-a potentially democratizing development and consistent with Gramsci’s theory regarding civil society. This theoretically liberating possibility-that Black underachievement on the SAT would underscore the consistently degraded capacity of the historically segregated schools that most Black children in America attended-was never realized. Instead, Black and White SAT discrepancies spurred the opposite, in the form of increased social scientific analysis, such as the Coleman Report, researched and written by sociologist James Coleman and funded by the Educational Testing Services (ETS), the organization that had produced, marketed, and sold the SAT from the outset. The Coleman Report findings emphasized family background and socioeconomic status rather than quality of schools in determining SAT scores. This apparently discredited the notion that increased funding would improve Black children’s test scores. Without any policy provisions to increase funding, SAT measurement was an empty promise.28

There was then, as there is now, overwhelming research (and common sense) that exhibited educational achievement to be a correlative of egalitarian educational financing. But paying for better schools was deemed too expensive as a solution to the Coleman report assertions, and busing became the policy of choice. This is not to say that desegregation is bad policy, per se. Theoretically, placing Black students from powerless families and communities in schools with White students from empowered families and communities ensures equality of educational resources. However, in practice, busing students in order to desegregate schools within America’s staunchly segregated society-segregated according to the interrelated qualities of race and class-was akin to using a Band-Aid to stop the flow of blood from a severed limb. For example, after the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education mandated integrated schools, the White people in power in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than allow for integration, closed down their schools for several years and channeled public money into private, White-only schools. Black children in Prince Edward went without any formal education for as many as eight years. Perhaps this was an extreme case, but all over the nation, Whites systematically fled urban integration for suburbia and the legal protection from integration suburbia offered. In this instance, civil society failed to materialize for Black Americans as an access route to power.29 But, if their access had been clear, and civil society had been operating for them as envisioned by Gramsci, would this have ensured revolutionary or democratic opportunity?

Michel Foucault conceptualizes a far different framework for civil society than does Gramsci. According to Foucault, civil society operates as part and parcel of the logic of his notion of bio-power-“it is the population itself on which government will act either directly through large-scale campaigns, or indirectly through techniques that will make possible, without the full awareness of the people, the direction of the population.” In other words, everything political is organized around the population, including standardized testing, which should be viewed as a government intervention in the field of economics. Within this framework, standardized testing is a discursive formation, which emerges when social science and social practice become one and the same. Standardized testing then becomes more than measurement; it becomes truth, in the sense that it has the power to form that of which it speaks. Those who are measured are then organized according to the measurement.30

The standardized test operates then on three levels: as social science, as social intervention, and as a mediator between science and intervention. In this regard, the power of the standardized testing regime is both totalizing and individualizing. It is totalizing in that it orders the entire population according to statistics, and individualizing in that it divides people according to the process of categorization. Standardized tests act as a disciplinary practice for dividing the population. Although Foucault differentiated between discipline, as a physical and material exertion on the body, and the regulatory apparatuses of bio-power, which ordered society at the species level, he also stated that the sovereignties of discipline and bio-power were inseparable. Standardized testing should be understood as both a disciplinary apparatus and a regulatory apparatus.31

Thus, according to the Foucault framework, civil society operates as more than a democratic and liberating entity. Civil society allows for a plurality of social flows, and these flows can move in a direction opposite to the one anticipated by Gramsci; they can be disciplinarian and authoritarian. Foucault, according to Hardt, “highlights the state’s capacities to organize, recuperate, and even produce social forces” through civil society. This is, in part, done through the development and utilization of social capital. Social capital, as a sub-stratum of civil society, according to sociologist Robert Putnam, is a network of connected individuals. This term “social capital” was used in the 1980s by James Coleman (of the Coleman report) to highlight the necessary social context of education. Although both Putnam and Coleman argue that social capital, and thus the social context of schools, is democratic, social capital concurrently, and perhaps more importantly, operates as a form of discipline. Schools and standardized tests, as a disciplinary system, are not by themselves sovereign entities, but rather require a form of internal discipline. Discipline, according to Foucault, is the link between increased aptitude, such as a better score on the SAT, and increased subjugation. In other words, the further you work to improve your SAT score the more fully you are subsumed by the imperatives of the state and the economy, whose disciplinarian capabilities are enhanced by social capital.32

The mission of attaining higher SAT scores, hypothetically undertaken by every American student, limits the space where movement outside the demands of social production can occur, particularly dissent and other types of subversive energy. A model of successful discipline observes all individuals, judges all of them according to a norm, and orders them all into a hierarchical structure. The SAT almost without fail has served to fulfill these requirements. Certainly not all students have historically sought to improve SAT scores; many young Americans never take the exam. However, there exist other aspects of government and civil society able to order these individuals, not the least of which is the prison system.33

In this regard, schools train students to coordinate individual action with the needs of the political economy, in both explicit and implicit ways. The New Deal and post-World War II political economy, in which the state functioned as the motor of social movement, was the most powerful agent of discipline in what Foucault termed the factory-society. But other forms of discipline beyond the state were also necessary, allowing for the rise of a strengthened civil society. Consistent with the above analysis, the SAT, which operated as one of many civil society mediations, developed as a functioning disciplinarian apparatus that assisted the erection of a factory-society-a society planned in accordance with the criteria of capitalist production. For example, the SAT was explicitly situated to support the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA), an urgent Cold War response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik. The NDEA further empowered civil society by authorizing federal funding of K-12 programs in math and the sciences, further expanding an already existing military-industrial-university complex; the SAT identified “able” math and science students to project American technological innovation. Ironically, the U.S. relied on centralized planning and funding, and the systematic ordering of the society partly provided by the SAT, to ensure that “capitalist” production outpaced Soviet communist production. On a more implicit level, the SAT also helped, as we have seen, to formulate the American identity.34

The dialectic of civil society, with its opposed forces highlighted by Gramsci and Foucault, provides a helpful paradigm for understanding the liberating and constraining components of standardized testing. However, if Michael Hardt is correct and civil society is currently “withering” (and there is a great deal of evidence to support his claim), an analysis of standardized testing must undergo a paradigmatic shift.

Hardt, building on the theoretical work of Gilles Deleuze, argues that civil society-factory, family, church, and school-is everywhere in crisis, shown also in the breakdown of labor unions and, pertinent to this study, education finance. On a more concrete and less theoretical level, and also on a national rather than a global level, Putnam details the breakdown of civil society (and decrease of social capital) on a number of different fronts. He attributes this breakdown, at least in part, to the multinational takeover of locally owned businesses across America (Wal-Martization). Consistent with the argument that the withering of civil society is an aspect of neoliberalism, Putnam provides evidence that as the welfare state is dismantled, social capital decreases. There is evidence that social capital, as a civic network, improves SAT student performance (and school success in general) due to increased parental involvement inherent within such a network. Higher parental involvement, and thus social capital, as a sub-stratum of civil society, refines student discipline, consistent with Foucault’s theory of a disciplinarian civil society. But as school funding in America has undergone a steady decline for more than twenty years, and institutionalized social capital such as the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) incurs huge membership decline, students are more apathetic and less disciplined civic participants.35

How will the multitudes of young Americans be controlled without the discipline of civil society and social capital? It is too early to know the answer to this question, but it is not too early to determine that there are both liberating and constraining possibilities. A weakened civil society, dialectically similar to a strong civil society, has both emancipating and limiting elements. According to the Gramsci model, a withering civil society stifles democratic scope, but according to the Foucault model, a weakened civil society might also weaken the state and civil apparatus of discipline, a possibly good result for those interested in freedom of activity beyond the compulsions of capitalism. This is not to argue that face-to-face civic interaction is undemocratic nor undesirable, but rather to reject Putnam and others who romanticize a bygone civil society that, in effect, entrenched capitalism and its oppressive inequalities. But whatever the drawbacks of the old civil society, it is difficult to see any liberating prospects due to the fog of neoliberal policy and its immediate effects.36

Neoliberalism and the Standardized Testing Craze

The onslaught of neoliberalism-more aptly described as capitalism with its gloves off-presupposed and ensured the tensions of a crumbling civil society. Neoliberal ideology-vaunted by the Reagan-Thatcher regimes as overcoming the stagflation of the 1970s-maintains its throne as the dominant orthodoxy spearheading the globalization of capitalism. Neoliberalism, averse to economic fetters, seeks a sleek and seamless global climate that ensures investor hegemony. This in turn necessitated a stripped-down civil society, in place of the one previously fortified by the hegemony of Keynesian economic principles, including regulated capitalism. Civil society shackles global capitalism, and can only get in the way of increased centralized (corporate) profits.

Beginning with Reagan, corporate America was able to unload a large percentage of its tax burden, and thus schools that relied on corporate taxes received less funding. Media expert Robert McChesney’s description of neoliberalism brings out its effects on civil society, which he theorizes as a vibrant, community-based political culture that includes public education: “Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market über alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”37

Beyond these culturally degrading results, some of the immediate economic effects of neoliberalism have proven near catastrophic for the multitudes, on both a global and a domestic level. Despite claims that globalization is catapulting the developing world into the developed world, clearly the opposite is true: the United States and other developed countries are undergoing a process of third-worldization, characterized by enormous polarities of wealth. Young people typically bear the brunt of the resulting increase in poverty. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, two out of every five children in the United States run the risk of living in poor or low-income (“near poor”) families.38

The distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is on display in America’s schools. Schools in economically advantaged neighborhoods receive proper funding, due to higher property tax bases and, when necessary, parental supplementation. A public civil society has been replaced by a privately funded infrastructure in many wealthy neighborhoods. Schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are consistently neglected as they are unable to compensate for less overall funding on the national, state, and local levels, and the lack of a viable civil infrastructure. These developments are consistent with the changing role of government in the era of globalized capitalism. According to sociologist Saskia Sassen, the ascendance of government agencies linked to furthering globalization is coupled with the decline of those linked to domestic equity (civil society). Recent education reform efforts are, perhaps more so than in the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board, antagonistic toward the egalitarian dimensions fundamental to public education. These reform efforts fail to address redistributive properties. Rather, most educational reform in the past decade has conformed to the needs and values of globalized capitalism. This includes the implementation of more standardized testing.39

Although neoliberalism is grounded in some earlier, pre-Keynesian liberal frameworks of the appropriate role of the state, neoliberalism is fundamentally different: while classical liberalism (of the Smith and Mills variants) represents a negative conception of state power in that the individual is theoretically free from state intervention, neoliberalism designates a positive conception of the state’s role. The neoliberal state creates the appropriate market conditions by providing the necessary institutional apparatuses, including a revamped, increasingly interventionist system of standardized testing. The previous wave of standardized testing reform and the rise of the SAT occurred within the prism of a disciplinarian civil society. Students, in order to succeed in the meritocracy, synchronized their knowledge to the knowledge of the SAT. This was the rule of American discipline. But, with the onset of neoliberalism and the gradual disappearance of civil society, the question arises: will people be disconnected from power and thus have room for movement outside the previously defined norms of American discipline? According to Hardt, power fills a vacuum, as though by osmosis. In this regard, capitalism, like a virus, continually reacts and adjusts to the new contexts it creates. National standardized testing fills the void left by fewer and fewer funds being allocated to schools. This is different from the discipline of the SAT because the new national standardized tests are a more rigorous form of centralized control.40

The current standardized testing reform movement, which began in approximately 1985, is, “because of its scope” according to education researchers Mary Futrell and Walter Brown “probably one of the most comprehensive reform efforts in the history of American education.” Its goal is that all students in America will take high-stakes standardized tests. Attaining this goal is becoming more and more realizable as it is included in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind framework for education reform, which was passed into law in 2001. The new law requires all states to develop standards in reading and math, with assessments linked to those standards. Now all students, beginning at the pre-kindergarten level, are subjected to an intense battery of tests. In at least twenty-nine states, these assessments are considered “high-stakes”-tests that bind results to educational and societal opportunity as district funding is allocated according to test results. Schools that fail to improve test scores lose already meager funds, and many failing schools fall victim to privatization and deregulation by way of charter schools. In many states, including Texas, a student must pass a standardized test to graduate from high school.41

Standardized testing is consistent with the market-oriented priorities of post-civil society, which requires that the multitudes think and behave within the narrow confines of neoliberal mandates. The new standardized testing is comparable to the external apparatus of global finance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). National and local sovereignty are rendered meaningless by the IMF, which through financial hegemony is able to lock each country or locality into a set of rules and regulations that serves global investor capitalism. Under these conditions, the only sovereignty is that of capital itself. According to education theorist Michael Apple, based on his analysis of national testing reform in Great Britain, “the imposition of national testing locks the national curriculum in place as the dominant framework of teachers’ work.” The external instruments of power limit those on the periphery, teachers included, who might be struggling for democratic change. Standardized testing, much like the IMF, limits the effects of democracy, internal control, and dissent, and, most importantly in the realm of education trends and reforms, standardized testing negates multiculturalism.42

Neoliberalism has sped up capitalism, which has thus sped up change, or, in the famous words of Karl Marx concerning the transforming nature of capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” Neoliberal society is a socially unstable society, and this, coupled with the surge in immigration from the Global South that resulted from the Immigration Act of 1965, has created both real and imaginary chaos in America, resulting in an escalation of conservative and reactionary sentiment. Apple writes: “It should come as no surprise that in times of insecurity and fragmentation, there is a concomitant rise in longings for cultural and social stability and an increased emphasis on the authority of basic institutions.” The new standardized testing transcends curriculum and is thus able to steer curriculum away from multiculturalism, conceived as a chaotic, un-American, moral relativist program of barbarism. This is a fear of the other, embodied in the work of Reagan’s Secretary of Education (and avid gambler) William Bennett: “We have stopped doing the right things and allowed an assault on intellectual and moral standards. We need a renewed commitment to excellence, character, and fundamentals.”43

Multiculturalism was a necessary and long-in-coming counter to the Black-White binary and other American racial conceptions, including the ambiguities of White identity and national identity. According to African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, “multiculturalism is a conversation among different voices.” Multiculturalism is a fluid and ongoing process that changes constantly, as does the necessarily revisionist scholarship that is integral to it. According to educator Bill Bigelow, multicultural curriculum “describes and attempts to explain the world as it really exists”; multiculturalism represents a diverse society and develops critical concerns. The axiomatic logic of capitalism, expressed in standardized testing, undermines multiculturalism and the critical concerns that necessarily arise within a multicultural framework. National standardized testing is a reassertion of national, and thus White, unity. It is no coincidence that, in America, the rise of all-encompassing standardized testing initiatives directly followed an increase in cultural democracy. Cultural democracy (multiculturalism) is a threat to the standard American identity of Whiteness, richness, and maleness. Standardized testing combats this “threat” by enshrining official knowledge in opposition to multicultural knowledge.44

Not surprisingly, a fear of multiculturalism is inextricably linked to a fear of Black identity (and other minority identities) within an integrated America. Just as Blacks are expected to accommodate to White institutions, rather than vice versa, the integration of African American history within the broader national account must adapt to the traditional narratives of freedom and democracy if it is to be widely disseminated. But because the reality of African American history is not consistent with the rhetoric of freedom and democracy (nor is most social historical scholarship), multiculturalism is feared and countered on many levels, including standardized testing that does not include multiculturalism. For example, on a somewhat superficial level, a young student in Virginia learned the hard way about the perils of multiculturalism. He was forced to ditch a project that he worked very hard to complete on African American explorer Matthew Henson and was told instead to research Christopher Columbus because Columbus, not Henson, was included in the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exam. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System’s 10th-grade history and social sciences test is representative of knowledge that negates multiculturalism: of fifty-seven questions total, forty asked about European history, five about capitalism, and the remaining twelve dealt with the rest of the world. In the words of one Massachusetts teacher, “We work so hard at teaching our students useful information and critical thinking skills and then we give them a test that tells them their people are nothing. It’s crushing!” The axiomatic logic of capitalism- and of American (White) identity-thus represses the challenge to it represented by multiculturalism.45

Toward a More Just Standard

Although some experts concerned with Black educational achievement support standardized testing reforms because, as with earlier possibly liberating trends, “African American students have the most to gain,” these reforms by themselves are unjust. Yes, African Americans theoretically have the most to gain by submitting to these tests. However, the standardized tests do not ensure equality of opportunity; in fact, Blacks are losing rather than gaining ground as a result of standardized testing reform. High-stakes testing levies sanctions against the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of educational inequalities. According to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, the current standardized testing reforms have resulted in increased minority dropout rates, and nine of the ten states with the highest dropout rates use standardized testing in decisions concerning graduation. Furthermore, according to Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, schools that serve large numbers of Black students are the least likely to be able to meet the new standards, due to lower funding, a lack of courses, fewer resources, and a deficient number of good, qualified teachers. Scholar and education activist Asa Hilliard wrote, “If you want elephants to grow, you don’t weigh the elephants. You feed the elephants.”46

In 1992, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing issued a report entitled Rising Standards for American Education. This report argued for standardized testing, but acknowledged that such a program would result in further disparities if not supplemented by policies ensuring equal access to resources. It outlined a strategy: school equity reform should predate any implementation of high-stakes standardized testing. If standardized testing is to have an egalitarian impact, it should not be utilized as a sorting and labeling mechanism. Instead, coupled with reforms that seek equal resource allocation across race, class, and regional barriers, it should be used as a device for identifying student strengths and needs in order to enhance educational opportunities where enhancement is required. These would be reform measures worth supporting.47

In America, quality education costs money-a lot of money. All children deserve an equal opportunity to acquire a decent education, and since this is costly, hard choices need to be made, including a massive reallocation of resources. It is strange that Americans rarely support increased educational funding due to concerns that an inefficient bureaucracy is misspending their tax money, when at the same time military budgets are never constrained according to this logic. Sometimes very expensive bombs miss their intended targets too, yet we fund for the construction of more than enough bombs so that all targets will be destroyed. Educational funding should function according to similar reasoning, as ensuring increased and egalitarian educational funding is a necessary pursuit. However, knowing the historical forces driving education reform in America, such egal- itarian financial measures seem removed from reality. But, despite this pessimistic outlook, some liberating opportunities do exist.

With the disappearance of civil society, education bureaucracies are slowly suffering from increased tensions, and teachers are leveraging more power in their professional lives. In locations where the disciplinary structures are disappearing, there are momentary opportunities for liberating action. In 1987, the teachers in Rochester won a collective agreement for more control over their profession. Although this does not ensure revolutionary change, or even minimal change, a local group of teachers is much more likely than stifling bureaucrats-beholden to a corporate and government elite-to allow their profession to evolve critically and democratically. If nothing else, and this should not be glossed over, empowered teachers are more inclined to further the necessary multicultural curriculum and fend off the powerful constituents who continue to attempt to derail multiculturalism.48

In the current framework, there is at least some room for teachers interested in social justice. The dialectical nature of education implies both the reproduction of the dominant ideology and its unmasking. In this regard, standardized testing inevitably generates tough, critical questions and conflicts about social issues. Yes, standardized testing is a form of social production that reproduces a capitalist society, entrenching inequality; yes, American standardized testing is adherent to the peculiar and nefarious American cultural construction of race. However, standardized testing is also a naked representation of knowledge deemed official. Teachers trained in critical pedagogy, armed with documentation of official knowledge, surely can divert the axiomatic logic of capitalism and do some damage of their own. In the words of Foucault, “the will to knowledge is simultaneously part of the danger and a tool to combat that danger.” Black female educators Anna Julia Cooper and Fanny Jackson Coppin exemplified how teachers could achieve some measure of justice for their students by both working within and countering the dominant paradigm.49

Countering the Dominant Paradigm: Anna Julia Cooper and Fanny Jackson Coppin

Many early educators interested in social justice for peripheral students were Black women-women who represented a Black female identity endeavoring to leap the barrier that inhibited inclusion within American identity. For, although Black women suffered the double burden of race and gender oppression, and often also class oppression, education (and thus standardization) was theoretically, and in rare moments practically, liberating. Among Black women, only those who were educated were taken seriously, even within the Black community. Being taken seriously, though, allowed them the authority to be teachers and reformers, or, as they were often called, “racial uplifters.” However, dialectically, education was also constraining for Black women, for it also required their adherence to a certain standard. A columnist for the Washington Bee, a Black newspaper, exemplified this thinking in 1891:

Once upon a time most people were of the opinion, except if a woman was a schoolteacher or employed in government service, she was lost to civilization. I think they are learning some sense and have begun to realize that there are as many cultivated ladies outside of government employment as there are in.50

Anna Julia Cooper, Black feminist educator, displayed an understanding of education that transcended the Washington-Du Bois false dichotomy (as previously described), and thus also understood how Blacks were identified according to where they stood in relation to national norms. Cooper’s conceptualization of education was much more universal, in terms of class, race, and gender, and her universality was an attempt to redefine and expand American identity. She understood the rhetoric of freedom in America, and sought to test its possibilities and its limits. She wrote: “There can be no doubt that here in America is the arena in which the next triumph of civilization is to be won; and here too we find promise abundant and possibilities infinite.” But, in Cooper’s eyes, any such “triumph” demanded an expansion of American identity. Cooper lived and struggled for a much more inclusive integration than definitions of integration standardized according to (White) American identity.51

This inclusive integration was dependent on the role of Black female educators like herself. Cooper taught at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., then a school for African American students, for more than forty years. It was as the M Street principal that she was victimized by the Washington-Du Bois paradigmatic “either-or” of Black education. Cooper was more apt to support Du Bois’s liberal curriculum, as she taught classics, language, history, and science. Later in life, at 66, exemplifying her lifelong commitment to scholarship, she received her doctorate from the Sorbonne, writing a thesis on French attitudes toward slavery during the French Revolution. As the M Street principal between 1901 and 1906 she pursued a strategy similar to Du Bois’s “talented tenth” and it paid dividends for her students. In those five years many young M Street graduates were accepted at some of America’s most elite universities, including Harvard, a huge accomplishment considering the ubiquitous absence of Blacks on these campuses of privilege at that time.52

In 1906, Anna Julia Cooper was fired from her position as M Street principal due to the influence of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine. Washington and the “machine” targeted her for her opposition to the view that industrial education was the sole (or even best) channel for racial uplift. Beyond appearing to take the wrong side of the Washington-Du Bois false dichotomy, Cooper was condemned because she was too successful as a Black educator and integrator. There were reasons why Washington and the Tuskegee Machine wielded so much power, not the least of which was its adherence to the dominant, White standard. White members of the D.C. board of education, likely devoted to their racist assumptions of integration (or segregation), allied with Washington and Tuskegee to sabotage Cooper’s reputation and force her out as principal. After teaching in Missouri for five years, she returned to teach at M Street in 1911 until her 1930 retirement, but she was never again the principal. Cooper did not adhere to the racist, White standard of how and why Blacks should be educated. She believed in, and worked for, an expanded form of integration that would allow Blacks to not only attend Harvard, but help shape American identity.53

Although Cooper was, conjecturally, victimized for her Du Bois-like stance on Black education, ironically she supported industrial education at M Street for some students, and she was not explicitly aligned with Du Bois when she was fired in 1906. Her philosophy of education could be much more closely categorized alongside the later, mature Du Bois who understood that his struggle with Booker T. Washington was one of power, not ideology. The Washington-Du Bois opposition was concerned with the questions of 1) what class gains could be obtained through higher education, and 2) how these class gains could be made. Here lies the contradiction: although Washington and Tuskegee supported a philosophy of education that served poor African Americans, he and those he surrounded himself with enjoyed class privilege inherent in their affiliation with White standards. Contrarily, Du Bois and Cooper believed in what was considered an elitist philosophy and yet they were personally economically marginalized for their lack of adherence to the national master narrative. But even more importantly, Cooper would not let her actions be constrained by the false dichotomy of her male counterparts, and she spent much of her life serving the poor. Later in life, reflecting on the M Street controversy, she wrote (referring to herself in the third person):

The most significant fact, perhaps, in Mrs. Cooper’s contributions to education in Washington and certainly the most directly provocative of the cause of her own segregated group is the courageous revolt she waged against a lower “colored” curriculum for M Street school.54

After her retirement from M Street, Anna Julia Cooper was president of Frelinghuysen University in Washington, D.C., a school that served the Black working poor, until she was almost 90. She sought to unite the goals of an academic curriculum with those of industrial education through her work there, educating domestic workers. Speaking on education in the 1930s, she theorized that the salvation of Blacks was every bit as dependent on the education of the “submerged tenth” as on that of the “talented tenth.” She sought a dialectical approach to racial uplift that included educating both downtrodden and privileged Blacks, and she theorized that the downtrodden required both industrial education for economic survival and a liberal academic curriculum to serve their “mind, body, and spirit.” She said, “The only sane education, therefore, is that which conserves the very lowest stratum. and (through education) creates a beneficent force in the service of the world.” She continued:

We must insist on those studies which are calculated to train our people to think, which will give them the power of appreciation and righteousness [while at the same time giving] the one line of training necessary for the occupation or trade of the individual.55

Cooper’s theory of education was expressed through both her actions at M Street early in her career, and her written and spoken words as an intellectual later in life. According to scholars Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan, her theory was the “first systematic working out of the insistence that no one social category can capture the reality of the Black woman.” American education and standardization, adherent to the strict, binary constructs of race and gender, also constructed the Washington-Du Bois binary. By blurring the lines of the Washington-Du Bois false dichotomy, Cooper was also successful in testing the limits of American race and gender constraints, expanding American identity and American concepts of integration.56

In the 1850s, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun explicated the “official knowledge” of the antebellum South when he invoked the alleged intellectual inferiority of Blacks as justification for slavery. Fanny Jackson Coppin, born a slave in 1837 in Washington, D.C., was motivated to represent a standard diametrically opposed to this official doctrine. She gained an education, and spent the rest of her life as an educator and “racial uplifter,” founding the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth in 1869 and heading it through the end of the 19th century. She modeled and conceptualized teaching for social justice, and throughout her career expanded the boundaries of American civilization to thousands of Black children, despite the mandates of a racist society that attempted to prohibit such an expansion.57

At the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, Coppin, anticipating Anna Julia Cooper, defied the constraints that would later be imposed by both White standards and the Washington-Du Bois false dichotomy. She implemented the teaching of a classical, liberal academic curriculum. But this curriculum was not reserved for the “talented tenth.” Coppin, who understood the racist undertones of labels, worked to educate the so-called “slow learners.” But recognizing the severe racial tension in Philadelphia (where one of her teachers was murdered in 1870 while attempting to vote), she saw the limitations of integration according to White standards, and thus also the risks of having a solely academic curriculum. She considered it unrealistic and irresponsible for Blacks to confine themselves to liberal studies while White society was hesitant to allow Blacks to utilize such education, sometimes even murdering educated Blacks. Altering her strategy of racial uplift, Coppin integrated industrial training at the Institute, hoping also to increase the likelihood of Black economic independence. Her philosophy was an unrelenting struggle for Black justice in White America.58

Coppin’s proven ability to develop the intellect of young Black students complicated the prevalent racist theories of intelligence, as (White) educational standards for her and her students became accessible. These standards could be liberating because she understood the official knowledge offered her by a White, racist society-embodied by John C. Calhoun-but did not accept this knowledge as the ultimate constraint. As a teacher for social justice, Coppin flipped this standard of naked racism on its head, and it motivated her and her students to achieve an education on their own terms, a small yet real victory.

Coppin’s grand strategy, although it needs to be altered slightly to the particularities of time and place, should be emulated. The current system of standardized testing should be rejected, no doubt, just as Coppin rejected racism. The official knowledge the standardized tests represent should likewise be rejected, just as Coppin rejected Calhoun and scientific racism. But the standardized tests should also inform teachers interested in social justice. Just as Coppin turned the standard of her era upside down in liberating fashion, teachers should use the standardized tests to inform themselves and their students of the constraints of American knowledge deemed official. An understanding of this knowledge and how/why it came to be official should empower those who wish to test the limits of these constraints, expanding the boundaries of American identity. Many small victories, like those of Coppin and her students, could add up to a large victory for those seeking justice.


1. The white teacher is quoted in Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 142, as cited by Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 18. I owe the conception of the teachers being charged with civilizing the former slaves to Hale, pp. 18-19. The notion of an undifferentiated mass was garnered from Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991), p. 7. Alexander successfully extracts a group of free Black women in the South from the “undifferentiated mass.” For more on White northern teachers, see Linda Perkins, “The Black Female American Missionary Association Teacher in the South, 1861-1870,” in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in United States History (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1990). Despite previously conceived notions, many White women who traveled south as teachers were not motivated by altruistic zeal, but rather to seek an escape from lives constrained by the “cult of true womanhood.” For more on the question of civilization, see Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: State Formation and Civilization (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

2. Hale, Making Whiteness.

3. This method of unmasking that which is seemingly natural I borrow from Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx unmasked political economy the theories of capitalism that had previously been accepted as natural and eternal.

4. Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999). My understanding of the framework of U.S. response to the Depression and WWII is based on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 240-244; Gary Gerstle & Steve Fraser, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: 1930-1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); and Harry Magdoff, interviewed by Huck Gutman, “Creating a Just Society: Lessons from Planning in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.,” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, No. 5, October 2002, pp. 1-22.

5. On the global machinations of neoliberalism, a great text is Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999). On the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution,” see Daniel Yergin & Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that is Remaking the Modern World (New York: Touchstone Books, 1998). On civil society, Michael Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society,” Social Text, no. 45 (Winter 1995): 27-44.

6. For the role of standardized testing in the context of neoliberalism, I will examine: Michael Apple, Educating the Right Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality (New York: Routledge Falmer, 2001), and Kevin Vinson & Wayne Ross, “What We Can Know and How We Can Know It,” Z Magazine, March 2000, pp. 34-38. For an excellent example of the romanticization of civil society, see Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). Although Putnam argues that he does not seek a return to an invented American community, the way he frames his argument contradicts this claim. For a theoretical, anti-government, anti-civil societal order, see: Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960).

7. I partly owe this conception of a broader context to Bertell Ollman, “Why So Many Exams? A Marxist Response,” Z Magazine, October 2002, pp. 47-50.

8. Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983), pp. 8-50.

9. David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 1-32. Harris quote, Tyack, p. 29. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans., Talcott Parsons (London, Unwin Hyman, 1930).

10. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 1999), p. 91. Tyack, The One Best System, pp. 218-232. On the immigrants able to “become White,” see: David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991).

11. The best examination of eugenics is Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); the Terman quote is from Gould, p. 209. On the connection of eugenics to standardized testing, see Alan Stroskopf, “The Forgotten History of Eugenics,” in Kathy Swope & Barbara Miner, eds., Failing Our Kids: Why the Testing Craze Won’t Fix Our Schools (Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd, 2000), pp. 76-79. On intelligence testing and Terman, see Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (New York: Touchstone Books, 2000), pp. 130-161.

12. Booker T. Washington, “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” in The American Reader, Diane Ravitch, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 185-186.

13. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1989 [1903]), pp. 518-522.

14. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 193.

15. Ibid.

16. Gloria Joseph, “Black Feminist Pedagogy and Capitalist White America,” in Bowles and Gintis Revisited: Correspondence and Contradiction in Educational Theory (London: The Falmer Press, 1988), pp. 174-188. Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books, 1976).

17. For a nice economic analysis of unemployment in America, see Franck Ackerman, Hazardous to Our Wealth: Economic Policies in the 1980’s (Boston: South End Press, 1984). On the Jim Crow South, there is a wealth of information, but see esp. Hale Making Whiteness (n. 1). The term “flexible workforce,” long official capitalist policy, was uttered by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as cited by Jim Hightower, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 228.

18. Tyack, The One Best System (n. 9), p. 218.

19. On America’s response to economic crisis, see Hardt & Negri, Empire, pp. 240- 244. On the regulations of the New Deal, Gerstle & Fraser, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. On the role of planning in WWII, Magdoff (n. 4). For the Kennan analysis of U.S. global hegemony, see Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p. 318.

20. Slavoj Zizek, “Postface: Georg Lukács as the Philosopher of Lenin,” in Georg Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2000).

21. For the best account of the origination of the SAT, see Lemann, The Big Test, pp. 3-124. Cited text, p. 5.

22. James Oliver Horton & Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (New York: Oxford university Press, 1997), pp. 55-76.

23. Lemann, The Big Test, pp. 155-165. Cited text, p. 155. For testing statistical evidence: “Sex and Race Differences on Standardized tests: Oversight Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, 100th Congress, 1st session, April 23, 1987 (Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1989).

24. On socioeconomic determinants, see Vinson & Ross (n. 6); also, Julie Ancis & William Sedlacek, “Predicting the Academic Achievement of Female Students Using the SAT and Noncognitive Variables,” Counseling Center, University of Maryland, Research Report #17-95, Cited text: p. 2.

25. Joseph, “Black Feminist Pedagogy and Capitalist White America” (n. 14), p. 176.

26. Lemann, The Big Test.

27. Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society” (n. 5), p. 27; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), pp. 19-51. Cited text: p. 24.

28. On the Coleman report, see: Lemann, The Big Test, p. 161, and D. Hoff, “Made to Measure,” Education Week, June 16, 1999, p. 8.

29. For an excellent journalistic account of the Prince Edward County policy of closing schools to ward off integration, see Donald P. Baker, “Closed,” Washington Post Magazine, March 2, 2001, p. W8.

30. Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” Graham Burchell et al., The Foucault Effect (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 87-104.

31. Ibid. As a discourse, standardized testing is both language and material.

32. Cited text, Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society,” p. 30; Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 15-28.

33. On Foucault’s interpretation of civil society, ibid., p. 29-31. On Foucault’s discipline model, see his definitive work on the notion of discipline as a mode of social production: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 138-176.

34. Hardt & Negri analyze America as Foucault’s factory-society in Empire, pp. 240-244. On the NDEA and the SAT, see J. Pulliam & J. Van Patten, History of Education in America (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), p. 165.

35. Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society,” pp. 34-37. On dwindling education funding, see: Jay Taylor, “Desperate for Dollars,” American School Board Journal 178, no. 9, September 1992, pp. 19-35. Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 282-306.

36. Ibid.

37. For a comprehensive and withering critique of neoliberalism, see Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People (including McChesney’s introduction, citation p. 11). For an uncritical but informative narrative, see Yergin & Stanislaw (n. 5).

38. U.S. Census Bureau, “Money Income in the United States: 2000.” Also, Paul Ryscavage, Income Inequality in America: An Analysis of Trends (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.)

39. For an excellent account of education inequalities, see Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). On globalization and the role of government, see Saskia Sassen, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: New Press, 1998), introduction.

40. Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society,” p. 37.

41. Mary Hatwood Futrell & Walter A. Brown, “Should African Americans Support the Current Education Reform Standards Movement?” Journal of Negro Education 69 (Fall 2000): 288-304. Cited text: p. 288. Linda Darling-Hammond, “New Standards and Old Inequalities: School Reform and the Education of African American Students,” Journal of Negro Education 69 (Fall 2000): 263-87.

42. On standardized testing as a market-based reform, see Apple, Educating the ‘Right’ Way (n. 6), pp. 84-93. Cited text, p. 86. For an analysis of the axiomatic logic of neoliberal capitalism, see Hardt & Negri, Empire, p. 330-331.

43. Marx quote: Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 344. Apple, Educating the ‘Right’ Way, p. 21. William Bennett, Our Children, Our Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 10.

44. Bill Bigelow, “Standards and Multiculturalism,” in Swope & Miner, eds., Failing Our Kids (n. 11), pp. 87-92. Both the Gates and Bigelow quotes are from p. 87. Harold Berlack, “Standards and the Control of Knowledge,” in Swope & Miner, pp. 93-94.

45. Donald E. Collins, “Fear of a Multicultural (Read ‘Black’ America): The Public Policy Debate Over Multiculturalism and Race in the 1990’s” (unpublished manuscript). On the experience of the Virginia student (a letter written by his mother): Makani Themba-Nixon, “Testing Slights Multiculturalism,” in Swope & Miner, p. 20. On the Massachusetts exam, see: Derrick Z. Jackson, “At Best Silly, At Worst Racist,” in Swope & Miner, pp. 18-19. Teacher quoted: p. 19.

46. Futrell & Brown (n. 38). On the Harvard Civil Rights Project, see Gary Orfield & Johanna Wald, “Testing, Testing,” The Nation, June 5, 2000. Darling-Hammond (n. 38); Asa Hilliard, “Standards: Decoy of Quality Control?” in Swope & Miner, pp. 64-70; National Council on Education Standards and Testing, Raising Standards for American Education (Washington, 1992). Hilliard quote: p. 66.

47. National Council on Education Standards and Testing (n. 43).

48. For more on the Rochester teachers, see Gerald Grant & Christine Murray, Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 141-181.

49. For an introduction to critical pedagogy, there is none better than Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

50. The Washington Bee, February 28, 1891, as cited by Sharon Harley, “Beyond the Classroom: The Organizational Lives of Black Female Educators in the District of Columbia, 1890-1930,” Journal of Negro Education, vol. 51, no. 3 (1982). The term “racial uplifter” appears time and again in the literature on Black female educators.

51. Anna Julia Cooper, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, Eds. Charles Lemert & Esme Bhan (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998). Cited text, p. 54.

52. Ibid., pp. 1-13.

53. Ibid. Also, on the power of the Tuskegee Machine, see Robinson, Black Marxism, pp. 192-194.

54. Cooper, pp. 14-21.

55. Ibid., pp. 248-250.

56. For the Lemert and Bhan assessment: ibid., p. 14.

57. Linda Perkins, “Heed Life’s Demands: The Educational Philosophy of Fanny Jackson Coppin,” in Black Women in United States History (n. 1), pp. 1039-1048.

58. Ibid.

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