When standardized tests were first developed long ago (the SAT started in 1926), they had a virtuous purpose. Educators wished to give all high school students a chance to show their talents and earn admission to elite colleges. From then on, the disciplined, high-IQ son of a shopkeeper in Salina, Kansas, could show his superiority to the New York banker’s son finishing at Andover.
To allow him the chance to compete against the sons of privilege was felt necessary to fulfill the promise of democracy. A universal assessment of knowledge and skills would overcome legacy admissions and prep-school endorsements and level the playing field, providing an objective ranking of applicants independent of class, family, religion, race, and region.
But there was a problem, and it surfaced as more youths headed to college and competition for spaces rose. Sometimes, the test contents drew upon materials familiar to some groups more than others. A passage on a reading exam about the religion of the Puritans favored New England WASPs over Southwestern Hispanics. In one classic case, an SAT question from the 1970s turned on the word regatta. As more females and minorities aspired to college, examples such as this brought charges of “cultural bias.” A persistent racial gap in scores, too, proved to some that tests reinforced the very disadvantages they were supposed to neutralize.
The test companies responded with a simple directive: Eliminate all content that discriminates among test-takers on grounds other than the specific knowledge and skills being tested. The goal was to minimize references to content outside the classroom, such as the church a student attends and languages in the home. A passage from Luke on the analytic part of the GRE gives devout Christians a boost, while anything about welfare might upset the daughter of an unemployed single mother and hinder her performance. Some historical specifics can’t be overlooked, such as the Civil War, even if a question about Gettysburg on a history exam might benefit mid-Atlantic students. But we can certainly remove much of this sort of material from reading tests and word problems in math and science.
The trend toward bland neutrality is ensured by a process called “bias and sensitivity review.” Testing companies submit each passage and question to anti-discrimination inspection. States have guidelines on what is and isn’t permitted. Expert reviewers ask, “Does this scene from Hemingway have sexist language that annoys females? Does that question about the Mexican-American War assume something about geography that gives students from the southwest a leg up?”
They spot topics, wording, stereotypes, and assumptions that the most nit-picking critic might flag. The bare chance of inequity moves them to drop a questionable item. From past experience, experts have learned not to take risks. Ten years ago, Diane Ravitch in The Language Police identified pressure groups eager to pounce on a biased test and an offensive book, too. She recounts how one editor told a children’s author whose story had been anthologized but only after every citation of Jews, God, and the Bible had been scrubbed, “Try to understand. We have a lot of problems. If we mention God, some atheist will object. If we mention the Bible, someone will want to know why we don’t give equal time to the Koran. Every time that happens, we lose sales.”
For the tests, educators reason that it is best to avoid certain things outright. The California Department of Education high school exit exam has a long list of excluded topics, including:
Dying, death, disease, hunger, famine
Rats, roaches, lice, spiders
Of course religion can’t avoid the ax. Religion divides groups, it forms distinct traditions, it particularizes people’s backgrounds. Faith excites strong feelings, and current religious debate over sexuality, not to mention religious violence in faraway lands, makes religion doubly untouchable. So we can’t have any climaxes from The Scarlet Letter, no biblical echoes from The Grapes of Wrath, no mention of Stonewall Jackson’s intense faith, and forget “Ain’t I a Woman” and “Cross of Gold.”
The exclusions are blunt. The Fairness Guidelines Adopted by PARCC (PARCC is a testing consortia connected to Common Core) states:
It is safest to avoid material that focuses on any religion, any religious group, any religious holidays, any religious practices, any religious beliefs, or anything closely associated with religion
. . . unless it is important for valid measurement.
The other major testing organization linked to Common Core is Smarter Balanced, and its guidelines advise, “Avoid requiring knowledge of any particular religion. For example, to say that something is ‘as colorful as an Easter egg’ may be an unfamiliar comparison for some students.” The example is so trivial that it sounds like a joke, but outside critics can be relentless: “Some people will see even an objective description of a religion as proselytizing.” Why pick a fight when you can select passages with no religious content at all?
Smarter Balance does allow that “it is acceptable to mention religion,” but it imposes so many constraints and delicacies that test developers wisely avoid it. A sample question presented late in the guidelines demonstrates the inevitable expulsion.
6. Isaiah wrote, “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes.” Describe the meaning of that quotation and give two examples of people who are “wise in their own eyes” from your reading or from your personal experience. Explain your choices.
Unacceptable. The excerpt violates guidelines about the avoidance of religious material, even though the students are not asked to write directly about religion.
Note closely the disqualification. The task contains no endorsement or criticism of religion, no mention of God or sin, nothing about the Old Testament and no stereotypes. Test-takers are asked to accept “wise in their own eyes” as a saying, that’s all. They apply it to anyone they want, a character in a book or a person they know, merely as a description, not as a judgment by God or the prophet. It is hard to imagine how this counts as biased or insensitive.
Nevertheless, it’s out. Earlier, the guidelines stated that religion is “a topic best treated with great care,” but here the advice hardens into a categorical “no religious material.” A 2007 Riverside Publishing guide warns: “Passages should not make even an incidental reference to the religion of the character. Passages about birthday or religious holiday celebrations (including Thanksgiving) cannot be used.”
We may laugh or frown at these proscriptions, but we shouldn’t underestimate them. In primary and secondary education, what gets tested is what gets taught. The contrary holds as well: What doesn’t get tested doesn’t get taught. With schools pressed to raise scores, teachers gear instruction to critical assessments, noting the material on prior tests and anticipating next year’s. Religion has been disqualified from past tests, and it will be disqualified from future ones, too. So religion disappears from the curriculum.
This brings us worlds away from education as it was in America through the nineteenth century when religious content was woven through reading, writing, history, and civics. Biblical content was everywhere. The New England Primer famously taught the letter a with the couplet “In ADAM’S Fall / We sinned all.”
The eradication of religion amounts to more than disestablishing Christianity in the classroom and enforcing a separation of Church and state. In effect, it denies religion a place in history, politics, geography, art, and literature. As we follow the trend, it is tempting to count it as one more specimen of secularist aggression, an effort to spread the naked public square into the naked public school. But, in fact, the educators have a wider target than religion. The goal is fairness, not relativism; meritocracy, not irreligiosity. To reach it, the tests must transcend all localized cultural, historical, and geographical elements. Equality requires the suppression of differences—ironically, the very opposite of what the language of diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance projects. It is a liberal enterprise in its decree that nothing accidental in a person’s life should come between him and his aspirations. Not birth, money, skin color, gender, sexuality, or religion.
Once college attendance became a key to success, and standardized tests were made a determinant of it, their terrain had to be homogenized. The more all Americans needed higher education, the less could they be tested on history, religion, literature, and art. Bias and sensitivity review was conceived as a way to ensure equal opportunity, but the knowledge on which we evaluate students, the traditions we pass on, are now subject to a bureaucratic screening. The events, ideas, artworks, and beliefs that distinguish human beings too sharply are ruled out. We have fairness . . . and flatness.
If you have a chance, read through two dozen passages on recent exams. If you find little in them that is inspiring, curious, pointed, provocative, funny, or sobering; if there is no illumination of a specific group experience; no acknowledgement that a particular culture, faith, politics, or country has pluses and minuses; no hint of religious truth . . . then the reviewers have done their job well.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.