Steven Singer

How I triggered Bill Maher by writing about white supremacy and standardized tests

Bill Maher is mad at me.

And I've never even met the man.

I guess you could say we're from different worlds.

He's on the West Coast. I'm on the East.

He's a political comedian. I'm a public school teacher.

He's a multimillionaire. I can barely make ends meet.

What could I possibly do to provoke the ire of this man so much so that he took aim at me on his HBO TV show?

As near as I can tell, it started when I wrote a blog.

Then people read that blog.

It got popular and was republished throughout the Internet.

And Maher disagrees with what I wrote.

In fact, the very idea annoyed him as a prime example of namby-pamby liberals taking their agenda too far.

What did I write in the article?

Only that standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.

In fact, that was the title of the article, which seems to be about as far as Bill read because he ignored any arguments, facts or historical citations in the piece.

On his show, "Real Time with Bill Maher" this week, he posted the title of the article and the graphic that appeared with it when it was republished on commondreams.org.

What he didn't post was my name. I am the author, after all, but I guess that's not important.

The crucial bit was how triggered Bill was by my assertion.

By connecting such allegedly alien concepts as standardized testing and racism, Maher thinks I devalued the meaning of "white supremacy."

Maher never actually examined my claim or what I wrote backing it up. Never mind the arguments I made in favor of my point, the sources I cited, the examples of actual bias or the documented history of standardized testing as a creation of the eugenicist movement.

He was content to speak in a smarmy tone and make a pretty lame joke about what a racially biased test question might look like.

In fact, that's probably why he (and his staff) picked my piece in the first place. They saw it as an opportunity to make a joke and whiffed at it pretty terribly.

Here's the relevant bit of his monologue:

"In 2010 the New York Times used the term "White Supremacist" on 75 occasions. Last year, over 700 times. Now some of that to be sure is because Trump came along and emboldened the faction of this country that is truly white supremacist. It is of course still a real thing. But it shouldn't apply to something like – as more than a few have suggested – getting rid of the SAT test. Now if we find the SAT test is slanted in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of Caucasians, if there are questions like Biff and Chip are sailing a yacht traveling at 12 knots to an Ed Sheeran concert on Catalina – if Catalina is 12 miles away, how many White Claws should they bring? Yes, then maybe. But of course the SAT doesn't have questions like that so it becomes a kind of ludicrous exaggeration that makes lovers of common sense roll their eyes – and then vote for Trump."

And the punch line?

Bill Maher screenshot

Queue audience laughter and applause.

Funny stuff I guess.

Not the comedy staff's fake SAT question but Maher's assurance that "The SAT doesn't have questions like that."

Really, Bill?

How about this one?

Runner: Marathon
(a) envoy: embassy
(b) martyr: massacre
(c) oarsman: regatta
(d) horse: stable

It's a real SAT question famously discussed in the infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray – a book that tried to use discrepancies in test scores to prove white people are smarter than black people.

The answer is C, and it relies on a test taker's knowing the meaning of regatta – something more likely to have come up in the daily lives of affluent white students than in the lives of less affluent minority students. If you don't live by a body of water and/or don't have much experience with rowing, you're probably going to fail this question.

It's the same kind of question Maher's comedy team came up with – find something white people are more likely to know than black people – but the Real Time writers just pilled it on over-and-over.

It doesn't take five repetitions of something to make it biased. All it takes is one.

To be fair, my example is from the SAT analogy section, which was removed from the test in 2005. However, that doesn't mean they got rid of the bias.

In fact, the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, tacitly admits its test is biased.

It now provides an "adversity score" for poor and minority students to adjust raw SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods "level of disadvantage."

In other words, they know that poor and minority kids get lower scores so they're trying to fudge the results to give them a boost.

Which would be entirely unnecessary if the SAT assessedthem accurately in the first place.

They are literally trying to make up for how biased their test scores are.

Consider this.

Total SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 – or from 200-800 in both Math and Reading respectively.

According to 2018 data, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students average over 1100, while all other groups average below 1000. Meanwhile, students with family income less than $20,000 score lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest, according to 2015 data. And the difference is significant – a 433 average Reading score for those with the lowest family incomes compared to an average Reading score of 570 for those with the highest family income. That's a 137 point difference!

And it holds for racial groups, too. The average Reading score on the SAT was 429 for black students – 99 points behind the average for white students.

However, the College Board is trying to justify this by saying the discrepancy is because poor and minority students are more disadvantaged than white, affluent ones. In other words, it's not the test that is unfair, but American society in providing better resourced schools with lower class sizes and more resources for white kids than children of color.

And while American society IS unfair to the poor and minorities, several studies indicate that the problem is even deeper than that.

The SAT is biased, too.

Several studies ( Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service from 2003, Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson from 2010, etc.) find notable differences between the verbal scores of black and white students whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores.

Freedle says this is because SAT questions likely reflect the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people.

This makes sense if you examine how test questions are selected for the SAT. In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process:

"Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by the Educational Testing Service, whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…"

In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.

But if all this isn't enough to convince you that standardized tests really are a tool of white supremacy, consider their sordid history.

They are literally the product of the American eugenics movement.

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.

In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of "superior mental ability" from those who were "mentally inferior."

These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others. In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following:

"The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it."

Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind.

And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

Is it an exaggeration to say that assessments specifically designed to favor affluent white people over impoverished minorities still does the same thing?

Is it ridiculous to describe the century long racial and economic discrepancy in test scores as something that supports white supremacy – especially when these results are shown time and again to be a feature of the tests and not just an artifact that recreates economic inequality?

Is it going too far to call out the racism of the SAT and other standardized tests like it when even the College Board admits its own scores are biased?

Does it devalue the term "White Supremacy" to point out real world white supremacy?

But Maher apparently isn't interested in these questions.

After a few moments he moved on to another example of the left gone wild.

But I can't do that because this isn't just a bit for me.

As I mentioned, I'm a public school teacher.

I deal with the impact of standardized testing every day.

I watch my students degraded, depressed and dehumanized by it year after year.

It's become cliche for privileged white people like Bill Maher to get cranky when someone points out real world prejudice.

But for those of us in the trenches, it is an everyday reality.

And that's what triggers me.

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School Vouchers Will Indoctrinate a Generation in Alternative Truths

My middle school students are good at telling the difference between facts and opinions.

Facts, they’ll tell you, are things that can be proven.

They don’t even have to be true. They just have to be provable – one way or the other.

For instance: “I’m 6 feet tall.” It’s not true, but you could conceivably measure me and determine my height.

Opinions, on the other hand, are statements that have no way of being proven. They are value judgements: That is good. This is bad. Mr. Singer is short. Mr. Singer is tall.

It doesn’t make them less important – in fact, their relative importance to facts is, itself, an opinion.

Our government has put forward statements that are demonstrably false: The Bowling Green Massacre. Undocumented immigrants commit massive amounts of crime. Donald Trump had the largest electoral college victory of modern times.

All of these should objectively be viewed as facts. They’re false, but they are provable. Yet when we resort to the kinds of things that should count as proof, we refuse to agree, we come to a clash of epistemologies.

Today, your truth depends more on your political affiliation than your commitment to objective reality.

There was no Bowling Green Massacre. No one was killed in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Certainly there was no large scale mass death perpetrated by terrorists. There were two Iraqi nationals arrested who had been planning an attack outside of the U.S. They had been buying guns and materials here because they were easier to get.

However, many conservatives refuse to accept this. They believe there was a Bowling Green Massacre. And they believe that it justifies Trump’s immigration ban.

The same goes for undocumented immigrants committing crime. They do NOT actually commit more crime than U.S. citizens. In fact, they commit less. They don’t want to attract unnecessary attention and risk deportation.

But once again many conservatives refuse to believe it. With no hard evidence, maybe some anecdotal evidence blown way out of proportion, they simply accept what they’re told by their government and their chosen media.

And Trump’s electoral college victory? He won 306 of 538 electoral votes and lost the popular vote. Forty-five times Presidents won by a greater margin. And only two Presidents had a lower popular vote tally.

These are just numbers. I don’t know how they’re controversial or how anyone can disagree, but many conservatives do.

Don’t get me wrong. Liberals do it, too, though to a lesser degree. Ask most liberals about President Barack Obama’s education policy and you’ll get a gooey story about support and progressivism. It isn’t true.

One popular meme shows Obama lecturing a tiny Trump about how he should invest in education and respect parents and teachers. Yet Obama never really did those things, himself. He held federal education funding hostage unless districts increased standardized testing, Common Core and charter schools. THAT’S not what parents and teachers wanted! It’s what huge corporations wanted so they could profit off our public schools!

But to many liberals Obama is some kind of saint, and any evidence to the contrary will be accepted only with great reluctance.

THIS is our modern world. A world of alternative facts and competing narratives. Part of it is due to the Internet and the way knowledge has been democratized. Part of it is due to the media conglomerates where almost all traditional news is disseminated by a handful of biased corporations that slant the story to maximize their profits.

People end up picking the sources of information they think are trustworthy and shutting themselves off to other viewpoints. There is no more news. There is conservative news and liberal news. And the one you consume determines what you’ll accept as a fact.

He wants to radically increase the amount of school vouchers given to students. These allow federal dollars to be used to send children to private and parochial schools. As if the fly-by-night charter schools weren’t enough.

It’s a scam. A get-rich-quick scheme for corporations at the expense of students. But perhaps the worst part is how it exacerbates our world of alternative facts.

You think we can’t agree on the truth or falsity of facts now? Just wait! What counts as a source will be radically different for the first generation of kids sent to such disparate schools.

This isn’t just about cashing in on education dollars today. It’s about creating a generation of adults educated with school vouchers who accept far right ideas about the world as bedrock truths. Climate change and evolution are hoaxes. Trickle down economics works. Slavery benefited slave and master alike.

These are the false truths the Trump administration hopes to seed into a larger portion of the next generation. And when you indoctrinate children so young, there is little hope they’ll ever be able to see beyond what they’ve been taught.

Conservatives counter that liberals are doing the same thing today in our public schools. That’s why they want to send their children to the private and parochial schools. They don’t want their kids taught about modern science without reference to God. They don’t want them to learn history that puts socialistic policies in a positive light. They don’t want them to learn that white people were ever inhuman to people of color.

And how do you argue with them? How do you have a productive conversation when you can’t agree on what proves a fact true or false?

This is the challenge of our generation.

I don’t know how to solve it, but I know that school vouchers will make it exponentially worse.

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