Actually, the racism of the initiators of these tests would not be at all necessary to ensure that they would involve a measure of bigotry. The phenomenon is intrinsic to so-called “objective” testing even when designers and administrators are cautious and enlightened.
Of course, well administered tests are not without their utility. There is some tracing of cerebral alacrity accomplished by IQ testing, and some correspondence between SAT or GRE scores and a certain measure of academic accomplishment. Nonetheless, these are culture-centric, inevitably limited by the intelligence and cultural norms of the designers and administrators. Also, the results are limited by the capacities of those who view those results to interpret them.
I happen to teach graduate English, a field in which ethnocentrism and denials of ethnocentrism–entire specialties devoted to such denials–abound. In such an extreme setting, it is fairly easy to see the problem, and I think it can be described clearly here.
Not everyone grows up speaking academic English; in fact, almost none of us do. We would find it perfectly obvious that a Chinese student with no exposure to English might do poorly on a test in which all questions were framed in English. We have some acknowledgement, within the profession, that it is harder for students whose dialects do not conform to academic English. Still, at the same time, we insist that students write this dialect, and, to varying degrees, we grade accordingly.
To some extent, this becomes an inevitable extension of having standardized language at all. To perhaps a greater extent, it is a natural consequence of the impossibility of universal cultural fluency on the part of instructors. As a white person who grew up in California in the 50s and 60s, I am not a fluent speaker of Scots English, Irish brogue, Cockney, posh Londoner, Gullah-descended African American patois, Spanish-influenced inner-city Chicano, or a lot of other variants that I see less often.
But whatever else may be done about standardization, it has to be recognized that people who take tests in a culture that is not their own are impeded to various extents by the distinctions in culture. And this is true not only of English tests, but of tests in other fields in which questions are phrased in English.
Now, to an extent, that has to include even a test in arithmetic. And it has to be almost across the board in anything else. And not all assumptions about even testing itself are couched in language. Still, the prejudice in language is relatively easy to track. Most of you have taken objective tests, and you must recall looking at apparently easy multiple-guess questions in which more than one answer appeared correct or in which no answer whatsoever appeared correct and wondered something like “What does the instructor mean by that?”
Your answer in such an instance became a best guess at particular ambiguities in the tester’s usage or syntax; your score thereby became, to that extent, a function of cultural familiarity.
There is some difficulty with this because some parts of academics eventually licenses medics and lawyers and engineers and also teachers, and it would be grossly impractical to assume that people whose cultures we do not understand closely have achieved competence just because we cannot test them fairly.
But it does suggest that the current emphasis on such testing should be reversed. It also suggests that we should not work so hard at withholding education from people, particularly young people. It is really a remarkable folly to imagine that the only person who benefits from an education is the student who receives it. I recall one afternoon directly after class watching those colored stripes race by on a hospital ceiling and being very glad to imagine that at least the people attending me had studied. I would have been a good deal happier had I imagined that they had all been treated fairly, and also particularly that each had been treated far better than I imagined that he or she had.
The hero you educate may be your own. If not, there are a lot of other people who could use help. And were there not such enormous fees to pay upon graduation, graduates would more reliably choose work based on how they helped rather than what they might be paid, a bit more like the starry-eyed goals one hears from them in their first years leaving home or deciding, finally, to study voluntarily.