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It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the (first)World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological[IQ] tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.The words of W. E. B. Du Bois still haunt us. We are now experiencing another onslaught and "hurried use" of tests in our schools. How African-American educators fought against their uses in the past has important implications for today's resistance to "high-stakes" testing.
-- W. E. B. Du Bois, 1940 1
We have grown accustomed to the constant refrain of schools needing to institute "world class standards" and be held accountable through externally based, high-stakes exams. Research and experience demonstrate that this version of "education reform" will negatively impact all students, especially students of color from lower income backgrounds. We also know that the best assessments originate in the classroom and are an ongoing part of a student's reflection of her or his progress. Few people realize that current critiques of testing and the calls for more authentic forms of assessment have been built in part upon the pioneering work of African-American intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s.
An appreciation of what these educators did begins with race. The underside to the "Roaring '20s" was its violent racism and xenophobia. Jim Crow ruled. In the South an apartheid-like caste system enveloped daily life. In the North, African Americans faced discrimination in housing, employment, the courts, and schools. The Ku Klux Klan reached its peak of popularity and claimed members in most states. Lynchings of African-American men were a familiar occurrence. Fears of racial impurity propelled the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. (This act set draconian quotas based on race and nationality. It blatantly favored people of Northern and Western European ancestry and was not substantively revised until 1965.)
Even the liberal New Deal Era of the 1930s did not fundamentally alter striking social inequalities wrought by racism. As an economic depression engulfed the entire nation, the Roosevelt Administration initiated a variety of public works projects aimed at providing relief to ordinary Americans and structural reform to unregulated private enterprise. The aid and reform were not as dramatic as supporters or critics of the New Deal claimed. African-American communities were the hardest hit and received the least amount of relief.