Ann Althouse (via Reynolds) quotes the New York Times:

As test scores fast become the single and most powerful measurement by which educational outcomes are being judged, more schools might find themselves engaged in what has become a pivotal debate: Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?

As usual, Ms. Althouse has some good points, but the real action is in the comments.

The interchange between Seven Machos and several others comes perilously close to revealing the Nasty Little Secret of education and much else in this country since the Sixties. It’s a Nasty Little Secret because everybody knows it, but few if any want to say it out loud. As a person with zero status, I am privileged to present it without fear:

Black people do not achieve in the same proportion as whites and others.

This utterly confounds egalists like Seven Machos, and since much of Education is founded on egalist ideals, it shows up most clearly in the schools. The education establishment has been scrambling to figure out how this happens and how to correct it for half a century, and it is the original source of motivation for most of the changes in schools that so many of us find useless or counterproductive.

Integration was supposed to solve the problem. Give the black kids the same facilities and teachers as the white kids got, and they’d do as well. It didn’t work. Neither did “mainstreaming”, “self-esteem”, or any of the other measures taken. Watering down the curriculum didn’t work — it turns out that no matter how simple you make school, if any content at all remains whites and asians will do better than blacks.

One such measure stands out. “Black Identity” has spectacularly anti-worked by creating a cohort of “students” for whom learning counts as “acting white”, which is defined as failure to maintain identity.

Arguing about IQ tests and the nature of intelligence misses the point. Our complex industrial society puts a premium on abstract learning — maintaining a nuclear power plant is not something that can be left to OJT — and the tests are designed to approximate the challenges a member of such a society will encounter. That they are deeply flawed is a given, but however flawed they may be they do maintain a rough correlation with success in the larger society.

It takes a fairly nasty-minded variety of racist to assert that no black person can achieve, and the evidence is squarely against that notion. There are many black people who have achieved and continue to do so, and even back in the (thankfully) dead days of institutional racism the possibility was acknowledged, if grudgingly. All that really says, though, is that “intelligence”, whatever it may be at the root, exists in a “long-tailed” distribution: there are many more instances at the extremes, especially at the high end, than is predicted by a Gaussian distribution with its median and standard deviation.

A long-tailed distribution is likely to result in both waste and injustice, and this is precisely what affirmative action is supposed to correct. An employer, faced with an applicant from a group known not to achieve, is likely to reject the application based on that assumption; this is unfair to the applicant and wasteful to the society at large, because statistics do not predict individual achievement. If the applicant is out on the long tail, and is therefore perfectly capable of achieving, treating that individual as if he or she were at the modal point eliminates the contributions that individual could have made. Forcing the employer to consider only ability, rather than the statistical assumption or “stereotype”, allows the individual to succeed and the societal contribution to be made — if, and only if, the applicant accepted on the basis of affirmative action is held to the same standards as all the other applicants must meet.

Our complex society requires a lot of people with knowledge bases too large to acquire by experience, and placing people lacking basic information in positions of responsibility produces errors that ripple throughout. The society cannot survive if its members are required to reinvent fire, the wheel, and counting anew every time a new individual joins it. The function of education is to impart basic knowledge, as accumulated by the experience of those who went before and recorded it, to new cohort(s) of contributors to society. Standardized testing, however flawed it may be, does at least reveal whether or not the person being tested has absorbed some fraction of the material, and at least in potentia it does so without regard to irrelevant considerations.

This will not satisfy the egalists, but there does not appear to be a solution that will satisfy them. It’s not just in the United States that the phenomenon arises. In the cultures of mainland South and Central America, where slavery was eliminated early and there has never been racism expressed in Jim Crow laws, the societies order themselves very much as commenter shoutingthomas describes, and despite genuine advantages in natural resources the black and black-majority nations of Africa do not do as well as others do with less. It may just be that we must bite the bullet, so to speak.

[UPDATE 12:40 CST] Commenter ef:

So far as I can tell, none of the statistics take pains to control for social and environmental factors.  I remain curious if the differences in achievement are rooted in the urban upbringing that is disproportionally born by black and hispanic students (those that are most likely to under-achieve).

Bulls*t. There have been numerous and painstaking (if not always honest) attempts to control for social and environmental factors in “intelligence” testing. They all either return ambiguous results or confirm what everyone knows but no one admits: blacks don’t do as well as other ethnicities.

The whole world and all of history is an intelligence test, and the formulators of IQ tests, the SAT, etc. etc. are simply trying to approximate it. The Roman Empire was conquered numerous times by northern Europeans, but never by Africans who had equal or better avenues of access; neither Zimbabwe nor South Africa provides its black citizens with the standard of living they had before the evils of white domination and apartheid were largely done away with. Blacks in Brazil, which eliminated slavery long before the United States did and never had Jim Crow laws, do less well than other ethnics, including native “Indians”, and the same is true in Mexico. Other examples abound.

Why that should be is a question that badly needs answering, so that corrective and/or ameliorative efforts can be made. Those answers will never be arrived at, and no improvement is possible, until and unless we, as a society, admit that the problem exists.

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