Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
David Johnson, Ph.D.
Julia Irwin, Ph.D.
Brian Connolly, Ph.D.
Mitchell Stevens, Ph.D.
education, college, assessment, brainpower, political culture
Standardized testing is a defining feature of contemporary American society. It not only governs how people are channeled through their schooling; it amplifies existing social disparities. Nonetheless, standardized testing endures, namely because it has served as a vital tool for the post-1945 American state. The postwar state prioritized, on the one hand, the cultivation of intellects resilient enough to sustain American geopolitical supremacy through scientific discovery and technological innovation and, on the other hand, the maintenance of an obedient population that would not disrupt existing social hierarchies. Standardized testing helped the postwar state solve this mind-body dilemma. As a function for social order, standardized testing provided the means for governing bodies to make sense of their citizens—particularly to gauge the skills, knowledge, and ability youth could eventually bring into a labor force. Standardized testing thus makes it clear not just who the so-called best and brightest are, but how well a population of students has adjusted to a set of educational norms the state has deemed necessary for future social success. Standardized testing is thus a way to monitor and enforce educational compliance with projected state and social needs.
This dissertation examines how standardized testing became a vital instrument for the postwar state—and, in turn, how this state dependence on standardized testing fueled several larger postwar political cultures. This dissertation also focuses on the tension between the ways the state made sense of its citizens and the ways citizens made sense of society through standardized tests. Standardized testing acted as a massive social sorter in postwar America, but with time, many groups of Americans began to question the wisdom of educational reliance on standardized testing, as well as challenge the foundational assumptions about what testing actually measured. African-Americans, women, and working-class Americans pursued legal, legislative, and academic methods to push back against unjust standardized testing practices. This resistance also often provoked responses from those who had great stakes—whether socioeconomic or corporate—in maintaining the use and meaning of standardized tests. Politicians, parents, consumer advocates, academics, educational reformers, feminists, civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, and white supremacists all interpreted standardized testing scores and trends for larger political ends, often using similar information as their opponents to stake far different positions about race, gender, class, and merit. Yet, as more Americans questioned the legitimacy of standardized testing, they often reinforced standardized testing data’s use as a rhetorical tool, ultimately entrenching testing data as a way to make sense of society, even as more and more Americans find testing regimes purposeless.
This dissertation shows that, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, standardized testing data had become a potent tool for contending who mattered and who did not for America’s future. Because debates about standardized testing’s social utility often hinged on the meaning of test data—whether it reflected objective truths about the natural distribution of mental aptitudes or, instead, exposed the biases psychologists built into their devices as well as the prejudicial baggage that informed laypeople’s interpretation of statistical information—standardized testing itself continues to have value as a political weapon. Whether or not one has a specific policy proposal for the future use of standardized testing, its rhetorical function as a symbol for what is wrong with America will continue to fuel numerous, often oppositional, debates.
Scholar Commons Citation
Shepherd, Keegan J., "Measuring Up: Standardized Testing and the Making of Postwar American Identities, 1940-2001" (2017). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.