A Column By Jack D. Forbes
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

Proposition 209 and Statewide Testing

Governor Pete Wilson and President Bill Clinton both seem to believe that uniform tests administered to millions of pupils will somehow improve educational performance. But what standardized tests surely do is to force upon states, localities and regions a collectivist "testing culture" which usually negates the unique heritages, dialects, and values of a particular area.

Uniform testing is a form of collectivization, creating "lock-step" training whether done at the state or national levels. For example, the rich regional heritage of northwest California based on salmon, redwoods, seafood, and unique Native American cultures will not be adequately represented in statewide tests which must also serve pupils from totally different eco-historical situations (except as discussed below).

Nonetheless, Pete Wilson has signed into law legislation to mandate a new intensification of testing on all school children. These new tests, purchased from private corporations, are forcing teachers to teach "for the test" so that their school, district, pupils, and themselves will not come out looking like failures. These tests join countless others being used by high schools, colleges, and universities as well as those being used to determine the competencies of teachers, other public employees, future lawyers, and so on.

Proposition 209, now a part of the California Constitution, directly affects every single test administered in the state by any public agency or contractor, be it a performance, skills, psychological, or aptitude test. 209 absolutely prohibits agencies from discriminating against, or granting a preference to, any individual or group, on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.

Now that's a huge order for a test, especially since virtually all of our current examinations are grounded in the history, culture, values, language, and experiences of Anglo-Americans or other European ethnicities. Even mathematics and skills tests are not totally exempt from linguistic or cultural preferencing, whenever the math or other problem is embedded within a gender- or culturally-significant context, or uses illustrations therefrom.

209 requires that no individual or group be granted a preference in testing whenever testing is part of the "operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." We are, therefore, required by the Constitution to do away with the preferences which may exist in any test if they favor Anglo-Americans or males, for example. How can we do that?

Certain it is that tests must be subjected to careful, impartial scrutiny and probably to rewriting so that, for example, any historical questions relate equally to all races, colors, ethnicities, nationalities and to both genders. Clearly, a Vietnamese child is discriminated against if a test has no questions that relate to the Vietnamese experience, while Anglo-American children are illegally preferenced if a disproportionate number of questions relate to their ethnic heritage. (Questions about the United States, or about California, do not, of course, have to focus only on Anglo-American male figures or issues, but can focus on women, Native Americans of many nations, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and so on).

It seems clear that committees and commissions of experts must be appointed to review all tests administered or proposed for use by any and all public agencies or contractors. Such committees should be comprised of equal numbers of males and females as well as persons from as many different ethnicities as possible. Because of the nature of 209 (which requires a level-playing field between all groups regardless of size) no more than one person from any single ethnicity or national origin group should serve on such bodies.

I have written separately about the question of which languages may be used in testing under 209. Suffice to say that 209 outlaws any preferences that have as their basis ethnicity and national origin; and certainly language is a key aspect of one's ethnic or national origin.

It behooves state officials to move quickly on this matter because individuals passed over by university admission procedures, state employment processes, or otherwise affected adversely by any testing mechanism will now be able to sue public agencies and contractors for damages. Such a development can cost public agencies much money and grief.

Tests and examinations have long been used as gate-keeping devices, designed to serve as barriers for some and as passageways upward for others. 209 requires that whether the gate swings open or remains shut must not be affected by the gender, color, race, ethnicity, or national origin of the one being tested.

Of course, "ability" and "performance" can never be measured outside of culture, and that means that the "culture" of the tests must become the "cultures" of all of the peoples of California, with none left out and none favored over any others

209 is absolutely unambiguous on this issue: if there are to be tests in California, they must be non-discriminatory and non-preferencing! They must, therefore, be all-inclusive, multicultural, and multiethnic.


(Jack D. Forbes is the author of Africans and Native Americans, Native Americans and Nixon, Native Americans of California and Nevada and numerous other books. One of his latest works is a booklet on Prop 209: Radical Equalizer or Racist Trick? available from the UCDavis Bookstore. He is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at the Univerity of California, Davis)