It will not come as a great surprise to regular MSNBC viewers that Chris Hayes does not know what the hell he is talking about, but on the subject of standardized tests he is so spectacularly wrong that he merits the attention of Alex Tabarrok fortified by some empirical observations from Robert VerBruggen. You do not want to be in the middle of a Tabarrok-VerBruggen crossfire, so I’ll summarize: Hayes claims, contrary to the evidence, that well-off white students do better on standardized tests than do less well-off students because their parents can afford to enroll them in test-preparation classes. This bothers him on general “inequality” grounds but also on racial grounds:
We’ve had…the growth of this tremendous testing and test prep industry in New York, along with the massive rise in inequality and it has produced a system in which the school is now admitting only three, four, five black and Latino students. The students they are admitting are almost entirely white, affluent kids with tutors or second generation, first generation immigrants from Queens and other places where the parents pay for test prep. You end up with a system where who you are really letting in are the kids with access to test prep.
Mr. Hayes calls this observation the “theoretical soul” of his book, The Twilight of the Elites. As Tabarrok and VerBruggen point out, his assessment is wrong on practically every factual point: The effect of test-preparation courses on test scores is modest and far less than the difference between black and white students or between rich and poor students; test-prep courses are widely available free of charge, and black students are more likely to use test-prep courses than are white students. Given the large difference in average scores between well-off and poor students, and the small effect of test-prep courses, Tabarrok writes: “Even if every rich family had a private tutor and none of the poor families had any test prep whatsoever, test prep would explain only 20 percent of the difference.”
Mr. Hayes is guilty of failing to account for the fundamental empirical evidence in the scholarly literature on the subject, in part because progressives really care about scientific findings only when doing so suits their narrow political interests—e.g. they care a great deal about the question of evolution when they are tormenting obscure Biblical literalists but not when assessing human sexual behavior or human intelligence—but also because they simply assume the fundamental helplessness of the people on whose behalf they claim to be acting. Mr. Hayes is curiously incurious about those “second-generation, first-generation immigrants from Queens and other places where the parents pay for test prep.” Who might these people be? I’ll have a bit more to say on the subject in my upcoming National Review review of Amy Chua’s new book, but the short version is that a great many of them are Asian and poor. A great many of those Chinese immigrants in Flushing are not well-off, highly educated professionals, but people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. As Ms. Chua tells it, their basic modus operandi is to shame and terrorize their children into putting in a great deal more sheer labor than their academic peers do, including long hours of study and tutoring outside of school. If that costs money, they make household budget cuts elsewhere. Ms. Chua finds among other things that children in East Asian immigrant households spend about ten times as much time in organized activity outside of school—from tutoring to music lessons—as their peers do. It doesn’t sound like fun, but it works.
The self-help model of Asian immigrants is an important counterexample for people who see the world the way Chris Hayes does. They very frequently go from one side of the inequality “problem” to the other in a single generation. Some people prefer a genetic explanation of that, but, as Ms. Chua points out, Asian immigrant students frequently outperform their white counterparts on both academic performance and standardized tests even when controlling for IQ.
But Chris Hayes and others of that kidney are so committed to the narrative of helplessness—particularly black helplessness—that they either will not or cannot account for the facts of the case. Their attitudes toward standardized testing are a small example of that; their attitudes toward economic policy are a larger and more significant one.