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The allure of testing lies in its apparent neutrality—its democratic indifference to a student’s background and wealth. But this is not how the current system functions. Success correlates closely to socioeconomic advantages and access to test preparation. Pricey services offer tutoring to ever younger children. (There is a niche industry of consultants who help two-year-olds ace their preschool admissions assessments.) Yet many defenders of testing believe that more subjective forms of evaluation present their own unfairness. 

Outside the neutral language of policy reports, the issue of testing is debated in a context of winners and losers, of model minorities and problematic ones. A less primitive view sees the conflict as being between different groups fighting for a system in which their children are the least likely to be hampered by discrimination. Because discrimination functions in different ways across lines of race and ethnicity, the issue is not simply the fairness of testing; it’s that people on either side of the question can reasonably describe their position as an attempt to fight against discrimination

The success of Asian-American students, some from low-income families, doesn’t imply that the system is fair; it suggests that unfairness can be mitigated by extraordinary effort. There is a vast difference between an equal system and one in which it is possible to succeed.