Do standardized achievement tests unfairly advantage white and Asian students and disadvantage the rest? According to a group of educational organizations and civil rights groups the answer is yes. The recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education pointing out that black and Latino students in New York score below whites and Asians on standardized tests so consistently that although they are almost 70% of the overall student body, they are only 11% of students enrolled at elite public schools. As a result, the complaint argues that New York City is in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because schools rely on a test that advantages one racial group over another.
This is not the only instance where race has become an important factor for how standardized tests are used in public education. Just last month public schools in both Virginia and Washington D.C. announced targets for how many students in each racial group must pass for schools to remain in good standing. For example, in Virginia only 45% of black students in each school must pass standardized math tests while 68% of whites, and 82% of Asians must do the same. Officials say that these plans are not discriminatory because students who are the farthest behind must progress the most, but critics reason that if one expects less from some students, those lower educational expectations will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for school districts and those students will fall even farther behind.
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What these recent developments make clear is that instead of setting different educational benchmarks for groups based on race or income, it may simply be time for us to stop relying so heavily on standardized tests to begin with. Though opinions differ as to why, on k-12 achievement tests and college entrance exams, lower income students, as well as black and Latino students, consistently score below privileged white and Asian students. These gaps persist despite decades of research and numerous studies attempting to explain and then close them. One theory suggests that students with grandparents who have graduated from college always score higher, suggesting that the tests unfairly penalize students who are the first in their family to attend college. Whatever the explanation, it is difficult to reconcile why we rely on such tests when we know that they so heavily advantage some and disadvantage others.
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And if the standardized testing gap between racial minorities is bad, it’s nothing compared to the gap between the poor and the wealthy. For example, one recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the gap for achievement test scores between rich and poor have grown by almost 60% since the 1960s and are now almost twice as large as the gap between white students and children of other races. The playing field is far from level when we continue to use tests where we know at the outset that wealthy students will do better than less wealthy students and white and Asian students will outperform blacks and Latinos.
One thing all this research has shown us is that the issue lies with how we use these tests, not with the kids who take them. Just consider the history of standardized tests which — according to Columbia University Professor Nicholas Lemann’s history of the Educational Testing Service, The Big Test: The Secret History of America’s Meritocracy — were first developed in the 1940s as a way to exclude Jewish students from Ivy League campuses. Interestingly, Stanley Kaplan, today one of the largest test preparation organizations, got its start when Mr. Kaplan resolved to come up with test-taking techniques to “beat the test” and ensure that such students did well.
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Today, as an acknowledgment of the inherent racial and economic inequity of standardized achievement tests, hundreds of colleges have already stopped requiring the SAT for college admission decisions. However, the same cannot be said for k-12, where scores on achievement tests are in part used for everything from admitting students to prestigious public schools to placing students in gifted or remedial programs, allocating federal funding, and even evaluating teachers.
A growing number of parents, school boards, teachers and civil rights organizations are beginning to question the fairness of our overreliance on standardized tests and recently over 300 groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund signed a petition to ask congress to ban the use of such tests. Given the recent developments in Washington D.C. and Virginia, it would seem that it’s about time.
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It’s that dreaded time of year again for teachers: standardized testing time. The Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) begins February 28th, and I get the joy of having five third-graders who will be taking this exam. For those of you who are not familiar with education, these standardized tests are required by No Child Left Behind in order to make schools accountable for students’ learning. These exams are otherwise known as “high-stakes tests” because a whole lot depends on their outcome. The results of these tests can determine funding, and low scores, or “failing,” can cause disciplinary action against the school or district.
You have probably heard debate about the benefits and disadvantages of such accountability and of NCLB in general. There are a lot of problems with the act, however, in my view, the biggest problem with using standardized, high-stakes tests is the biases these tests carry.
I teach English Language Learners (ELLs) with cognitive impairments (IQs less than 70). My five third-graders will have to take an exam that is biased against them because of language, culture, and ability. Additionally, the girls will be subjected to a gender bias.
The results of these tests are made public: schools either “pass” or “fail,” and broad generalizations are then drawn. While I believe in freedom of information, the media needs to be more aware of how they deliver the results and what they actually mean because the general public is not aware of the intricacies of testing bias and validity. A test is not a valid measure unless it is actually testing what it says it is testing (more on that later).
While there are ways for educators to help combat these biases and to prepare students for a biased test, it is very important for the general public to be aware that they exist. Too often I hear people make uneducated remarks regarding students who do not fit the dominant culture and their abilities. Therefore, I have written a brief overview of some of the problems that students will face when they take these tests.
One of the major problems with English high-stakes tests is validity for ELLs. For example, a test may be designed to assess students’ reading comprehension; however, if a student struggles with English, said test is really assessing their English language skills (there is a separate assessment for that). This is also true for content (science, social studies, and math) tests. Math tests usually include less language bias because of the lack of reading. Obviously, ELLs score the lowest on word problems where it is necessary to be able to read English in order to complete the math.
A more valid test might be one in the students’ native language. This is particularly true for students who are enrolled in bilingual programs where they are being taught these skills in their native language while learning English. ELLs can receive accommodations in order to help them, but these are by no means sufficient for achieving true test validity.
Language bias is also seen with students who speak a different dialect of English (such as African American English); they receive no accommodations.
Cultural bias affects anyone who is not from the dominant culture. Most obviously affected by this are immigrant students. However, this bias is also prevalent against low-income students, minority students, inner-city students, and rural students. I once saw an essay question asking children to write a persuasive essay about why fishing is fun. That seems at first glance to be a pretty innocuous question, as I was raised with a father who loves to fish. However, how many children from the inner city go fishing? How would they know if it is fun or not? A student may be able to produce a well-thought-out essay in general, but if they are not familiar with the prompt, they will not succeed according to the exam.
This bias is usually seen in predictive standardized testing taken during the high school and college years. Patricia Rosser did a study in the early ’90s regarding the SATs and women. The SATs are supposed to predict students’ success in college; however, Rosser found that women in general score lower on the SAT than men, yet receive higher grades in college (Rosser, 1992). How is the SAT then a valid measure of students’ collegiate success?
This bias is pretty self-explanatory. My students have IQs in the 60s and are learning from a functional academic curriculum, yet they are being compared to their regularly developing peers. As with ELLs, students with disabilities are allowed to have certain accommodations on the test, however, these do very little in the way of leveling the playing field.
In conclusion, all standardized tests are normed, and all the population taking the test should be included in the norm. However, this is not always the case. Students are given tests that are not valid measures of their academic achievement because they were not included in said norming group. These test results are then misused to punish schools who do not perform well and to propagate stereotypes about the intelligence of students who are minority, low income, inner-city, etc.
By no means am I advocating that certain students be exempt from standardized testing; assessment has its place in education. However, in order for these tests to reliably and validly measure and compare students’ academic successes, they need to be un-biased.
Butler, F. A., & Stevens, R. (2001). Standardized assessment of the content knowledge of English language learners K-12: Current trends and old dilemmas. Language Testing, 18(4), 409-427.
Froese-Germaine, B. (2001). Standardized testing + high-stakes decisions = educational inequality. Interchange, 32(2), 111-130.
Rosser, P. (1992). Sex bias in college admission tests: Why women lose out (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA: National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).
“Exams are looming” by James Stanier on Flickr