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Advocates say standardized tests often flunk cultural bias scrutiny

by Yasmin Tara Rammohan
May 09, 2007

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On Standardized Tests:

“This is not an easy thing to do, to create a test that is so skewed.” -- Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation

“I’m not aware of any complaints that would relate to cultural bias.” -- Mariann Lemke, director of student assessment at Chicago Public Schools

“We are a long way off than where we need to be.” -- Stafford Hood, professor of psychology in education at Arizona State University

“Our process ensures that no biased questions ever end up on the College Board’s SAT test and we take that very seriously.” -- Thomas Ewing, Educational Testing Service director of media relations

“Children are retained, teachers lose their jobs and schools are closed based on these tests.” -- Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education

What You Can Do:

Attempts to erase cultural bias from standardized tests extends to the legislative level.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said many groups are attempting to revise the federal No Child Left Behind law, which expires this year, to set policies that require other measures, such as classroom grades and performance evaluations, to carry greater weight in student assessment than do standardized tests.

“If NCLB is revised in this way, it will have a major overall impact on test use across the nation,” she said. “People need to talk to their senators and congressmen about this important issue.”

To find your lawmaker's contact information, go to

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“What were two ways the British improved the lives of Africans?”

This question appeared last year on the New York State Regents Exam, a test every high school student in New York must pass to receive a diploma.

The question followed a passage written in 1922 that concluded: “We are endeavoring [trying] to teach the native races to conduct their own affairs with justice and humanity, and to educate them alike in letters and in industry…”

Outright racism, according to one parents group. Others say the question has educational merit but could have been handled better.

Chicago Public Schools director of student assessment Mariann Lemke said, “If I were a test developer I would have left it off, but from a social studies perspective, imperialism is an important topic.”

The question, as presented, was not the best way to address imperialism, she said.

The issue of cultural bias in standardized testing makes many people angry because it marginalizes broad segments of society and fosters stereotypes.

“There has been a long history of bias in the development of standardized testing,” said Stafford Hood, professor of psychology in education at Arizona State University. “We are better in terms of paying attention to the possibilities of bias in testing than we were before, but has it been fixed yet? Of course not.”

Educational Testing Service, which creates questions for the SAT, GRE and other standardized tests, has a set of fairness guidelines posted on its Web site.

“Every question is reviewed by trained sensitivity reviewers to ensure that questions do not contain any materials that might contain racial, gender, geographic, or other obvious biases,” said Thomas Ewing, who directs media relations for the testing service.

But some say those efforts haven't eliminated the problem.

Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, conducted an SAT bias analysis in 2003. He examined answers from 100,000 test takers along with their race, ethnicity and gender.

Rosner's findings, outlined in “On White Preferences,” showed that “every single question carefully preselected to appear on the test favors whites over blacks.”

Rosner said that whites answered 99 percent of the questions correctly at a higher rate than did blacks and Latinos.

“The test developers at ETS don’t intend to produce these results,” Rosner said. “They are choosing questions using a methodology that produces very consistent and predictable results.”

But how do you explain this:

In 2001, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test featured a reading passage taken from a book about an African-American family and illustrated it with a white family.

Was this bias? Was this accidental?

Parents United for Responsible Education, a group based in Chicago, said it was at best suspicious.

But Lemke at CPS disagreed. She said it seemed like an “odd situation” or a mistake and acknowledged that it may have confused students, but she also added that she didn’t see cultural bias in this example.

However, Matthew Vanover at the Illinois State Board of Education said that the text was an excerpt from a book and did not have the proper context. He said that as a result of the gaffe, contractors now will have a copy of the original publication when working with an excerpt.

In other cases, according to Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE, test-makers often dodge responsibility for instances of cultural bias by stating that the school systems are ultimately responsible because they decide how to use the tests.

“Test-makers make token efforts to show their racial sensitivity by using stories about various ethnic groups, but the questions and ‘wanted answers’ remain just as narrow and culturally influenced,” Woestehoff said.

“The entire accountability system of the schools," she said, "is subject to one set of standardized tests, which continue to be infused with cultural bias.”