Monday, November 15, 2010

It's Not The Test That's Biased, Damn It!

I have several pet peeves as a teacher.  One major pet peeve is the fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of tests.  Let's use the ACT as an example.  

Note- I am not arguing about actually using the test... generally I feel standardized testing is one of the major problems of the education system.  We'll save that argument for another day. 

Back to the ACT.  Critics often charge the test is biased, usually racially.  They point to the fact that racial minorities score lower than white test takers.  Their conclusion- the test is biased!

The ACT is a carefully crafted test.  It is meant to measure students' aptitude for college-level work.  This is directly from the ACT site:

"These tests are designed to assess students' general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work."

 The test is developed by professional test developers.  It is meticulously designed to be both reliable and valid.  It asses students' abilities to succeed in college.  Indeed, higher ACT scores are correlated with higher first-year GPA in college.  The test measures what it is supposed to measure.

If the test measures what it measures, why do racial minorities score lower?  Ready for this one- the system is biased, not the tests that measure the system.  That's right.  WE'RE THE PROBLEM, NOT THE TEST!  

Our entire education system is set up by white relatively affluent decision-makers.  It should be no surprise white relatively affluent students fare well under the system.  Any other group, whether that group is a racial minority or a different socioeconomic group, will not do as well. 

The test doesn't have to change.  In fact, the test cannot change.  Changing the test would simply ignore the obvious- if we want to put an end to discrepancies in test scores, we need to fix the underlying system that caused the inequitable scores in the first place. 

Why is that so difficult?  Logistics aside, it requires us to face a truth we don't like to face- all of us have biases.  Don't believe me?  Check this out.  It affects how we teach.  Until we admit that to ourselves, no amount of test tweaking or school reform will fix the achievement gap as measured by standardized tests. 

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