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Standardized Testing and Cultural Bias

By Kena Sosa

To some, a test is a test. The results should reflect what it was designed to do, which is to evaluate student knowledge of what was taught. However, not all tests accurately reflect this knowledge. In fact, without the conscious intentions of the writers, many tests do come out culturally biased.

What is Cultural Bias?

Cultural bias in testing refers to a situation in which a given test is inappropriate for a certain audience as it does not test the student's actual knowledge of a taught subject or includes details tied to a culture that the student is unfamiliar with. As the test is not about the topic of culture, the test should not include cultural tidbits that would throw off certain students. Try as we might to make tests fair, it still happens today.

Gender Bias

Sometimes tests — for example, tests for gifted and talented programs — include questions or probing for leadership from the testing student. What these types of tests do not take into consideration is that there are various cultures in which girls are still trained to be followers and boys the natural leaders. Therefore, due to no fault of their own, girls may not score well on this topic and then not qualify for the program. Likewise on vocabulary tests, gender roles and exposure to certain types of language may also contribute to whether or not a girl or boy gets the vocabulary term right.

Unbalanced Special Education Referrals

In recent years, the process of referring a child for special education services has become more and more complex. Educators and others began to notice the unbalanced number of ethnic minorities being referred to and assigned special education services. Many of the oversights being made were due to other disadvantages such as a low socio-economic level or less exposure to academic materials in early childhood. Second language learners were also regularly referred when their deficiencies were due to learning to pronounce a new language correctly or needing more time to learn the language

Yet these factors were contributing to many students receiving a label early on that cannot be escaped from until their school career was over. They were labeled for life. For this reason, many districts are now implementing policies in which teachers must first show what interventions they have used with these students in order to try to catch them up with the class. By documenting these interventions and monitoring the results, it was easier to see who just needed a leg up and who might actually need special education services. Today, it is more likely that students receiving these services, along with being integrated into classroom strategies and using small group interventions, are students who truly do require these services.

Language Discrimination

The United States today has a changing population. There are more and more languages other than English spoken in homes across the country. When it comes to testing, this can pose potential problems, not because students should not be expected to achieve a high level of English as the mainstream language but because sometimes cultural factors to find their way into what vocabulary a student is exposed to. For example, one test that I gave to early childhood students asked the children to identify which picture was a casserole. Casserole is not a dish that all households make. To be frank, a casserole can be composed of so many combinations of things, it doesn't seem fair to have to identify one by sight regardless of cultural background; however, this was one of the questions. Children in Iowa where the test was developed may or may not be more culturally aware of what a casserole is, but in inner city schools in Texas, most of us have never really had a casserole in our lives. I would think it safe to assume that many adults here could not identify a casserole by sight.

Fair and Equitable Testing

For gifted and talented programs, some teachers have begun implementing or requesting non-verbal testing, especially for early childhood students, so that language and speech development do not block children who are gifted in other ways from entering the program. Ask your campus gifted and talented teacher what the process is to enter the program and what type of entrance exam the students will be given. Sometimes other forms of evidence can be submitted in the student's favor as well. You can also suggest or research tests that demonstrate student ability through multiple intelligences instead of standard forms of testing. In the classroom, you can give open-ended tests which allow for student expression and interpretation of knowledge instead of rote memorization and allow for students to justify their ideas and answers. Using these techniques will help to avoid and eliminate cultural bias in testing.

Finally, when standardized testing comes around, be an advocate by noticing questions or topics which reveal obvious cultural bias and report them to your school official or testing agency. Test writers may not be as aware of these intricacies as the teachers who interact with students every day. If enough people speak up, changes might be made.