Biases in Standardized Testing

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.

Language Bias

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.

Culture Bias

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.

Gender Bias

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?

Ability Bias

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.

Further Reading:

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

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Mona Se Queda

I teach bilingual special education and I like guinea pigs.

15 thoughts on “Biases in Standardized Testing”

  1. That’s a good example about the essay question prompts. I can imagine a question about like, “why is George Washington great” or “what does your family do over memorial day?” that would be really meaningless to huge swaths of the tested population.

  2. THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS! These are issues I’ve long suspected, okay known, but couldn’t “prove” as a parent.

    BTW Mona, could you explain how students in your community are ID’d for ESL? They still pull kids based on “obvious ethnicity” in my region. I live in “Bankersville” where there are many highly educated professionals. But the Asian kids are still being pulled for ESL testing. My Asian friends don’t seem to mind, but that’s because they aren’t on the same wavelength as I am about politics and social issues. I am second generation Chinese, so my worldview is very different from my friends who are adult immigrants.

    1. No problem!

      When parents enroll their children in school they have to fill out a “home language survey” which basically asks if your child or anyone in your home speaks a language other than English. If you answer yes the child will be tested for language dominance and English proficiency. If they are not considered ‘proficient’ (we use the WIDA tests- which is what a lot of the US uses) according to the test, they will qualify for bilingual/esl services (depending on what is available).

      If a child qualifies the parents can refuse services. If the parents do not refuse services the child will receive said services until they pass the English proficiency test (WIDS ACCESS) which is given every January. When they pass they then ‘exit’ out of services.

      Parents can also refuse services at any time if they decide to, however, their child will still be tested every year until they pass. This has to do with funding for however many ELL students a school has (whether receiving services or not).

  3. Our test in Pennsylvania is the PSSA, which is coming up shortly. I hate the testing period and administering the test. I’m in high school special ed and this thing is on parents’ and students’ minds for years before their kids have to take their final/graduation PSSA in 11th grade. Every year, I have some poor kids in tears because they read at a 5th grade level or so because of a disability and are taking an 11th grade level test. It’s horrifying.

    1. Yes, that is the million dollar question and there is no simple answer, but there are a few possibilities including alternative assessments and native language assessments. Additionally, maybe we should not have state-wide exams; in my case, Illinois is a very diverse state with a very diverse population.

  4. During my senior seminar we had a speaker come in to talk about standardized testing. He was one of the people who initially helped to design these tests in the late 70s. He said he disagrees with the way the scores are used as a measure of the schools success as the tests were originally devised as a measure to see what still needed to be learned as well as what was known . The problems began when businessmen/ policy makers took the test result information as a bottom line, looking strictly at the scores as a measure of success as if it were a businesses gains or losses. Under this current system scores need to improve by a certain amt. each year. He explained that with this method a High school for gifted students in Milwaukee that has a 96% graduation rate will be considered a failing school in the next seven years. It is a completely flawed and ridiculous system.

  5. In Florida we have the FCAT. The worst excuse for a test ever made. A student either passes or fails and if they don’t pass it by the 12th grade, there is a possibility they won’t graduate. Teachers are graded on how their students do, schools are given money depending on grades.
    There was also a bill to reward teachers for the students grades. So what about teachers who teach students who are in the lower levels? They are screwed.

    1. My mom is a teacher at a low-income, primarily minority, now with a growing population of ESOL children in FLorida. He school is in trouble of being closed and the teachers fired every year. The teachers no longer teach subjects and help students learn, it is more of a memorizing how to answer the FCAT question correctly. This is hurting the teachers and students. No Child Left behind is a horrible system that is only making our education system worse, not better.

    2. Those kinds of bills and ‘merit pay’ bother me to no end. If I will be getting rewarded for how well my sudents do on exams, I’m leaving ELL, special ed at a low-income school and moving to a white, middle class, regular ed position. (not really, but you get the point).

  6. Hear, hear! I always did well on standardized tests for some reason, even though I was a terrible student (I developed a philosophy that can be summed up as “If a teacher cannot explain the educational value of an assignment, then I won’t do it, because they are wasting my time.”)

    While in college, though, one of my professors gave my education class a quiz that included all questions pulled from 4th-grade exams. We couldn’t answer most of the questions, because they all had to do with specialized vocabulary for things like sailing, equestrian sports, and other activities that generally require money.

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