Within the last several decades, the public education system in the US has undergone significant changes towards the milieu of free-market capitalism. A range of policy initiatives included more opportunities in school choice, teacher education deregulation, and various school voucher programs (Au, 2016). In this context, high-stakes, standardized testing was shaped as a result of these reforms.
It is accepted that the paramount purpose of such a format of testing is to understand whether teachers provide quality instructions to students or not. Phelps (2017) notes that standardized testing should clarify the ability of students to obtain knowledge and skills, which are to be demonstrated at the end of the year. Although the initial goals of standardized testing seem to be beneficial to students and educators, cultural, social, and cognitive biases act as barriers to equity in education.
Examining Standardized Testing Biases in the US
The evidence shows that in spite of its proposed benefits, standardized resting is prone to many biases that demonstrate the unfairness of this approach to measuring student achievements (Stewart & Haynes, 2015). In particular, children, who are racially, linguistically, ethnically, and culturally diverse, have fewer opportunities to receive unbiased test results (Kempf, 2016). The main reasons behind these biases include family differences, low previous knowledge, and other differences that are inherent in the testing environment.
Cultural Bias: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender
The definition of a cultural bias refers to an unequal chance to succeed due to partiality and/or social prejudice. The minorities, predominantly Hispanics and African-Americans, are often put in a disadvantaged position by testing procedures and practices. From a historical perspective, such students encountered more difficulties in completing tests compared to their non-minority peers, which was largely caused by the fact that these tests were designed by people who did not belong to minority groups (Spring, 2016). In the past, the US system of education was based on colonial ideas that paid little attention to racial and ethnic minorities.
The American schools were not focused on minority status, and all students were expected to study according to a one-size-fits-all method (Phelps, 2017). With time, this approach shifted towards a more diverse view since the number of culturally different students increased.
The implementation and current use of standardized testing in schools make an adverse impact on student segregation by race and ethnicity. The study by Knoester and Au (2017) demonstrates that the No Child Left Behind Act promoted greater division among children: it prioritized paying more attention to some children at the expense of other students, constricting the curriculum to the subjects being tested, and a lack of transparent deliberation.
Since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the desegregation of education was planned and researched more deeply (Knoester & Au, 2017). It was found that students who study at culturally diverse schools show an increased likelihood of better academic performance, while psychological profit of racial integration was also mentioned, including the feeling of safety and less alienation from peers (Sleeter & Carmona, 2017). These findings should not be underestimated since the health and well-being of students are crucial for their academic success and life in general.
The unequal treatment of African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities is expressed in unequal access to the resources and opportunities of the educational system. According to the critical race theory, integration of schools for Whites and racial minorities cannot be viewed as the only goal of addressing racism. Knoester and Au (2017) emphasize that the schools for African-Americans were stigmatized towards black communities, but the cooperation of educators and teachers is seen as a potential way to improve the strengths of the African-American population. Zhao (2016) reports that the achievement gap is inherent in minority groups, but it is unacceptable in terms of the American ideal of equal opportunities.
In spite of the efforts that were introduced by the government and schools, the gap did not reduce significantly. The above author compares this issue with the gap between poor and rich, which is another critical reason for a lack of progress (Zhao, 2016). Therefore, there is a need for effective mechanisms that can change the contemporary trajectory of testing.
Speaking of the ability of standardized testing to reflect current knowledge of how students learn, it is possible to note that this question sheds light on another side of the problem. Although the understanding of brain function and how people think and learn progressed immensely, standardized tests remain the same (for example, the SAT test was first introduced in 1901). Testers still suggest that knowledge can be divided into separate parts and that people learn by absorbing them.
Today, cognitive development specialists and psychologists understand that knowledge is not separable and that people, including children, learn by combining what they are already familiar with what they study (Kruse, 2016). If they cannot actively create meaning from what they do, they do not learn and do not remember. Accordingly, a student’s cultural background serves as the context, in which he or she learns and interacts with others.
The multiple-choice or short-answer tests are expected to properly measure student learning outcomes. In fact, these types of tests are quite poor criteria for evaluating student achievement. For instance, they are poor measures of the ability to understand complicated material, apply concepts, practice reasoning and scientific methods, or examine the concepts of social sciences. Standardized tests are also not able to properly evaluate thinking skills or evaluate how students can solve real-life problems. The intention to change the already existing system is identified by Kempf (2016) as an erroneous decision since it was designed to generate social inequality and produce stratification while ignoring the cultural peculiarities of students.
A gender-related bias is discussed in the recent study by Saygin (2019), where the author states that males are likely to outperform females in standardized testing. College application settings were used for conducting the study, and standardized test scores were measured. To compare the data from the results of universal tests, the author examined high school grade points and found that females are more successful in almost all subjects.
The largest difference was detected in quantitative subjects, and an assessment method is noted by Saygin (2019) as the issue that causes the gender gap in education. These findings regarding the centralized system of college admission are consistent with other studies that point to gender differences (Stewart & Haynes, 2015). In particular, the ability of male students to cope with standardized tests better than female students is mentioned.
Sociopolitical Bias: Segregation by Class, Income, and Geographic Location
For many years in the US, conducting standardized testing in education has been subjected to comprehensive criticism. Nevertheless, this assessment system continues to exist as it is accepted in the majority of public schools across the country. In America, various assumptions are made to explain this phenomenon. Among others, carrying out any socially significant and standardized procedures sooner or later becomes a profitable business.
Conducting standardized testing in education is most likely no exception (Mirhosseini & De Costa, 2020). The exact data on how much the standardized tests cost cannot be found; however, there are indirect, approximate estimates. In 2013, about $ 16.5 billion was allocated from the US federal budget to support the educational process (Wasserberg, 2017). Testing receives funds specifically for this budget line and makes up a significant part of it. Therefore, political and social premises serve as the racist beginnings of standardized testing.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there is an intersection between policies / legal frameworks and race. In particular, Egalite, Fusarelli, and Fusarelli (2017) state that race-neutral policies are largely observed in the area of property rights, which limit individual equality. The concept of meritocracy is beneficial to explain the reasons behind such inequality: it is recognized that not the social, historical, political, and environmental factors impact a person’s success, yet his or her hard work. Considering that minorities are more subjected to prejudice and inappropriate treatment, such an approach seems to place them in a disadvantaged position.
The place-based resources also impact the gap between non-whites and the majority group (González Canché, 2019). In this way, standardized testing promotes segregation, racism, and white supremacy via justifying segregation and classism. Mirhosseini and De Costa (2020) consider that the measurement of students’ achievements by these tests conceals structural inequality and white supremacy since non-white underperforming students are perceived as those who simply failed. By extension, the failure is attributed to their families, communities, and cultures as a whole.
Most tests aim at sorting and ranking students, limiting test results in showing significant differences between people. To achieve this, small differences are likely to be made large when conducting tests. The questions that most people give right or wrong answers are deleted because they do not help with ranking. Due to a measurement error, two people with different scores on the same examination can get close marks for retesting, or vice versa, which is done at the discretion of the administration.
In SAT testing, for example, the scores of two students must differ by at least 144 points (out of 1,600) before test sponsors are ready to say that the measured abilities of the students are actually different (Wasserberg, 2017). Along with placing a student with lower scores in a disadvantaged position, this format of testing sets a psychological and emotional burden. For example, African-American male students are disproportionately placed in special education environments, which occurs due to biased test results. Accordingly, many students are deprived of the opportunity to access scholarships, and it only increases the racial gap regarding school admission and completion.
A halo of high-stakes of standardized tests refers to the social significance and power that they have when making socially important decisions. One of the solutions to the current biases is to “lower the stakes” of these tests, in the process of which the very definition of high-stakes will lose its meaning (Thompson, Duvall, Padrez, Rosekrans, & Madsen, 2016). It is possible to accomplish, for example, in a situation where testing becomes voluntary, while the mandatory forms of assessment will not be conducted in a test form. This decision is already beginning to find understanding among individual government officials.
Scholars agree that the identified option can be one of the solutions to the problem. However, in this case, the tests would lose their accountability function, which is expressed in the ability to supply numerical information about the population of subjects and act as a source of statistical data (Egalite et al., 2017). Therefore, it can be limited as a basis for reporting, for which they have always been used with great success. Based on a voluntary sample, it will not be possible to draw conclusions characterizing the total population of subjects.
In standardized testing, all subjects answer the same questions under the same conditions, usually in a multiple-choice format. Such tests require quick answers to superficial questions, but they do not measure the ability to think deeply or creatively (Sievertsen, Gino, & Piovesan, 2016). Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum and outdated and sometimes harmful training practices. For example, leaving for the second year or dividing students into classes according to their level of performance. The only objective part of most standardized tests is the test result when this is done according to a well-defined algorithm.
Making decisions about what elements should be included in the test, how questions are formulated, which answers are entered as correct, how the test is conducted, how exam results are used – all this is done by people. In this connection, the subjective nature of tests cannot be disregarded.
In turn, the reliability of tests is another concern, which is combated not only by scholars but also by parents. A test can be completely reliable if one gets exactly the same results by passing the test again, and tests have a measurement error (Abraham, Wassell, Luet, &Vitalone-Racarro, 2019). This means that an individual’s assessment can vary significantly from day to day due to test conditions or the mental or emotional state of the test person.
Especially unreliable are the results of young children and scores for individual subsections of the tests. The parents of students organized the New Jersey Opt-Out Movement to refuse high-stakes standardized tests and allow their children to have a key end-of-year examination (Abraham et al., 2019). The letters to the state authorities were employed as the tools to promote a counter-narrative, claiming that the tests cannot be a reliable tool to evaluate student knowledge.
A serious problem for a number of researchers is the situation when the teaching strategy becomes teaching to the test when the training program turns into the preparation for a standardized test. The critics of high-stakes tests, which are of great importance for a student’s future life, usually distinguish several types of the negative impact of testing on training associated with teaching to the test of pursuing broader educational goals (Stewart & Haynes, 2015).
Narrowing the curriculum to the detriment of non-testable subjects (for example, related to the teaching of history, drawing, music, physical education, etc.) is one of the key adverse consequences. In the study of test subjects, the removal or narrowing of those sections and skills that are not tested in the test is another concern that is discussed by Zhao (2016). The reduction of curricula and learning to remember individual portions of factual information limits the educational process, making students concentrate on specific issues only. The allocation of excessive learning time to prepare for the test, such as specific techniques and strategies for completing the test, prevents the practice of comprehensive education.
An alternative approach to considering standardized testing bias is support for such a system, which posits on the being a supporter of high-stakes tests, Phelps (2017) notes that with the introduction of standardized tests, the process of unification in education intensifies. This applies to both curriculum standards, tests, and the learning process. Each teacher must pass the same material with classes of the same level (Phelps, 2017). This is perceived quite negatively by many teachers who have retained romantic views on learning and believe that each teacher is an experienced master and creator who develops unique learning plans for classes.
Teacher Perspective and Alternatives
From an educator’s perspective, it is critical to understand whether standardized tests are useful for teachers or not. Numerous surveys show that most teachers do not find the results of standardized tests beneficial to reveal the extent to which a particular student succeeded. According to Rimfeld et al. (2019), tests do not help the teacher understand what to do next in working with students since they do not indicate how the student is studying or thinking. In addition, they do not measure much of what students should learn (Rimfeld et al., 2019). These assumptions are based on the idea that an appropriate and relevant grading system should provide teachers with useful information.
Currently, some researchers believe that the use of standardized test data is not enough for assessment and decision-making (Au, 2016; Sievertsen et al., 2016). The representatives of the democratic direction in the assessment insist that it is time to critically review the use of tests, especially in terms of their inadequate use. For example, for purposes that allow for control or use of power, the review seems to be in the interests of politics and educators (Stewart & Haynes, 2015).
It is necessary to develop and implement alternative methods instead of the traditional system focused on the data of one test, use multivariate assessment, switch from tests to various types of the assessment procedure, using both quantitative and qualitative information. Perhaps, using a multidimensional approach to assessing knowledge and skills, it will be possible to minimize the influence of factors that lead to biases and neutralize the negative effect of the test assessment on the learning processes and the functioning of the educational system.
To conclude, this literature review examined the issue of biases in standardized tests in the US. It was revealed that cultural bias is associated with limited access of minority groups to resources and unequal treatment, which includes race, ethnicity, and gender parameters. The sociopolitical bias refers to meritocracy – the assumption that only hard work can lead to success regardless of the segregation by class, income, and geographic location. As for the cognitive bias, it involves the considerations regarding the reliability and the extent to which the tests can properly measure a student’s achievements.
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