New Evidence of Racial Bias on SAT

You’d think we could fix this within the educational system somehow – the disparagement that shows up on tests. We give it a ton of lip service, but it just keeps going.

New Evidence of Racial Bias on SAT

The existence of racial patterns on SAT scores is hardly new. The average score on the reading part of the SAT was 429 for black students last year — 99 points behind the average for white students. And while white students’ scores were flat, the average score for black students fell by one. Statistics like these are debated every year when SAT data are released, and when similar breakdowns are offered on other standardized tests.

Here’s the rub . . .

But what Freedle found in 2003 has now been confirmed independently by the new study: that some kinds of verbal questions have a DIF for black and white students. On some of the easier verbal questions, the two studies found that a DIF favored white students. On some of the most difficult verbal questions, the DIF favored black students. Freedle’s theory about why this would be the case was that easier questions are likely reflected in the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people. The more difficult words are more likely to be learned, not just absorbed.

It’s not only difficult words, but common words that just aren’t used in some households. My information here is anecdotal, but first first benchmark I was asked about a common noun. I was asked enough times that I know it was troublesome. I was surprised. While it was a word I don’t use often, I do use it. I’ve read it. It’s the first noun I think of for that particular thing. For the student, it was lack of experience with the word.

There is a continuum of scores on the SAT for all groups that I’d love to take a closer look at to consider the reasons for each.


6 thoughts on “New Evidence of Racial Bias on SAT

  1. Ideally, a standardized test should show the disparity between students. If there is an actual difference among American students of different ethnic backgrounds, the test would be somewhat invalidated if it did not reflect that difference.

    If bias is built into the test intentionally that is a completely different matter. It would be a shame to lose the objectivity by being politically correct. The sad truth that there is a huge gap between the privileged and the rest should be reflected in any valid standardized test.

  2. The bias is most likely unintentional, but it is very real. Test writing is difficult, and it’s harder to spot one’s own blind assumptions about what is or is not ‘common knowledge’ vocabulary to various subgroups.

    Strictly speaking, though, this makes the bias a cultural one, not a racial one (except accidentally). Doesn’t it?

  3. Bill, I think you hit this nail on the head. It does seem to be cultural – or I have been thinking – socio-economic which in a great many ways defines culture.

    I mentioned the other breakout groups in the study, and I’d like to see some studies on those lagging numbers. American Indians did better than I had expected. I’d read not too long ago that children on reservations performed poorly on standardized tests. So many factors to consider . . .

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