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Thoughts on the New S.A.T.: Bias Is Embedded in All Standardized Aptitude Tests

By R. Richard Banks — January 30, 1991 2 min read
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Social-science researchers often “prove” what they already believe to be true, or formulate and “test” a hypothesis which they’ve already decided to be correct.

In such an approach, a question becomes a rationale for “discovering” an answer the researcher already holds dear. The answer, ostensibly derived from unbiased scientific inquiry, conveniently buttresses deeply held beliefs and assumptions.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more common than in the creation and use of standardized aptitude tests.

The attempt by the College Board to reform the Scholastic Aptitude Test, perhaps the most widely used and influential standardized test in the nation, is futile. Bias is so embedded in the SAT and similar tests that it becomes difficult to recognize, much less weed out.

The development of the granddaddy of aptitude tests, the IQ test, aptly demonstrates the fundamental bias of such tests. In the early stages of design, researchers administered their IQ test to samples of schoolchildren. In sample after sample, girls scored higher than boys, which led researchers to conclude (what else?) that there must be some fault in the test. The test was reformulated until boys performed well enough to satisfy the researchers’ unexamined assumption.

Not surprisingly, on the SAT girls continue to score an average of 60 points below boys, although girls’ high-school and college grades are better.

When poor or minority youngsters perform poorly on standardized aptitude tests, the conclusion is not that something is wrong with the test but that something is wrong with the child. Given the same data, different assumptions spawn different conclusions.

Distorted assumptions and conceptual biases have rendered most aptitude tests practically useless for their stated purpose, but incredibly effective at the hidden agenda of social control and legitimation of mobility structures.

Before the test is even administered, one knows which groups of students will perform well and which won’t. The testing outcome serves to validate the limited educational opportunities offered some children and the abundant opportunities presented to others.

Aptitude tests such as the SAT could be dismissed as foolishness, as trivial games, were they not so prevalent and influential. Beginning in childhood, one’s potential to achieve can be expanded or, more often the case with low-income and minority children, constricted by an aptitude-test score.

On the basis of low aptitude-test scores, children are denied admission to prestigious private schools, are placed into “slow” classes, and are not expected to achieve by teachers who interpret low test scores as a reason not to demand excellence.

We need a new concept of ability, a concept more skill-specific and distinct and less unitary and universal. This new concept would encompass and recognize a multitude of different abilities, each important in its own way.

David McClelland, a professor at Harvard University, has written convincingly for many years on the importance of testing for competence (a specific identifiable skill) rather than for intelligence or aptitude, which is some mythical generalized ability. In spite of the nearly unassailable argument he presents, we have been slow to heed his counsel.

Aptitude tests, as part of the admissions procedure for elite undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, still open, or close, the gate to the higher echelons of society. Piecemeal changes in the SAT, even a new name, won’t alter this reality.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Thoughts on the New S.A.T.: Bias Is Embedded in All Standardized Aptitude Tests


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