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New Study: SAT is Racist

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By Ron Walters

A few weeks ago, I gave a speech in Baltimore in which I suggested that the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) score gap between Black and White students did not measure the intelligence of Black students, but the rate of Black to White cultural assimilation.

When the speech was over, some worried parents came up to say that they knew all along that their child was smart, but that they didn’t know what was wrong. Others were concerned because they had bought the line that something that we have constructed in this country known as “education” is objective and that if children don’t achieve it, there is something wrong with them.

Well, now comes a study by Jay Rosner of the Princeton Review Foundation that finds that since the Educational Testing Service, which makes up the SAT, the major test required by college entrance officials, is concerned most of all with the reliability of the test, the majority of the questions in it are geared to “White preference.”

A reliable question is one on which those who score positively do well in college and those who score negatively do poorly. The Princeton Review Foundation, which helps minority students in taking the test, says that in the 2000 version of the SAT, every one of the 138 questions selected for it favored White students and none favored Black students.

A retired Educational Testing Service researcher, Roy A. Freedle, also published an article in the Harvard Educational Review stating that the SAT tests contained racial bias. His point was that Black students often do better on more difficult questions than easier ones because easier questions use a common (or “street”) vocabulary that can be interpreted differently by different groups according to their cultural experiences.

Most important, Jay Rosner stated that researchers did not know why some questions were more difficult for Black students than for White students, but that the testing company knew in advance that there are many more questions that appeared to favor Whites than either Blacks or Latinos in making up the tests.

At a time when the use of educational testing has become a weapon used by the Right wing to eliminate the jobs of Black teachers and the thousands of degrees earned by Black high school students, it is distressing that Black parents and policy makers are not more aggressive in attacking these tests.

Instead, they appear to have accepted them and the inference that Black kids just have to master them. That is a fallacious idea when all that may be involved is that someone or some entity fairly selects the questions that appear on a test and does make the examinations so skewed toward the normative culture of Whites that Blacks kids are penalized.

The stakes of just assuming that the tests are correct is that if Black kids do not achieve, they are blamed or their parents are blamed or their schools are regarded as “failed” or the school superintendent is blamed and tossed out – all for a racist result.

The existence of unreal expectations – that Black children will be able to adapt to tests that are configured on the White cultural norm – is rampant in the Black community.

And it is supported by researchers and policy- makers who argue that all it takes is a little more effort by Black children. In other words, the children are vilified by some in their own community as being at fault.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, an African-American who has written for many years on the Black-White test score gap, recently relied on a faulty study by Berkeley education professor, John Ogbu. The study focused on Black students in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who appeared to have had a dismissive attitude about academic achievement although they came from middle-class families.

Raspberry, however, like so many others, apparently did not know of a more extensive study by the Minority Student Achievement Network of 40,000 students in high achieving school districts, who had the same attitudes as their White and Asian counterparts about seeking high achievement levels.

I am beginning to think that with the research continuing to come out which shows that there are problems with the framework of “education” and educational testing to which we are subjected, that we should begin a new civil rights movement aimed at education.

We should start to correct the assumption that many Black parents have, that African-American culture is worthless as a subject of study and all that matters is whether their children test near as well as White kids. They reason that good test scores is the route to better employment and economic security.

But what if our youth just don’t test nearly as well as Whites under this present the system? The test score gap on the SAT is about 200 points and has remained in that vicinity in recent years. What if their objective for their children can be achieved by their demanding that the testing is fair enough to take into consideration the cultural experience of the children that leave their house every morning?

Something has to change and it starts in the heads of our parents and teachers, not with the students. The rationalization for keeping the present system is often based on some studies that show a minuscule percentage of children in poor K-12 schools have achieved scores above the norm on various tests.

But without substantial changes in tests at the K-12 and college entrance levels – paying particular attention to the educational environment and economic status of most Black children in America – the scores simply will not equalize.

Moreover, with the “Leave No Child Behind” legislation that emphasizes testing, Black parents are in danger of having their children left far behind. More than 100,00 students in Florida did not pass state achievement test for high school graduation. Maybe now, Blacks will start to take this situation seriously. I hope that it is not too late.

Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute in the Academy of Leadership and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. His latest book is “White Nationalism, Black Interests” (Wayne State University Press).

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