Why Is There Still No Study of Cultural Equivalence in Standardized Cognitive Ability Tests?

By Perry, Justin C.; Satiani, Anmol et al. | Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Is There Still No Study of Cultural Equivalence in Standardized Cognitive Ability Tests?


Perry, Justin C., Satiani, Anmol, Henze, Kevin T., Mascher, Jackquelyn, Helms, Janet E., Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development


To investigate how the culturalist perspective on investigating racial group differences in standardized cognitive ability tests has advanced, a content analysis of 28 studies citing J. E. Helms (1992) identified 7 general themes. Overall, researchers cited J. E. Helms (1992) as support for their own hypotheses but did not directly test the culturalist perspective.

Para investigar como ha avanzado la perspectiva culturalista sobre la investigacion de las diferencias entre grupos raciales en los tests estandarizados de abilidades cognitivas, un analisis de contenido de 28 estudios que citan a J. E. Helms (1992) identifico 7 temas generales. En conjunto, los investigadores citaron a J. E. Helms (1992) para apoyar sus propias hipotesis, pero no comprobaron la perspectiva culturalista directamente.

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Mental health professionals and counselors in the testing community have observed long-standing racial group differences in standardized cognitive ability test (CAT) scores, with the most dramatic disparities revealing that Blacks, on average, score about 1 standard deviation below Whites (Onwuegbuzie & Daley, 2001). In light of the moral and political implications of these differences (e.g., Jensen, 1980), scholars have argued that CATs not only measure genetic (heritable) abilities but also must be measuring, to some extent, culture-specific variables associated with racial and/or ethnic group membership (Dana, 1993). In this article, we distinguish cultural variables (e.g., values, norms of interaction) from environmental variables (e.g., household income) as worthy of their own line of study and conceptual interest.

Given that racial differences in CAT scores continue to adversely influence the disproportionate rates of learning disability diagnoses (Warner, Dede, Garvan, & Conway, 2002), unequal rates of high school graduation (Swanson, 2004), and unequal outcomes in personnel selection (Hough, Oswald, & Ployhart, 2001) between Whites and minorities, it is incumbent on test developers to ensure that CATs are fair assessments of cognitive ability. Building on a history of scholarly criticism pertaining to the validity of intelligence tests, Helms (1992) proposed a culturalist perspective as an alternative model to account for the Black-White test score gap. According to Helms (1992), the implicit biological perspective is based on the assumption that racial differences in CAT scores are largely determined by genotype; that is, test score differences are a matter of one group being innately "smarter" than the other. On the other hand, the environmental perspective presumes that differences in these scores are mainly due to socioeconomic inequities, lack of academic support, poor parenting styles, and the like; hence, test score gaps can be attributed to deficits in factors that provide cognitive stimulation or to an environment conducive to intellectual and cognitive development. In contrast to these perspectives, the culturalist point of view emphasizes racial group differences in CAT scores as a matter of cultural bias in the tests and the testing process itself.

On the basis of the limitations of the biological and environmental perspectives, Helms (1992) offered a number of recommendations to guide future studies of cultural equivalence. For example, she proposed that research be used as the basis to modify existing test content to include items reflecting a greater diversity of cultural dimensions and to explore the meaning test takers assign to the "wrong" answers. But for such a fundamental change to occur, those researchers would need to entertain an alternative paradigm about why racial disparities exist in performance on CATs. This necessary shift in thinking might be met with ideological resistance or general apathy.

Given the potential barriers to testing Helms's (1992) main argument, the current study explored to what extent the testing community has responded to the culturalist perspective by reviewing all empirical studies published between 1992 and 2004 that cited Helms (1992). …

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