African Americans and Testing

By Pelham, Judy | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 9, 1995 | Go to article overview

African Americans and Testing


Pelham, Judy, Black Issues in Higher Education


African Americans and Testing.

Recently, a friend complained about the arduous process of helping her son identify colleges he'd like to attend. "And, to add insult to injury," she added, "he has to get started on that darn SAT, maybe the ACT!"

I was a little puzzled; her son had taken the PSAT twice, and performed respectably.

She went on: "Those tests are awful. How can anyone make a decision about someone's life on the basis of a test? Tests don't tell you anything of value!"

"Well. . ." I began. Truth is, it was too tentative. She plowed ahead: "I remember when I took the SAT; I didn't have a clue what to do to get ready; my friends didn't know either!"

"This isn't then," I said, uncharacteristically assertively. With this friend, you have to throw yourself into the conversation. "This isn't 25 years ago! You aren't your parents. You understand what can be done to help your son get a good outcome on the SAT, and you're both willing and able to do it." Later on, I thought about that conversation.

Standardized tests are used for everything from selecting second graders for gifted classes to tenuring public-school teachers. Institutions have gone from using test scores religiously to using weighted. Measures, where test scores are minor players, to making test scores once again important.

Many of us have argued that standardized tests are biased, that they may be unfair to certain groups, which usually fare less well on them than others. This remains a concern and needs to be put to rest by some of us. In the interim, what position will we take that will help the many children who will take the new SAT? Or the children who will be screened out of or into special-education classes? Arguing that tests are biased hasn't really helped the multitude of children of color who end up being screened out of some fairly important activities.

It seems to me that all the years of expounding only the view that standardized tests are biased against children of color have helped place many of these children at risk. Failing to take this view doesn't cause more testing. But taking only this view hasn't caused less testing, either. Instead, we may have helped confirm for our children that they are supposed to do poorly on standardized tests, robbing them of the possibility of success. Educational institutions that employ assessments and that train assessors have been allowed off the hook.

We know that students who study and prepare for the SAT, for example, get higher scores than those not involved in preparatory programs. One of my friends discovered that while her high school offered a SAT-prep course, all students could not take advantage of it because of class schedules. …

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