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Test Bias

Any time I’ve read about testing disparities between socioeconomic classes, I’ve always assumed that it boiled down to educational support at home, enrichment opportunities, and the like. I had read that standardized exams were also culturally biased towards middle-class white kids, and while I didn’t dispute that fact, I couldn’t quite picture where culture came into the equation.

I sure can now. Simon has been back working on a reading computer program this past week in preparation to start first grade. I know he’s regressed a bit while we’ve been busy going on hikes and playing sports, but I thought it might be a good idea to blow off some of the rust before heading back to class.

He’s at the highest level of Lexia Reading that is realistic for him to work on, and he usually wanted me to sit beside him for moral support. We both got an education. In one game in particular, a game where students are to choose from among 3-4 diphthongs to create a word that best completes a given sentence, I mentally pulled up more than once. Here are a handful I can remember:

  • Coil the hose when you finish it.
  • Troy is a boy’s name.
  • The oak shaded the lawn.
  • Mom made a moist cake.
  • The hawk glides across the sky.
  • Roy put the clams in the pail.

The images I put in my head are of the ESL Somali kids who mostly live in apartment buildings and of pretty much any kid who lives in a densely populated, urban environment. Do these kids see people “coil” garden hoses? That seems pretty suburban middle class to me. Do they know the name “Troy”? Simon had never heard it. If you grow up in a high rise in the Bronx, your neighborhood may not have trees for shade, much less lawns, and I doubt the kids are naming them. Similarly, are those kids familiar with hawks? I’d bet not.

I can tell you right now that kindergarten-age Jessica–middle class, supported at home, and white–would have blown the “pail” sentence because (1) my family only used the word “bucket” and (2) I would have had no idea what a clam was. I didn’t live anywhere coastal enough for clams to be a big deal, and growing up kosher would have precluded my ever seeing one at home.

It’s not that I’m faulting the Lexia folks.* It’s not like they have sentences like, “Daddy likes to play golf at the country club” or “Caviar is delicious.” I didn’t see any sentences about summer homes, skiing at Jackson Hole, or boarding once you turn 12. It was all perfectly American middle class stuff. It’s just that not all kids are American middle class, and if you are not, you aren’t going to have the experiences or vocabulary to figure out words from context. I cited some statistics about this earlier this year:

“According to research, children from low-income homes know 600 fewer words as 3-year-olds than their better-off peers. By second grade, the gap widens to 4,000 words. This vocabulary gap in turn effects a huge gap in reading comprehension skills. Children can’t understand what they are reading if they have to look up very many words; they lose their flow. They need to know the word before they read it, and that takes repeated exposure beginning in early childhood.”

Bang! Simon was working on a level associated with second grade. How do you catch up kids in reading if their vocabulary is too small to support the reading material available? I don’t have any answers here, but I sure hope someone out there does!

* I’m not faulting them for culturally biased sentences. I am faulting them for these:

  • It is not safe to eat raw fish.
  • It is a joy not to have to go to work.

So. Given the state of food safety in the US, I would argue that it is safer to eat raw fish selected and prepared by a sushi chef than it is to eat a hamburger, melon, sprouts, or a salad. Remember that last outbreak of e coli infested hotate that sickened hundreds? Me neither.

The second sentence just made me laugh. Here we are in the 21st century, putting the words “career readiness” on every piece of educational material printed anywhere, and an educational company states baldly that working kinda sucks. Do we have to tell them that in the primary years?

One Response to “Test Bias”

  1. blg says:

    Great post.

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