Minority Testing Bias Persists

02/21/2013 01:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

In "The IQ Test" episode of seminal 1970s sitcom Good Times, young Michael Evans earned one of the lowest scores in his school on an intelligence test. As usual, hopes were high in the Evans household -- this time, it was in anticipation of Michael's eighth grade graduation -- but a letter from his school stated that Michael, normally a straight-A student, would be better suited for trade school instead of a career in academia.

But Michael didn't score low because of a lack of ability. He scored low because he chose not to finish the test. "I didn't like the questions, so I walked out," he told his parents. His rationale was that the exam was a "nothing but a white racist test... given by the white people, made up by white people and even graded by white people."

One question, for example, asked which of the following words best matched the word "cup" -- "wall," "saucer," "table" or "window"? Michael's friend Eddie, presumably an African-American, chose "table," because in his house, Michael said, there are no saucers to put under the cups.

This is sadly where many minority students still find themselves today -- with no saucers to put under their cups.

A boycott of the Northwest Evaluation Association's (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test by teachers and students at Garfield High School in Seattle has reignited a movement against standardized testing in U.S. schools and debate over tests' inherent cultural bias. In an appeal of the Seattle Public School Board's 2010 decision to renew its contract with the NWEA, members of a parent group alleged "that the MAP test disadvantages non-English speaking students, special education students, minority and low-income children." Fair education reform advocates have long cited a litany of concerns about standardized testing, many of which address racial bias and discrimination, as author and researcher Harold Berlak explains in the journal Rethinking Education:

Standardized testing perpetuates institutionalized racism and contributes to the achievement gap between whites and minorities. For instance, the deeply embedded stereotype that African Americans perform poorly on standardized tests hinders many African Americans' testing ability. Also, research has shown that minorities statistically have lower standardized test scores than whites because of existing, hidden biases in the development and administration of standardized tests and interpretation of their scores. Therefore, the achievement gap will not begin to close until current standards and assessment tests are significantly reformed.

In a month where (some of) America celebrates black history and the work of individuals who fought tirelessly for equality, the current uproar over standardized testing highlights just how much we have yet to overcome. Yesterday, Chicago Public Schools announced a preliminary hit list of 129 schools that are in danger of being closed by the start of the 2013-2014 school year. For some of these schools, closings are tied to test scores, and the majority of them are in African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago -- neighborhoods already besieged by crime, poverty and foreclosure, and subjected to significant population loss in the wake of the destruction of public housing; neighborhoods where children often lack health care and proper nutrition, and do not have access to test prep, books or other informal learning at home; and neighborhoods where parents have limited education and families are constantly stretched economically.

Then there is the technology. "With the computer-based tests," a parent recently told me, "you have one child who can navigate the computer and use a mouse because they have a computer at home, and another student who has no computer at home and doesn't know how to do these things."

Or like Michael Evans' friend, Eddie -- no saucer to put under his cup.

Education equity should be the norm, but from the makeup of standardized tests to the circumstances surrounding the lives of the students taking them, this equity remains elusive. Fiction-wise, it didn't exist on "Good Times" in 1974 or when Diff'rent Strokes presented the same theme four years later, and it isn't a reality for some minority students today. If schools are to test -- and reasoning for that alone is debatable -- then districts cannot expect fair evaluation when circumstances are different for each child. For many children, the burden of life alone is often so great that their primary goal is not a quality education, but day-to-day survival. And culturally, when academic outcomes are averaged across race and class, the achievement gap grows even greater.

Society must first address these circumstances, and only then can there be real education reform. As we learned later in "The IQ Test," "It's hard to get the right answers when you don't understand the questions."