Questions & AnswersProductsAbout Mitch Adler


Dear Mitch,

Our daughter is a very good student, but she freezes on tests, and she's overcome it enough to make good scores on her high school tests, usually, but the darn SAT test is her demon. She's taken courses and we've spent a sick amount of money on all the books and kits with the cards and the pictures and all that nonsense, but that darn test is still out to get her. Now, we are black, though I guess when you print this letter if you do you'll probably take out my word and put in "African American", that's fine, but in our minds we're BLACK.

I've heard that the test is racist, and I'm not one who likes to go there, figuring how can a test that's typed up by people who don't know us be that way, but now I'm not so sure. I have two questions for you, and you can either do it publicly or in one of those private emails you're always referring to. My husband and I don't really give a hoot, because we have nothing to be ashamed of. First question: I think I kind of see how the test can be prejudice, but I want to hear your opinion to see if I got it right. Second question: So if so many people say it's prejudice, shouldn't that be enough to account for her score? (Keep in mind, her score is not horrible, it's just not what she does in school.)

(Or should she really put in all the work to try it again and again, even if her score might never show her ability?)

Just tell me what you think she should do.




Dear KKL,

You ask three questions.

First: How can a standardized test really be prejudiced against a particular group, and, in particular, how can the SAT test be prejudiced?

Second: Is the fact that the test is not fair to your daughter enough of an answer/justification/excuse for a score you feel does not represent her abilities?

Third: What should you/your daughter do now to show schools that she is better than her score and in doing so maximize her potential opportunities?

My Answer to your first question:

There are indeed a number of ways that a standardized test can be written or administered in a way that makes it more likely for students from one culture to score higher than students from another culture, and some of these ways are subtle and can be argued out of existence. In my opinion, there is some validity to the view that the big standardized tests do in fact tend to favor students of some cultures over other students, but such a situation leads me to consider a different approach from the ones you mention.

Here's what I have noticed, and here's what I think about my observation:

I recently looked at a standardized test that was given to a large number of American ADULTS; on that test, a certain score was necessary for the adults taking it to qualify for a license to work in a very important field.

The exam covered all kinds of subjects, ranging from skills in language arts and history to logic and spacial perception.

In various sections, the multiple choice questions included brief fact patterns (stories), and after reading these short paragraphs the test-taker would have a few questions to answer. Here is what I noticed: In total, there were eight short fact patterns. Seven of them described situations of children agreeing or disagreeing over typical childhood events, such as how to divide themselves into two fair teams for a game, etc. The children described in those seven fact patterns had the kind of names that – if one had to venture a guess – would most likely be basic American names common to "white" people. These names included "Christopher", "Sammy", "Jennifer", "Sue", and "Joseph". One way or another, these characters resolved their differences in ways that most adults would consider socially acceptable. The remaining fact-pattern described children whose names were more interesting, less common in the schools I have experienced, and more likely to be thought of as names selected by parents from cultures interested in preserving some of their "non-white" background. Three of the names that the exam might have had in this category were these: Chantell, Shayzferrie, and Gyannge. The fact pattern containing these students described a situation that ended in a way that many might consider less 'socially acceptable'; fistfights and injuries were mentioned.

(There were many comments outside the building about this very question when the students exited the exam.)

Next: Different sorts of schools favor different curriculum. A test can focus more on testing the curriculum taught more heavily in schools populated primarily by non-minority students.

Should your daughter feel that this justifies a score that is not indicative of her skills?

I would not feel comfortable telling her to just chalk up her score to the shortcomings of the test writers. No, I have long felt -- and publicly expressed -- that the way to change things in society that are not yet as good as they can be is by arguing from a position of strength. It is one thing to hear a student say, "This test is racist, and that is why my score is not what it should be...", and it is quite a different thing to hear a student stand up and say, "I worked hard and received an excellent score (such as 2200 out of the 24oo, etc.) and am therefore in the top-five-percent of students applying to college this year. HOWEVER, while I scored high I want to be clear about one thing: the test is racist and should be changed. I do not need an excuse because I did well, but I did well in spite of the fact that parts of the test made me uncomfortable and may have added further stress to the already trying experience of sitting through a three-hour test. My family and I -- along with others from our culture -- were not portrayed and/or tested fairly, and though I did well, the test needs to be changed to evolve into one that is more American."

I believe colleges and the people who create these exams would be more impressed by the latter approach.

NOTE: I believe these problems with the test are NOT intentional. Therefore, as is often the case, the first step toward changing things is increasing the awareness of all parties involved. I have faith that people usually want to do the right thing, even if they do not yet know how. It is the responsibility of everyone else to help them see and think more intelligently.

Hope this helps,