Eliminate cultural bias in the SAT

A recent SAT Reasoning Test essay prompt stirred controversy after asking whether the airing of choreographed reality TV is harmful to its audience. Even though the prompt explains the basics of what reality TV is, the question is definitely much more familiar and intuitive to someone who has seen a wealth of reality TV shows in the past. We are concerned that the use of questions grounded in popular culture risks alienating students of minority cultures, putting them at a disadvantage during the college admissions process.

In the ’90s, the SAT faced a good deal of controversy over a question that was accused of being culturally biased. The question asked which analogy best matched the relationship between “runner” and “marathon.” The best answer turned out to be “oarsman” and “regatta”—a pair of terms that would be recognizable only to someone familiar with crew, and foreign to anyone else. After the administration of the test, it was determined that 53 percent of white students correctly answered the question, while only 22 percent of black students answered correctly. The College Board committee was criticized, and rightly so, for implementing test questions that conferred an advantage upon those students who had the requisite cultural knowledge—generally those who were white and middle class.

While the current controversy over the reality television essay question may not contain the blatant racial bias of the infamous “oarsman-regatta” analogy, it raises legitimate concerns about the structure and format of specific SAT questions. Many students simply may not watch reality television, a choice for which they ought not to be put at a disadvantage. International students—who must take either the SAT or ACT for admission to American colleges and universities—may or may not be exposed to such cultural media in their home countries, and it seems unreasonable to assume knowledge of a TV genre that is prevalent mainly in the United States when an equally challenging, yet globally relevant prompt could be used instead. And beyond that, the acceptance of a pluralist nation and the multicultural ethos that ought to accompany it mandates a standardized test that transcends any cultural specifics whatsoever.

Essay questions could stay out of cultural realm by probing at general ethical dilemmas (is it permissible to steal food in order to feed one’s starving family?) or explaining problems from civics and history. But by using questions like the reality television prompt, the test alienates when it doesn’t have to.

To be sure, the SAT is fundamentally biased to its core—the benefits of expensive test prep services are widely known, and it is no secret that wealthy students consistently outperform their peers on the test. Any test bounded by semantics will no doubt be bounded in culture, and will no doubt be unfair. But tests can always become more fair, and as long as we are bound to evaluating students in the form of standardized testing, the SAT should draw its material as broadly as possible.

  • Titanium Dragon

    The oarsman:regatta question was obvious and people who whined about it being racist or culturally biased were being silly.

    I didn’t know what a regatta was at the time I heard about the whining, but the answer was quite obvious to me anyway. The reason for this is simple.

    The SAT is a sort of IQ test. It is about your intelligence. If you know what a runner and a marathon are (not unreasonable to expect), then you can answer the question easily. A runner competes in a marathon. You look at the other answers:

    Envoy:Embassy. Okay, maybe that’s right? Well, then you go down. Martyrs are in massacres, horses go in stables, and referees are involved in tournaments. As such, you can tell that none of those are right – none of them are precise enough analogies. Runners compete in marathons, so the answer must be oarsman:regatta even though you don’t know what a regatta is, because it is the only possible answer that could be right.

    Lo and behold, it was.

    Also, you are under the misimpression that wealthy students outscoring poor students is an indication of badness. In fact, a test where that was not the case would be a terrible test.

    We know this because, quite simply, intelligence is heritable and wealthier people not only have better educational resources available to them but also have more intelligent parents on average than poorer people. Every single study ever has attested to this.

    The fact that you even talked about ethical questions on a standardized test proves that you have no understanding of standardized testing at all. You don’t ask SUBJECTIVE questions on tests like that. You ask OBJECTIVE questions. Subjective questions are useless.

  • Rebecca Black

    Don’t white students score better than black students anyway? How much worse did black students do on that particular question versus other questions of the same style?

    And who ever said we’re a “pluralist” nation? There is a fundamental difference between being made up of many people from different cultural backgrounds and being “pluralist”.

    Is it even possible to escape culture?

    Why not complain that the test is in English and thus puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage?

    And couldn’t wealthy kids do better just because they’re…smarter? Financial success is determined in some part by brains, and that sort of thing can be passed down genetically.

    This editorial just has too many unsupported premises to have any faith in its conclusion.

    • Rebecca Black

      Tomorrow is Saturday
      And Sunday comes afterwards

    • dyujana

      Standardized test are bias to an extent. However, it has nothing to do with wealthy white kids being smarter or white students performing better than blacks. All of those are cultural myths. It has more to do with the fact that wealthy kids(whatever race) can afford a better and quality education that prepares them for college. Yes, wealth can do that!! Wealthy parents can expose their kids to a better education. That does not make all wealthy kids smart!! You have a good percentage that are slackers!!