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.