By JESSE SCACCIA
There was an interesting op-ed in The New York Times yesterday about how to fix standardized testing. The writer argues that the problem isn’t that the tests are given. The problem is the questions that are asked.
“The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random,” says the writer, E. D. Hirsch Jr. “Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.”
Hirsch goes on to explain that, according to a study, reading comprehension tests don’t so much evaluate reading comprehension skills. Rather, they are a measure of the student’s pre-existing knowledge of the subject matter.
“The key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge,” is how Hirsch puts it.
The suits in their offices who run the standardized tests will swear up and down that the reading comprehension texts are selected at random. As a veteran of public schools in New York, Connecticut, and California, I say, “Uhm, are you kidding me?”
Reading comprehension sections tend to be about things like history, faraway places, or, yes, the Appalachian Mountains. Are these things our inner-city students would naturally know about? Of course not.
Yes, things like history, geography, and the Appalachian Mountains are important. But that’s why we have sections that test this knowledge. The texts in reading comprehension should either be truly random across cultures, class, religions, and backgrounds, or they should be community specific.
In New York, for example, this would mean test texts that focus on things like reggeaton, Chris Brown, the Yankees, what’s the hottest show on BET, the cooking of popular Puerto Rican meals, what happens in Prospect Park at night, and the elements of MySpace. In other words, if what we’re trying to do is test reading comprehsion, we can’t also be confusing our students about subjects they might never have encountered before. Right off the bat, reading the long, strange name of some random mountain range tells our students, “No, you don’t know about this.” And, “Yes, this test was not made with you in mind.”
I say that these tests are racist because anyone who has administered a standardized test knows that the subject matter tends to be very educated-middle-class. And anything educated-middle-class focused is going to necessarily be biased toward whites. It’s simply how it is.
Just out of curiosity, I looked up this past January’s Regents ‘Comprehension Examination.’ The topic of the two readings? Advice from a dietitian, and the ecological viability of using straw bales as an alternative building material. (Find this and other past tests here.)
Now, if you don’t think a white kid from the suburbs is about one hundred times more likely to have talked about things like this in his home than the child of a Dominican immigrant in the city, you’re fooling yourself. These tests are racially biased, whether they mean to be or not.