Standardized Tests: Inadvertently Or Not, They Are Racist


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.



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117 responses to “Standardized Tests: Inadvertently Or Not, They Are Racist

  1. Ron OBrien

    It would be better not to know so many things than to know so many things that are not so.
    -Felix Okoye

  2. James

    Aren’t we all striving to be rich kids in the suburbs? Do we have to dumb down testing so far that the only material referenced is pop culture? If these kids are up against racist tests how can we ever expect them “make it”?
    Jesse, your article is the height of nanny state, liberal do-goodery. While you are extremely well-meaning, I do feel your general disdain for standardized testing. Also, the fact that you feel as though the children of Dominican immigrants can never do as well as the white kids, is very troubling. Cheers!

    • Cara B

      Hmm… but in some ways aren’t we always reading for comprehension? How could any kid, regardless of where they’re from, read a chapter about the ancient Egyptians from their Western Civ text book and expect to understand it if they are only going to understand material for which they have prior knowledge? I’m not a fan of standardized test for a variety of reasons, but
      I’m not sure I’m on board with the hypothesis that having background knowledge necessarily gives a leg up.

      • Jesse


        Well, the studies show that prior knowledge matters. Its not really a hypothesis, but a fact, I think… but I admit I didn’t check out the source study… I just trusted The Times.

        I think it goes deeper than actual background knowledge. To take your example of the Egyptians, most suburban kids have at least heard this word in their homes. They might not know anything about the Egyptians, but just knowing the word gives them a huge leg up. At least the subject isn’t completely foreign and intimidating; if mom knows about it, it can’t be that hard, right?


    • Jesse

      Your mix of ignorance and enthusiasm is a joy to behold. You’re like watching someone pat their head and rub their belly at warp speed.
      1. No, we’re not all striving to be rich kids in the suburbs. If I ever end up with rich suburban children, I might eat them, like a bear momma does its cubs she deems unfit for the wild.
      2. Dominican immigrants will never ever ever “do as well as” white middle class kids on tests testing white middle class culture. Can they do as well as them in academics, life, even love? Sure, and they do every day.

      – Jesse

      • James


        I’m sorry to break it to you… This is a white middle class country, with white middle class values, white middle class history, and white middle class culture. At least until 2050 (when US will become majority hispanic). We do have diversity, in every area of life and business, and that is great. I would also venture to guess that these evil racist tests do have more diversity now than say 20 or 30 years ago. Ultimately, the “Dominicans” in the barrio will be somebody else’s rich kids in 30 to 40 years, and somebody else will complain about their culture being on the tests. That’s how it goes, up and down and round n round. The real question does remain, who will make accomodations to the “Dominicans” in the real world as you propose we do for them now in school?
        God Bless

      • Tammy

        I stumbled upon this article quite by accident while doing some research for a paper of my own. I have one question for you all. If you were to take a white middle-class kid and put them in the Dominican Republic and give them a test the kids there take, would he fair as well as the Dominican kids? Dare I say “No!” Just a thought.

        • Dan

          I like how Mr Jesse shut his mouth after James here set the record straight.

          So i’ll point this one at the ignorant Tammy.

          It depends entirely on the knowledge required by the test,

          Subjects such as Math and Science cannot be ‘racist’. cultural history will of course, be an immigrants struggling point.

          But that does not make it ‘racist’. It can only be expected that a country will have tests taking into account their own experiences, norms, and history. It is downright ridiculous to assume they’d forgo this.

          Knowledge in and of itself cannot hold discriminatory thoughts. Anything can be achieved through perseverance, and if one comes into a country, wanting to be a part of that country, then they could show the respect in doing what is necessary to learn about that country.

          Unless responsibility is also now racist.

        • mason

          and tammy, do you think the Dominican government would change the tests to accommodate them?. Dare I say no

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  4. Matt

    I cant believe people think these tests are racist. Unless youre asking a question specific to a singular race or using ethnic remarks in the questions i don’t think they are racist. I dont see any standardized test doing this. Its sad that there is a a race gap in these tests but its not cause the test is racist its that minorities are generally on a lower economic step than native whites. This leads to less opportunity in school and life. Tests should not be ‘dumbed’ down to pop icons. Reading comprehension is just that, reading comprehension. Its not being able to say “hey i heard about that I dont have to read this and I can still get the answer right” No the section you are trying to comprehend is something specific no matter who you are. If you are arguing that asking about a dieticians recommendations are racist then that kinda just reflects the fact that the average kid doesnt know what a vegetable is, not that the test is racist. It really pisses me off that people like you use the racist card. Im not going to lie, racism is alive but to say standardized testing is racist is just a scape goat. Show me the research that says this, not that just because the test uses names like Johnny or Jane and not Miguel or Jamal that that makes it racist. The 18 yr old white kid and the 18 yr old mexican or african american kid at the same school are exposed to the same definition and geography lesson of what and where the Appalachian Mtns are. These tests may not adequately test how smart you are but they sure as hell test how much you care about your future. I am a Hispanic and managed to score decently on my SAT 5 years ago, heck i beat some white kids. Is that reverse racism????? Stop using the race card.

    • Hi Matt,

      The end result is that, in large part because of the close connection between race and economic status in this country, these tests do tend to be racist. The researcher says that “The key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject.” Now, if most of these comprehension sections are about topics someone with an educated parent is more likely to discuss in the home, students with educated parents are at a great advantage, correct?

      The point is, if what these tests what to test is truly comprehension, they should be tailored to the existing knowledge of the student.

      I do appreciate your concerns, though. Essays like mine can read like a built-in excuse for some ethnic students.

      • Hi Jesse,
        Just real quick, someone being more aware of the world around them is an unfair advantage? Some people have to work harder to gain simple knowledge of the functions of a dietician, or the culture and geography of the Appalachian mountains, but not having to work as hard to gain simple knowledge like that is an advantage. Having better parents and more knowledge of the world is an advantage but it is definitely not unfair

  5. jessica

    Hmm, well, I had a contract submitting reading comp passages for ets for a couple of years, and I can say that they do their best. There are certain topics that are off-limits for various reasons, and obviously passages that portray other cultures or religions negatively are unaccepted. We also had to select passages which were self-contained -that is, which required no outside knowledge- and passages that were too general, where you could reasonably be expected to answer the questions based not on the passage, but on general knowledge, were also excluded.

    Passages are generally selected from textbooks, and I preferred science textbooks – geology, astrobiology, marine science, evolutionary plant biology, climatology, etc. Many of the topics I selected I had little familiarity with myself, and I am white and middle class and have a graduate degree.

  6. The fact that vocabulary tests are culturally biased was brought home to me when my (upper middle class, Caucasian) daughter missed the word “newspaper” on an IQ test she took when she was 4. We don’t subscribe to a daily paper since we get our news online and from a subscription to “The Economist” magazine. It was just one question so I don’t think it made a significant difference in her final score. But it did make me stop & think that yeah, there really IS something to the criticisms of bias…

  7. Pavitra

    Asking questions about the Yankees, BET, etc. would just reward those students who follow mainstream culture and punish those who follow alternative culture. It would be better to write questions on topics that none of the students can possibly be familiar with, like this:

    “The wild iquiddlivum lives in the snoofoos of Jaxar. Although its quiddle is usually excromulated, in recent years the gharxos have rasked the ampoluvles.”

    Which of the following statements does the author of the above passage most likely intend to convey:

    A. Ampoluvles are not native to Jaxar.
    B. Raskage of ampoluvles has reduced quiddle excromulation.
    C. Gharxos are often excromulated.
    D. The gharxo naturally thrives in the snoofoo.

  8. L

    I absolutely agree with Pavitra.

    (on the condition that it is easier for those who have had exposure to the material beforehand)
    The problem with the test is not that it penalizes lower class children, but that it benefits middle class children.

    It’s essentially like a form of assisted cheating. In order for the test to be entirely fair, it should revolve around things that neither class has prior exposure to.

  9. Jim

    I disagree with the author. Familiarity with a topic really doesn’t help students answer the questions. At the very least it instills confidence which is something but doesn’t mean the test has a bias.

    I recently took a final for my Italian class that was very difficult. Near the end was an article in Italian about alcoholism, which I am very familiar with and have researched in the past. However due to the specificity of the questions it really did become a rather difficult exercise in reading comprehension. If these tests are possible to complete without actually reading the article carefully than they are poorly designed. The topic is irrelevant. The wording of the questions is what matters most. Also I don’t think the tests should be tailor made for each school. Why should tests include the Yankees and not biology? What about the students in that inner city school who doesn’t follow sports? Will this create a bias against students who don’t follow pop culture?

  10. Cynthia


    That question was exactly a model of what the experience is for many of our students who, in addition to having to use their reading skills, are having to familiarize themselves with new vocabulary; they are then being tested on both.

    @Jim and Matt: The logic often given is that these passages are not testing prior knowledge but rather the skill of reading comprehension, in which case the question of whether the student has prior knowledge or not is not, according to the logic, supposed to affect the score.
    However, research on language acquisition shows that this is incorrect. Having prior knowledge about the subject at hand makes someone more likely to be able to absorb and organize the new information they learn through reading. The students’ prior knowledge acts as a “hook” on which to “hang” their new information.
    Here’s another piece of research: if a reader is familiar with fewer than 95% of the words in a text, they drastically lose their ability to comprehend it and make meaning out of it. That means that, in a 500-word passage, if a student encounters more than 25 unknown words (and how likely a scenario is that for an English-language learner?), they can no longer make meaning out of it. Now, will that or won’t that affect their score if that passage is on a test?

    Finally, the point is not, in my opinion, whether the writers of these tests are deliberately choosing to be racist. The point is that the tests do end up reinforcing patterns that are unequal along racial lines, and this phenomenon is decades old. If a negative pattern is repeated over and over again, at what point do you have to hold someone accountable for not seeking to break it?

    • Jill

      Love it Cynthia- just this afternoon I went to the presentation of master’s theses for the School of Ed. at U.C. Berkeley. A lot of the focus was on creating more equitable educational environments as a means to close the achievement gap. One student talked about how as teachers in this society, we come with our own white middle class (status quo) standards and that that causes us to approach everything we do with kids from a deficit perspective, “I’m here… you are missing this, this, and this, so what do I do to get you to where I am.” Those reading passages are designed by and for those who fit into a particular class of student with experiences and background that enhance their mastery of these tests, a particular kind of exposure… not that they have skied or been camping necessarily, but also who have been exposed to a certain way of thinking and talking as well. I can’t tell you how many times the students I work with have been dumbfounded just by the way the question is formulated… I have to explain to them….”what the question is asking is _________”. This is another way that tests are biased towards particular groups — I think class plays the biggest role, but race and cultural do as well, and class has become racialized all over the world.

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  13. John

    If an alien ever comes down to earth for the first time it would be completely impossible communicate with the being b/c of no cultural similiarity. The only way our two kinds could relate to each other in anyway would be to draw a triangle, because rudimentary geometry and physics knowledge is necessary for interstellar travel. Math and science cannot be culturally biased, if your kid fails it means they’re dumb, end of story. And white middle class familiarity in reading comprehension? One of my SAT reading story was on an elephant that would draw pictures in the ground, what fucking familiarity would I have with that? If an american kid never studied or even learned where the Appalachain mountains are (grade school shit), then their school already sucks to begin with and they’re not going to do much better with less bias.

    • Ameer

      That’s exactly the point the author was trying to make. For the most part kids are assigned to schools that they’re zoned for. These areas are largely homogenous due to socio economic factors. These factors were put into place through centuries of the black and latino communities being under served by public entities (sometimes deliberately) and lacking funds to sponsor themselves an educational deficit was created. So, children coming from areas where this educational deficit exists won’t have the same educational opportunities as kids coming from well off places. Meaning that they won’t have access to good schools. That they won’t have as many experiences as other children; limiting the students possible scope of knowledge. That they will not do well on standardized test. It doesn’t mean the kids are dumb, it just means that they never received the proper tools. Thats why standardized test are racist. They hold students to a standard that doesn’t exists.

  14. Chris W

    As a math teacher, I must admit that in their quest to be “multicultural,” the writers of NYS math exams often cause confusion just by using names that look or sound odd to my students, e.g. “Laquan built a ramp…”

    I think that the title of this piece is misleading; replace “racist” with something tied to socio-economic status and you would be accurate.

  15. Johnny Appleseed

    Why do Asians outscore every other group on these tests if the tests are racist?

  16. McCharmly

    I don’t think the tests are racist. The economic status (upper, middle, lower) of families can be a disadvantage or advantage, but students who are pushed by their parents or themselves can excel on these tests regardless of their class. Having prior knowledge of subject matter can also count. I, for one, had an extremely solid education in English (grammar and writing) when I was in middle school. I easily got a 700 on that section. My friends who read all the time did well on the reading section. Certain uncontrollable factors give certain advantages to certain people, such as having educated parents with an extensive vocabulary (which I certainly DO NOT have) and money for study resources ( DID NOT have that either). So I guess its a mixture of something similar to…nature (what type of enivornment/family you’re born into) vs. nuture (what type of education you received or what activities you enjoy doing).

  17. Tom

    What rubbish! I took many test during school with questions concerning train A leaving a station at a certain time and train B leaving another station. At that time, I had never been in either a train or a train station and I still answered the questions correctly. In the example in the article, if you substitute playing polo in the Himalayas for hiking in the Appalachians, I would not have a problem understanding the sentence.

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  19. earl

    Because everyone knows all white kids are taught
    About the appalachian mountains at the ripe old age of 4 just before they receive their first yacht.

  20. Xu Zu

    What a bunch of Malarkey. By this logic, no one could read and learn about anything that wasn’t in their pre-existing base of knowledge or in fact, this means learning is not possible.

    I’ve never never been to New Guinea but I can easily read a passage about New Guinea and process the information. How many ways will the PC police find to try to excuse low achievement rather than actually addressing the issue?

  21. Do Your Homework

    The fact is, prior knowledge is worthless on current standardized reading comp.

    Reading comp questions are put together in such a way that prior knowledge does not give you an advantage. For example, they wouldn’t say “where are the Appalachians located?” – the question would be, “where does the passage indicate that (insert some specific location in the passage) is located?” You don’t have to spell Appalachians, nor pronounce it. You don’t have to know anything at all about them. You just have to be able to pick information out of the passage and use it to answer the question.

    A smart and/or well-educated Dominican child in the city can figure: “I don’t know what the Appalachians are, but in the first paragraph they said (specific location) is in (location).” No matter where a student is from or currently lives from, they’ve got to be able to do that in order to succeed in the world. To blame a student’s inability to do this on their background is really selling the student short, as it will lead educators to ignore the real problem – we need to teach all students how to read critically.

    The kind of misinformation here is really dangerous, as this is one of the top results on Google when you search “standardized tests racist.” Please do your homework before posting something like this, because there are probably 10,000 people out there in the world quoting you as a reference, and, with all due respect, you are flat wrong.

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  31. Josh R

    So you’re telling me that because inner city kids cannot compete on a “middle-class” test that it is racist? It is no where near racist! There is a clear educational boundary between the suburbs and the inner city. The suburb tend to have higher level curriculum, compared to a lower level curriculum in the inner city. There is almost no racism in that. The most e could to do to ensure success of these kids in to promote education in their school and improve their schooling, it will give them the chance they need!

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