In October 2022, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) released a new report where, again, Black students lagged behind white students on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Specifically, in comparison to 2019, the previous assessment year, average mathematics scores for grade 4 students were lower in 2022 for American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic, students of Two or More Races, and white students (see https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/nation/groups/?grade=4). Digging further into the data, we found that Black students scored 29 points lower than white peers.
We begin this commentary with an unapologetic declaration: There is nothing ‘wrong’ with Black and other disenfranchised minoritized students who score lower on tests than White students. There’s something wrong with the tests!
In preparation for this op-ed, we reflected on the first time we became aware of test bias and unfairness. Years later, our experiences still haunt us. Years later, as higher education faculty in gifted and talented education, school counseling, mental health, and college and career readiness, we have the same and more concerns. We are outraged and frustrated by the slow progress in eliminating test bias and inequities, and the title of this commentary illustrates this. Black students know more than what those damn tests claim to measure.
Ford: My earliest recollection of racialized test bias and unfairness took place when I had my son tested for early school entrance in the 1980s. The White female school psychologist administered what I, now a leading scholar in gifted and talented education, am convinced was the WISC. After the lengthy test, she informed me that my son scored above average but was ‘socially incompetent’ because he was unfamiliar with items such as a sofa (he said couch) and an outlet (which he called a plug). I was angry, dumbfounded, and disappointed by her label and forced choice: (a) wait a year to enroll him, and my son would be the ‘top’ students or (b) enroll him now, and he would be one of the lowest performing students. I wanted my son to do well, so I waited. He was advanced but soon disengaged due to boredom based on lack of challenge. This experience served as the fundamental reason I focused my dissertation and first book on gifted and talented Black students who became underachievers. Three decades later, my son’s all-too-common experience with testing and miseducation fuels my keen sense of racial inequities, dedication to preparing educators to be anti-racist and culturally competent, and my unwavering commitment to recruiting and retaining Black students in the virtually all White worlds of gifted and talented education and Advanced Placement. Once recruited, they want and need to be retained, which requires having anti-racist, culturally competent educators who are advocates, upstanders, and allies.
Hines: As a graduate student in my master’s program, I became aware of test biases when learning about the school counseling profession. Specifically, I learned about how certain intelligence tests were used to cast Black children as intellectually inferior to perpetuate stereotypes about their cognitive abilities, thus giving permission to treat those students differently. Moreover, I learned how the outcomes of these tests can alter the academic and career pathways of Black students, thus leaving them disenfranchised and for some, leading to the school to prison pipeline. As a result, I made it my purpose through my experiences in working with Black students, as well as through my research, to ensure that all educators and all stakeholders understand how to prepare students for academic success and postsecondary readiness.
Fletcher: I learned about test bias when applying for admission into a doctoral program. Because my ACT scores were less than those considered to be competitive, I faced the possibility of not being admitted to pursue my dream of earning a doctoral degree and entering the professoriate. I was fortunate that I spoke to the admissions committee and made a case that I was capable of doing well in the doctoral program based on my prior work experiences and by earning a high GPA in my undergraduate and graduate programs. This epiphany also came about as I reviewed the literature related to tracking in my dissertation. Since then, I have focused my scholarship on college and career readiness, and STEM for Black males. I am determined to guide educators in becoming culturally competent professionals for Black males in p-12 and higher education.
Middleton: My first encounter with test bias was in elementary school. I believe that this was in the third grade when my district tested all of the children for inclusion in the gifted education programs. I recall taking the test, and being included in the group of “gifted” children who were exposed to higher levels of reading and math. I can admit that while I recognized racial disparities within that group, I was not aware of the testing implications at that time. As I progressed through elementary and middle school, it became apparent that being 1 of 3 Black students in a group of 20 became my new normal. Sadly, I grew to accept this fact and did not give it much thought again until I had children, and witnessed how my son was denied entry into gifted programming due to being two points short of the necessary mark for inclusion. My personal experiences continue to inform me professionally. I must work with current and future mental health professionals to be culturally sensitive and competent in their knowledge skills and dispositions.
At all levels (Preschool-College) of education and all disciplines, there is great concern about the low performance of certain minoritized students - Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, and Native Americans - on standardized tests, as well as their underrepresentation in gifted and talented education (GATE), Advanced Placement (AP), dual enrollment, honors, STEM, and higher education. While fewer concerns and criticisms target achievement tests, a wealth of controversy surrounds intelligence tests, specifically given the historical and contemporary lower performance of Black students on intelligence tests compared to White students. Less attention given to achievement tests (e.g., district and state proficiency tests, and NAEP) and academic aptitude tests (i.e., SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT) does not absolve them of being biased and inequitable. More so than with achievement and aptitude tests, intelligence tests carry the burden of being associated with innate ability, particularly by laypersons and those unfamiliar with the purposes and limitations of tests; thus, for the ill-informed and those harboring deficit thinking about minoritized students, when one group performs lower than another group, the results, they believe, are attributed to heredity or genetic inferiority. A litany of works and professionals unabashedly carry stereotypes and promote racial eugenics, White superiority/supremacy myths, lies, and stereotypes in the society at large and in education. This simplistic, culturally assaultive explanation/interpretation ignores or discounts the role of the environment, including education and opportunity barriers and gaps, on minoritized students' test performance.
Issues regarding achievement and aptitude tests and students of color are less controversial than those regarding intelligence tests. Compared to intelligence tests, fewer publications have been written regarding biases in achievement and aptitude tests. Performance on the latter tests is generally associated with the quality and quantity of students' educational or learning experiences at home and school. For the most part, low achievement and aptitude test scores are associated with poor educational experiences, disengagement, stereotype threat, and a host of other factors that are environmental or social rather than cultural, inherited, and biological. Conversely, some education professionals presume that intelligence tests measure unlearned abilities — abilities independent of or less dependent on instruction and education — and they (mis)interpret low performance on intelligence tests with low cognitive ability and potential. This belief is particularly relevant among: (a) individuals who are untrained in testing and assessment; (b) individuals who believe that intelligence is fixed, innate, and unchangeable; (c) individuals who believe that intelligence tests are culturally neutral: and (d) individuals who believe that intelligence test comprehensive, exact, and precise measures of intelligence (see discussion by Gould).
Whatever position one holds regarding the nature of intelligence, achievement, and potential as purportedly measured by tests, these tests: (a) measure only a sample of the construct being measured; (b) measure present behavior, namely students' skills at the time of assessment; and (c) are an estimate of a person's current level of functioning rather than an accurate prediction of potential and possibilities.
With the above in mind, polemic arguments that test bias does not exist have finally been squelched by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) long overdue apology for racism in testing and the field of psychology. Ford, Moore, and Pope-Davis’ qualified acceptance of the apology appears in another Diverse Issues commentary.
Attempts to develop an accurate definition and measure of "intelligence" have been fraught with difficulty and controversy. Nowhere are the debates and controversies surrounding intelligence and potential more prevalent than in GATE and special education due to underrepresentation and over-representation, respectively. These two educational fields rely extensively on tests, often exclusively, to make educational and placement decisions that negatively affect Black student school engagement and performance, which contributes to underachievement – performing lower than they are capable of performing, as shared in our opening statements. In GATE, low test scores often prevent minoritized students from being identified and receiving services; in special education, low test scores often result in misidentification, such as learning disabled, intellectually disadvantaged, and so forth. High-stakes testing, misidentification, and miseducation (Woodson, 1933) are the norm from the moment Black students enter formal education. We concur with Helms’ assertion that cultural behaviors and nuances are not considered during test development and implementation, as well as during interpretations of the White-Black test score gap. She and Ford interrogated test bias and unfairness in a special issue of the Journal of Negro Education. More recently, Helms stated:
"The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results. All admissions decisions based exclusively or predominantly on SAT performance -- and therefore access to higher education institutions and subsequent job placement and professional success -- appear to be biased against the African American minority group and could be exposed to legal challenge," says the study.
Do No Harm:
Questions for P-12 and Higher Education Professionals
We began this manuscript by sharing our first recollection of sensing that tests were biased against Black students, us, and/or our children. It did not take long to know and understand the limitations of tests for culturally different students. We now turn to fundamental questions that need consideration to adhere to standards and principles of professional organizations. Within the questions lie recommendations for equity-based and culturally responsive assessments. What can educators do to ensure that minoritized students: (a) are equitably represented in gifted and talented education and AP classes, programs, and services? and (b) are not mislabeled and misplaced in special education? Below, we pose several questions that must be addressed to improve the testing experience and subsequent test performance of Black and other marginalized students of color; in other words, to do no harm.
1. What is test bias and how is a test determined to be biased, biased reduced, or bias free?
2. What efforts are made to reduce bias in standardized intelligence, achievement, and aptitude tests?
3. Which intelligence tests (e.g., WISC, Binet, Cognitive Ability Test, Naglieri Nonverbal Abilities Test, etc.) and types of intelligence tests (e.g., verbal vs. non-verbal) are less culturally and linguistically loaded?
4. How do assumptions about intelligence tests affect culturally different students and those who administer, interpret, and make high-decisions based on test scores? The same questions apply to achievement and aptitude tests.
5. What are the implications of test bias and evaluation issues, and cultural differences for GATE and special education?
6. What resources and professional standards exist to help the fields of special education and gifted and talented education in adopting equitable instruments and assessment practices and policies (e.g., American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education; Association of School Psychologists; Association of School Counselors; Council for Exceptional Children; National Association for Gifted Children)?
7. What other assessments (e.g., authentic, performance, real-world) can be adopted that focus on culturally-based gifts and talents that Black students possess?
8. What role(s) do school psychologists and school counselors play in ensuring that testing and the interpretation of results are not culturally biased and detrimental to student populations who are historically marginalized and vulnerable?
9. How can test assessors and educators ensure that equity, diversity, and inclusion are at the forefront of interpreting student test results and creating responsive alternatives and recommendations?
10. How can culturally responsive training be infused throughout the school district or schools to ensure that educators are aware of the attitudes and values that perpetuate biases and beliefs that alter the academic trajectory of Black and other students of color?
11. What alternative and additional measures and procedures must be adopted to responsibly, responsively, and equitably correct over-representation and underrepresentation?
12. What curricular and instructional strategies, content, and materials promote critical thinking and problem solving while honoring the culture of Black students? Curriculum and instruction must be rigorous and relevant.
13. How are tests and curriculum being aligned to measure what students have been taught in schools and colleges, rather than evaluating students on experiences that support White students and disenfranchise Black students?
14. How do we educate parents/families on the various types of intelligence, achievement, and aptitude tests, along with the pros and cons of each to help them support and advocate for their culturally different and linguistically different children?
15. How do we educate and empower families of under-represented (GATE, AP, STEM) and overrepresented students (special education) about both disciplines and the authentic needs of their children?
16. What steps are being taken/adopted to teach test-taking skills and test wiseness to Black students so that they can perform higher on these instruments and advocate for themselves as informed students?
Selecting, interpreting, and using tests are complicated endeavors. When one adds student differences, including cultural diversity, to the situation, the complexity increases. A discussion on the nature-nurture debate was presented briefly. Little attention was given to this controversy because the discussion is convoluted - for every publication that convincingly argues for the heredity position, an equally compelling publication argues for the environmental position. Likewise, for every publication that argues persuasively against the existence of test bias, a counterargument convincingly contends that tests continue to be biased against students of color, culturally different students.
There is no debate, however, that culturally and linguistically different students are consistently underrepresented in GATE and AP, and over-represented in special education. These tests have served as gatekeepers. With tests being used so extensively in the decision-making process, it seems impossible that one would (or could) ignore their role as gatekeepers at the hands or educators. Wiggins (1989) stated: "When an educational problem persists despite the well-intentioned efforts of many people to solve it, it's a safe bet that the problem hasn't been properly framed" (p. 703). Given the array of unresolved assessment issues regarding the identification of talent potential among minority students, the probability is raised that the questions being asked need reframing.
Too often, tests have been touted to be objective, neutral, and culture blind. In what ways does ignoring and minimizing the role of social variables, lived experiences, and culture in testing contribute to the inequitable representation in special education and GATE? Professionals must be vigilant about finding and solving factors that hinder the test performance of minoritized students. Tests are tools. The ultimate responsibility for equitable assessment rests with those who develop, administer, interpret, and use tests. Tests in and of themselves are harmless; they become harmful when misunderstood, misused (e.g., attaching high-stakes tests to providing or denying opportunities). Historically, minoritized students have been harmed educationally by test misuse and abuse. If culturally different students consistently perform low on a test, why do educators continue to use it? The pedagogical clock is ticking. What better time than today to be more responsive and responsible/accountable in eliminating test-based barriers which, to repeat, are a function of deficit thinking? A mind is a terrible thing to waste (United Negro College Fund), and a mind is a terrible thing to erase (Ford, 2011).
Dr. Erik M. Hines is associate professor and program coordinator of counselor education at Florida State University.
Dr. Donna Y. Ford is Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University
Dr. Tanya J. Middleton is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University
Dr. Edward C. Fletcher Jr., is the Education and Human Ecology Distinguished Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University.
Resources and Relevant Readings