Cultural Bias in Testing

The Hidden Hurdle

Standardized tests are rigorously designed in an attempt to be impartial, but bias sneaks in. For international students cultural bias is a hidden hurdle. It isn’t insurmountable, but it does affect performance. The problem is two-fold: generational and cultural.

Generational bias creeps in because the test makers are of a certain age (I assume), an age when people watched the same TV shows and movies, read the same newspapers, listened to the same music–or at the very least were aware of the overriding “popular” culture.  This isn’t the case anymore. The internet allows for a myriad of cultural experiences, and even my Google search will be different from yours. Now those test makers start from an assumption of “common” knowledge.

But common knowledge just isn’t so common any more. A couple years ago, I ran into this problem with a class. There was a short passage that referenced “Clark Kent and Superman” and two questions. Every single one of my 11 students (6 of whom had grown up in Canada) messed up both questions. While we discussed the passage, I learned that none of them knew that Clark Kent was Superman’s alter-ego. Sure they had a vague understanding of who Superman is, but they hadn’t seen a Superman movie, and were too young to have seen Smallville, Lois and Clark, or The Adventures of Superman. Now, if I went out on the streets of Toronto and randomly asked people who were 30 years or older, I believe, I would hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know that Clark Kent is Superman. For certain generations the Superman questions would have been simple because of the automatic understanding that Clark Kent and Superman are the same guy.

Cultural Bias functions in a similar way. Test Makers assume that everyone knows who Big Bird is, how much a pint contains, and where Los Angeles is. But that isn’t necessarily true. International students need to recognize references to culturally important people, places, and things and make note of them, do a quick search, and integrate the references into their cultural vocabulary. This is important beyond  standardized testing. Lecturers can use cultural references as short-hand for bigger ideas, and if you can’t pick up on them, you might be missing out on a key point.

The New Hurdle

The latest version of the SAT has a new aspect referred to as “Global Conversation.” This means that reading passages may be taken from historical documents. This would appear to increase the cultural bias because students who attend school outside the United States will have less exposure to the “common knowledge” of American History. “I have a dream”, “a date which will live in infamy”, and “ask not what your country can do for you”** all have connotative meanings beyond the literal meanings of those groups of words. Having prior knowledge of key documents or speeches will enable some students to short-cut those passages and questions.

International students need to have at least a passing knowledge of American and World History in order to pick up on the clues. Again, it is not impossible to do these questions if you don’t know the back story, but if you do, these questions will be easier and quicker. And in a timed test–speed counts.

I know its daunting to look at all of American history and culture and pick what is important versus what isn’t.

A good place to start is with the passages on the released tests and read the complete texts of the speeches.

Test #1

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolfe (1938)

Theme: Women’s Rights

Three Guineas

Test #2

Address to the 1868 Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C.                            by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1868)

Theme: Women’s Rights/Suffrage

Stanton’s Address to the Convention

Test #3

Double Passage

Passage 1: Report on Public Instruction by Talleyrand (1791)

Passage 2: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

Theme: Women’s Rights/Suffrage

A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Test #4

Double Passage

Passage 1: Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790)

Passage 2: The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1791)

Theme: Political Change

Reflections on the Revolution in France

Rights of Man

Test #5

Double Passage

Passage 1: Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism by Catherine Beecher (1837)

Passage 2:  Letters to Catherine Beecher by Angeline E. Grimke (1838)

Theme: Slavery/Abolitionism

Essay on Slavery

Letters to Catherine Beecher

Test #6

Double Passage

Passage 1: Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois                           by Abraham Lincoln (1838)

Passage 2: Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau (1849)

Theme: Political Structure

Lincoln’s Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum

Resistance to Civil Government

Test #7

Double Passage

Passage 1: Democracy in America (Volume 2) by Alex de Tocqueville (1840)

Passage 2: Enfranchisement of Women by Harriet Taylor Mill (1851)

Theme: Women’s Suffrage/Political Structure

Democracy in America

Enfranchisement of Women

Test #8

Double Passage

Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)

Passage 1: Stephen Douglas

Passage 2: Abraham Lincoln

Theme: Political Structure/Abolition

Lincoln Douglas Debates

For a more in depth examination of the Global Conversation passages, my book

Guide to SAT Reading: Global Conversation passages gives you the historical background to the ideas found on the SAT.


** “I have a dream”- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aug. 28, 1963) Speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

“A date which will live in infamy”-President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Dec. 7, 1941) Speech given after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor

“Ask not what your country can do for you”-President John F. Kennedy (Jan. 21, 1961) Inaugural Address

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  1. I came here for my lovely niece having a hard time for the Test. Can’t think any other words except ‘AWESOME’ while going through this website made of all your efforts. Thanks you for being there for / with our hard-working students.

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