Are Standardized Tests Biased Against Students in Poverty?

In this post, we discuss the inherent bias in standardized tests and how students' life experiences and socioeconomic situations affect their ability to perform on standardized tests.

By Maureen Fernandez, Content Director | Oct 29, 2018
Standardized Test 01

When I was in college, a professor of mine in the education department gave us an in-class assignment. He handed out a standardized test and asked us to complete it. I looked down at my test, and it may as well have been in a different language – there were so many words that I didn’t even recognize. To this day, I couldn’t tell you a single question on the test, but I do remember not having the slightest idea how to answer them. I essentially picked an answer at random until the timer ran out. When we were finished, he ran through each of the questions and explained the answers. It turns out, most of the terms were related to agricultural or farming concepts. Some of the students in my class from rural areas got some of the answers right. The city folks (myself included) had no idea what any of it meant.

The point of this exercise was to show us the inherent challenges with standardized testing. What we test students on is biased. Tests are designed to capture students’ understanding of concepts, but the way in which students understand the world is highly dependent on their experiences in life.

Children who grow up in communities of poverty are exposed to different experiences than their wealthier peers. As an example, I like to take my children to the zoo on the weekends. From these trips to the zoo, they’ve learned about a variety of different animal species, seen animals up close, and been exposed to terms like “endangered species” and “extinction”. My kids’ peers from lower socioeconomic homes have not been to the zoo because it costs a family of four over $60 to visit. So when their class is learning about animal species or asked to talk about endangered species, my kids will have an advantage simply because of their experiences in life, which are a direct result of our socioeconomic status.

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This is why family income is closely tied with student scores on the SAT exam. Data directly from the College Board – the organization behind the SAT – shows that students from families making less than $20,000/year averaged a combined score of 1,326 compared to 1,714 points for students from families making more than $200,000/year. Some of this can be explained by wealthier families’ access to test prep and tutoring. But certainly much of it can also be explained by looking at what the test evaluates in the first place. Much like the test on agriculture that I completely failed, are our standardized tests asking questions that reflect experiences that students have simply not been exposed to?

The amount of money that a family has does not determine a child’s ability to learn. The difference in test scores is telling us something else. The amount of money that a family has does determine how well a child will perform on a test. So what does that tell us about the test? This is another layer of the complexity of poverty. And it is something we can address. We can take a look at what our tests evaluate and determine if they’re biased against groups of students, particularly those who live in poverty.