Politicizing standard testing

Apologists trying to explain the differences in achievement scores on standardized tests among various racial, religious, ethnic, genders and variously challenged groups routinely offer up the excuse of cultural bias, as in the test questions are dependent on knowledge of the dominant culture and/or require test taking ability rather than measure real knowledge. Dutifully taking the criticisms to heart, the test developers rephrased questions, broadened problems, modified the test style and after rigorously testing the tests for neutrality once again sent them out to the schools. The achievement differences remained.

However, consciousness raised, anxious to avoid backlash and assuring us of the integrity of their tests, the test developers insisted their questions were culturally neutral. Thus, no achievement test company would ever pose this question and accompanying task:

"The police have the right to require identification papers proving legal residence in this country from individuals stopped for other infractions of the law. Governor Jan Brewer (R), Arizona. Discuss."

While the question is worthy of discussion, assessing how well students marshal arguments clearly stating their position, the author of the quote is controversial, perhaps affecting students' essays. And so it is rather puzzling that the College Board, the company that designs the questions for the Advanced Placement exams, which give high school students college credit upon passing the tests with a certain score, would include the following for students to explain.

"Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. Edward Said, Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic."

Writing in The Forward, Debra Nussbaum Cohen describes the shock several bright, politically and culturally aware students felt upon suddenly coming on this assignment in the midst of taking the AP exams.

"I was really startled to see that quote because both of the practice questions didn't mention the writers' nationalities," said Ayelet Pearl, a senior at New York's Bronx High School of Science. "For me including this one clearly had political implications."

Another student protestor, Alyssa Blumenthal, 17, noticed a strange discrepancy on the AP test, objecting

to the identification accompanying Said's quote about exile, not the text itself. It was, she said, more detailed than the identifications of other authors, if they were even described at all.

"It creates a bias that can potentially make students feel very uncomfortable and make their ability to respond [to the test question] feel compromised," the 16-year-old Blumenthal said. "We don't feel that a standardized test should be the place for anything dealing with politics regardless of the stand being taken."

These sharp adolescents apparently exposed the professional weakness, or maybe it is arrogance, forcing a quick--and inaccurate reply from a College Board representative.

"The characterization of AP exam questions as typically excluding nationalities of writers quoted is not accurate. In fact, it is typical that when an author is cited their heritage is cited. The sample AP Exam questions demonstrate this."


In fact, the other five writers quoted in the free response section of this year's AP English Literature and Composition exam - now posted on the College Board's website - are listed simply by name. The most recent example available of an author being listed with more than a name goes back two years, to the 2008 version of the test, which describes Anita Desai as an Indian author.

Hmmmm, only two writers in several years worth of tests are identified with more than a name. And what are the similarities between Said and Desai? Discuss. If this happened to be a Saturday Night Live skit, two token dark skinned individuals with strange accents would mock the pale others who would in turn mock them to the sounds of uneasy audience giggles. But this isn't a throwaway joke, it is real life; the answers to these questions can affect the girls' grades, their accumulation of the proper amount of credits for graduation and maybe even their college acceptance.

Undaunted, the two teenagers quickly struck back in contemporary style, creating

an open Facebook protest group, called "Protest the 2010 AP English Literature and Composition Free Response Question."

which already has nearly 500 members rigorously discussing, responding.

Thus far, the situation hasn't been resolved. But had these girls been in my class, these two would have passed with an A+. The College Board's response would be a failure. But will the politically correct colleges of the girls' choice admit them on the basis of their non pc protest? Discuss.