It is a guiding principle in test development that stimulus materials and test questions should not upset test-takers. Much like dinner conversation with in-laws, tests should refrain from referencing religion, or sex, or race, or politics—anything that might provoke a heightened emotional response that could interfere with test-takers’ ability to give their best effort.
to “sensitivity” concerns, as they’re known, makes sense conceptually. But in
practice, as they shape actual test development, sensitivity concerns are
responsible for much of why conventional standardized tests are so ridiculously
bland and unengaging. The drive to avoid potentially sensitive content
constrains test developers to such a degree that one might legitimately
question whether the cure is at least as bad as the disease.
determined are test-makers to avoid triggering unwanted test-taker emotions,
they end up compromising the validity of their tests by excluding essential
educational content and restricting students’ opportunities to demonstrate the
creative and critical thinking skills they’re actually capable of. In other
words, ironically, conventional standardized tests may be so radically boring
that they’re no better at measuring actual ability and achievement than if they
regularly froze test-takers solid with depictions of graphic horror.
Actually, no one knows for certain if the tests are better or worse for being so cautious. There is no research defining sensitivity, no evidence-based catalog of topics to avoid, no study measuring the test-taking effects of “sensitive” content. For all anyone knows, inflaming emotions might actually improve test results—though few test-makers would risk experimenting to find out.
test-maker wants to hear from a teacher or parent that a student was stunned,
enraged, offended, or even mildly disconcerted by content they encountered on a
test. And in fairness, no test-maker wants to subject a test-taking kid to a
hurtful or upsetting experience. They’re captives, after all; if something on
the test makes them feel crappy, they have little choice but to sit there and
absorb it. Their scores may or may not reflect the fact that their emotions
were triggered: there’s really no way to tell.
the other hand, high-stakes standardized tests, in and of themselves, trigger
lots of negative emotions in plenty of kids, regardless of question content. So
a cynic might wonder how much sensitivity concerns are driven by concern for
kids’ experience, and how much by fear of the PR nightmares that would ensue
from a question or passage that someone could claim was racially or religiously
offensive. Whatever the case, the result is the same: keep it safe by keeping
Since there is no research to guide decisions on sensitivity, the rules test-makers set for themselves are based strictly on their own judgment, and on some sense of industry practice. Inevitably they default to the most conservative positions possible: if a topic might conceivably be construed as sensitive, that’s enough reason to keep it off the test.
sensitivity guidelines steer test developers away from content focused on age,
disability, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Test-makers also
avoid subjects they deem inherently combustible, such as drugs and drinking,
death and disease, religion and the occult, sexuality, current politics, race
relations, and violence.
A “bias review” process gets applied in the course of developing passages and questions for testing, to weed out anything that might be offensive or unfair to certain subgroups—typically African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Women, sometimes Native Americans. The test-maker will send prospective test materials out for review by qualified educators who belong to these subgroups. If a reviewer thinks a test item is problematic, it gets tossed. Though this process is better than nothing, it reflects more butt-covering than enlightenment, putting test-maker and reviewer alike in the awkward position of saying, for instance, “These test items are not unfair to Black people. How do we know? We had a Black person look at them!”
on topics not pertaining to identity and cultural difference rest purely on the
test makers, who, as mentioned, are as risk-averse as can be. In one example
I’m familiar with, a passage about the mythological Greek figure Eurydice was
rejected because the story deals with death and the underworld. Think of all
the literature and art excluded from testing on that kind of criteria. Think of
the impoverished portrait of human achievement and lived experience conveyed to
students by such an exclusion.
another case, a passage on ants was rejected because it reported that males get
booted out of the colony and die shortly after mating. I’m still not clear on
whether the basis for that judgment centered on the reference to insects
mating, insects dying, or the prospect of a student projecting insect gender
relations onto human relations and being thereby too disturbed to think
clearly. Whatever the case, rejecting such a passage on the basis of
sensitivity concerns seems downright anti-science.
As does the elimination of references to hurricanes and floods because some kids might have experienced them. I remember a wonderful literary passage that depicted a kid watching his family’s possessions float around the basement when their neighborhood flooded. It was intended for high schoolers. It got the noose.
I’ve seen a pair of passages from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois nixed out of concern for racial sensitivity: you can’t have African Americans arguing with each other on questions of race. Test-makers strive to include people of color in their test content to satisfy requirements for cultural inclusivity. But those people of color cannot be engaged in the experience of being people of color —which renders the whole impulse toward inclusivity hollow and cynical. Such an over-abundance of caution does more to protect the test-maker than the student.
content validity of educational assessments that cannot reference slavery,
evolution, extreme weather events, natural life cycles, economic inequality,
illness, and other such potentially sensitive topics should come under serious
interrogation. More concerning still is the prospect of such tests driving
curriculum. With school funding and teacher accountability riding on
standardized test scores, teaching to the test makes irresistibly practical
sense in many educational contexts. Thus, if the tests avoid great swaths of
history, science, and literature, then so will curriculum.
makers of the standardized tests schoolkids encounter argue that they are not
interested in censoring educational content, only in recognizing that when
students encounter potentially sensitive topics they need the presence of an
adult to guide them through. The classroom and the dinner table are places for
negotiating challenging subjects, not the testing environment, where kids are
under pressure and on their own.
This rationale should rouse everyone to question why we continue to tolerate such artificial conditions for evaluating student learning. It essentially concedes that testing doesn’t align with curriculum, that kids will not be assessed on the things they’re taught—only on the things test-makers decide are safe enough to put in front of them. Further, it admits that test-makers compromise the content validity of their tests in deference to the highly contrived testing conditions they require. Surely we can recognize in this the severe design flaws that lie at the heart of the testing problem.
Obviously, insulting or traumatizing students with test content is something to be avoided. But at the same time, studies show that test-taker engagement is essential for eliciting the kinds of performances that accurately reflect students’ capabilities. When tasks lack relevance and authenticity they work against students’ ability to demonstrate their best work, especially students from underserved populations. Consider this statement:
Engagement is strongly related to student performance on assessment tasks, especially for students who have been typically less advantaged in school settings (e.g. English Language Learners, students of historically marginalized backgrounds) (Arbuthnot, 2011; Darling-Hammond et al., 2008; Walkington, 2013). In the traditional assessment paradigm, however, engagement has not been a goal of testing, and concerns about equity have focused on issues of bias and accessibility. A common tactic to avoid bias has been to create highly decontextualized items. Unfortunately, this has come at the cost of decreasing students’ opportunities to create meaning in the task as well as their motivation to cognitively invest in the task, thereby undermining students’ opportunities to adequately demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
my own experience interviewing high schoolers about writing prompts, they want
to write about Mexican rappers, violence in videogames, representations of
gender and race in popular culture, football concussions, gun ownership, the
double-standard dress codes schools impose on girls compared with boys, and
other topics that are both authentic and relevant to them. Conventional
standardized tests would not come near topics like these.
solution to this problem has to entail breaking away from the dominant,
procrustean model of standardized test-taking, which isolates individual
students from all resources and people, asks them to think and write on topics
they may never have encountered before and care nothing about, and confines
them to a timeframe that reflects the practical considerations of the
test-maker, not the nature of authentic intellectual work.
free of the absurdly contrived conditions of conventional test-taking,
sensitivity concerns can be removed from the domain of test-makers worried
about their own liability. Instead, along with their teachers and guardians,
students can decide what topics are appropriate to grapple with in their
academic work. In fact, learning to choose, scope, and frame a topic in ways
appropriate for an academic project is itself an essential skill, worthy of
teaching and assessing.
WORKS CITED Arbuthnot, K. (2011). Filling in the blanks: Understanding standardized testing and the Black-White achievement gap. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
L., Barron, B., Pearson, P. D., Schoenfeld, A. H., Stage, E. K., Zimmerman, T.
D., … & Tilson, J. L. (2015). Powerful learning: What we know about
teaching for understanding. John Wiley & Sons.
C. A. (2013). Using adaptive learning technologies to personalize instruction
to student interests: The impact of relevant contexts on performance and
learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 932.
ACT, Inc. released the results of its 2016 National Curriculum Survey earlier this year. The Survey goes out every three or four years to elementary, middle school, high school, and college teachers, as well as to workforce professionals. It collects information about what respondents are teaching, how they teach it, what they care about, and so forth. It serves as the basis upon which ACT builds its tests.
Because the Survey provides a look into both what pre-college students are being taught, and what they need to know to be prepared for college, it is a useful tool for examining the serious and persistent problem of college readiness—why it is that the majority of high school graduates are underprepared for college-level academic work. ACT itself reports that 72% of its test-takers fall short of at least one of its college-readiness benchmarks, which confirms the widespread underpreparedness reported by other sources. And indeed, ACT’s National Curriculum Survey reveals wide disjunctures between high school teaching and college expectations, which may have something to do with why students aren’t better prepared.
ironically, by pointing out these disjunctures, the Survey raises questions
about the validity of the ACT exam itself. The ACT is a test that straddles the
space between high school and college, claiming to be both reflective of high
school curricula and a measure of college readiness. But if ACT’s own Survey
reveals that high school curricula do not align with college expectations, how
can the ACT validly claim to measure both?
Tests are all about validity. Their value and utility depend upon them actually measuring what they purport to measure. If a test does not actually assess what it purports to, then it’s not a valid test, and any inferences made based on its results are faulty—inferences such as “this kid has been taught the skills needed for college success but hasn’t learned them very well.”
The two claims ACT, Inc. makes about the ACT test are at odds with each other, which calls into question the test’s validity. The claim that the test is “curriculum based” rests on Survey results, which ACT says serve as empirical evidence upon which it decides how to build the test. In this way, according to ACT, the test reflects what is being taught in high schools—an important claim, since testing kids on things they haven’t been taught doesn’t tell anyone much about their abilities.
ACT also, of course, claims that the test is a measure of college readiness. Through the Survey, it gathers an understanding of what college instructors expect from entering students. This understanding is reflected in ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, a set of “descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career.”
to ACT, the Standards are validated by the Survey in a process that “ensures
that our assessments always measure not only what is being taught in schools
around the country, but also what demonstrably matters most for college and
can the ACT test both what is taught in high school and what is expected in
college if those two things don’t square up, as is suggested by their National
Curriculum Survey and other research?
there’s a significant degree of overlap. Perhaps ACT can identify and test
students on those things that fall into both the learned-it-in-high-school
category and the better-know-it-for-college category. ACT says indeed there is
overlap, and that they have a way of figuring out what’s in it.
How do they do it? According to a 2015 white paper, “ACT first identifies what postsecondary faculty, including instructors of entry-level college and workforce training courses, expect of their entering students—that is, the knowledge and skills students need to be ready for entry-level postsecondary courses and jobs. ACT then compares these expectations to what is really happening in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. ACT uses the results of these comparisons to determine the skills and knowledge that should be measured on ACT assessments and to guide its test blueprints.”
company does not explain how this process of comparison works, but it implies
that they identify a subset of knowledge and skills that fall into both camps,
then simply test kids on that.
feel confident in this process, we would need to be certain that the subset is
sufficient in size and scope to support the dual claims. That is, we would need
to know what lies outside the overlap slice, as well as what lies within. What
is being taught in high school that does not appear on the test because it is
not a college-ready expectation? Likewise, what college-ready expectations do
not appear on the test because they are not being taught in high school?
we knew those things, then we could validate the ACT by answering this
question: Is the overlap slice sufficient to support both the claim that the
test measures what is being taught in high school and the claim that it
measures college readiness?
other words, is there enough of the high school curriculum on the test to
justify calling it a valid measure of high school achievement? And are there,
at the same time, enough college expectations on the test to justify calling it
a valid measure of college readiness?
doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. As far as the ACT is concerned, if
you demonstrate proficiency on the test, then ipso facto you’ve both mastered your high school curriculum
and are ready for college, because the claims they make for the test require
that the two constructs be identical.
if you don’t do so well on the test? Is it because you haven’t learned well
enough what you’ve been taught? Or because you haven’t been taught what you’re
being tested on?
ACT simply doesn’t allow for the second possibility.
In point of fact, if high schools were teaching certain essential college-ready skills – how to revise your work in response to feedback, for example—a conventional standardized test like the ACT would never be able to detect it, because it cannot provide for test-takers opportunities to do the kind of authentic, extended, or collaborative intellectual work that will be required of them in college.
But alas, as mentioned already, plenty of research demonstrates that there is a significant difference between high school learning and college expectations, suggesting that any overlap might not be very robust. According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”
own research confirms this. Two things jump out from the National Curriculum
Survey results. First, as we can see from the table below, in many cases the
Survey does not ask high school teachers and college instructors the same
questions, so there is not much opportunity for determining where high school
teaching lines up, or not, with college expectations. The Survey doesn’t look
like a very good tool for comparing high school teaching to college
expectations in Writing, for example.
second thing is, where the Survey does provide opportunities for comparing high
school with college, it finds that high school teaching does not align with
college expectations. The Survey report points out, for example, that high
school Writing teachers and college instructors are not emphasizing the same
skills. Further, high school math teachers do not agree with college math
instructors about what skills are important for success in STEM courses. Less
than half of high school teachers believe that the Common Core math standards
(which ACT stresses are in line with its own College Readiness Standards) match
college instructors’ expectations for college readiness.
other words, ACT’s own Survey shows that, to a significant extent, the
knowledge and skills high school teachers are teaching are not the knowledge
and skills college instructors are expecting of entering students.
Hence the college-readiness gap.
if those two bodies of knowledge and skills aren’t the same, how can ACT
support the claim that its test measures both what students actually learn and
what ACT says they should learn
for college readiness? The test doesn’t distinguish a “high-school-learning”
part from a “college-requirements” part. As far as the test is concerned, it’s
all the same.
In fact, ACT can’t really support both claims at the same time. But they make them anyway because they want to sell the test to two distinct markets. They want to sell it to students who are trying to get into college, so they call it a college-readiness test. And they want to sell it to states and districts for accountability purposes. These entities want to know whether their students are learning what they’re being taught; thus ACT calls the test curriculum-based.
we might wonder, don’t standards
take care of all this? Standards, after all, both reflect the skills needed for
college readiness and guide high school curriculum, right? Therefore, if the
test aligns with the standards,
then it’s both curriculum-based and a college-readiness indicator, because those are the same thing.
Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Those that haven’t have concocted their own state standards, which are pretty much in line with the CCSS. In addition, ACT has its own College and Career Readiness Standards, which, it says, line up with both the CCSS and any non-CCSS state standards you care to throw at it. (As ACT says, “If a state’s standards represent the knowledge and skills that prepare students for college and career, then ACT Aspire and the ACT measure that knowledge and those skills”—a statement that manages to be both a non sequitur and a tautology.)
however, ACT’s own research shows that neither high school teachers nor college
instructors are much convinced that the CCSS reflect college-level expectations
anyway. Asked by the Survey, “To what extent do you feel that the Common Core
State Standards are aligned with college instructors’ expectations regarding
college readiness,” the majority of both high school and college teachers
responded little or slightly, rather than a great deal or completely.
other words, according to its own data, ACT shouldn’t really get away with
equating standards-based “curriculum achievement” with “college readiness.”
So what’s the cost of the ACT’s tricky claim-game? The cost is that we get farther away from understanding and addressing the college-readiness gap, so long as everyone believes that the ACT is really measuring what it says it does.
high school curricula lack significant overlap with the skills and knowledge
ACT identifies as necessary for college-readiness, the test measures not what
students have learned but what they haven’t been taught. This, then, contrary
to ACT’s claims, is not an indicator of student readiness or achievement, but a
measure of the distance between high school teaching and college expectations
(or at least those ACT identifies and can test for).
But this is not how the interpretation of test results falls out for either student or state customers. Rather, the inescapable inference for both is that the majority of students have been taught what they need to know but simply haven’t learned it well enough—student’s fault, or teacher’s fault, but not the test’s fault for leading everyone to a lousy inference.
faulty inference that issues from the ACT doesn’t help matters where students’
future opportunities are at stake; prospective colleges have no way of knowing
that a kid was tested on things she was never actually taught. And it doesn’t
help where states are trying to figure out how to improve their education
systems. Rather, it makes matters worse by misdirecting both states and
students away from the problem of how better to connect high school learning to
necessary college skills, and toward the problem of how to get kids to score
better on the test.
do indeed want an education system in which high school curricula are focused
securely on the skills and knowledge we confidently know are needed for success
upon entry into college. Demonstrably, that’s not what we have now, so we
don’t need a test that falsely suggests otherwise.