Critics Claim Gender Bias, Stereotype Threat on SAT

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Among the scores of students who took the SAT this spring were a few members of the test-prep industry who took the exam to see how major changes in the test had been implemented — and several of them noticed two questions that they believe were designed to inhibit girls' performance.

The two items, one in the verbal part of the exam and one in the math portion, pose what test-prep experts call a "stereotype threat." That is, when individuals feel a kind of anxiety after being reminded of a negative stereotype about their race or sex. This anxiety causes such individuals to underperform.

The math question involved a chart showing more boys than girls in math classes, and the question on the verbal section asked students to analyze a 19th-century piece that argued a woman's place was in the home.

According to Anemone Hartocollis of The New York Times, officials from the College Board, the organization that administers the test, said that the revamped SAT had been thoroughly vetted to prevent bias. Content has been reviewed by experts and a representative sample of students, neither of whom found any issues with the exam. Furthermore, after the Board analyzed the results of the May 7 test, they found no differences in the scores of boys and girls with comparable ability.

Nevertheless, some are still claiming that the test confronted students with a stereotype. "I thought, ‘Wait a minute: This test is really trying women in a way that's slightly different than it's testing men.'" said Sheila Akbar, the education director for Signet Education, a test-prep company. "Here I am, a seasoned test taker, a 36-year-old woman, being distracted by this material. I wonder what 17-year-olds are thinking."

The standardized testing industry has long wrestled with questions of racial, socioeconomic, and gender fairness. Typically speaking, whites and Asians perform better than blacks and Hispanics on the SAT; wealthier students disproportionately outperform poorer students and boys do better than girls. Overall, SAT scores reflect the sociological disparities society struggles with in other spheres. Test designers and social scientists say it is unclear why these discrepancies persist, but much research has been focused on uncovering an implicit bias in the test's design.

The test's overhaul – the biggest in a decade – was done to make the test more pertinent to what children learn in school and to be more fair. The reading item on the verbal section, as reported by Rob Shimshock of Campus Reform, paired Catherine E. Beecher's 1837 "Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism" with an 1838 reply from Angelina E. Grimke, a famous abolitionist. The Beecher essay argues that by divine law, women have a lower place than men and reserve their influence for the domestic sphere. Grimke replies by arguing that no one's rights should be diminished because of sex.

Even with these passages, test administrators deleted Christian references from Beecher's essay out of fear that a student's religious sensibilities could be offended. Tutors who have taken issue with the passage, however, claim its placement at the beginning of the test could have disoriented female students for the remainder of the time.

Emma Sarran Webster of Teen Vogue notes that Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University, said that the passage could cause "cognitive fatigue" for girls who may have been bothered by it. "You could imagine one girl really ruminating on it, and she would pay for it down the road," he said. Still, it seems unlikely that the College Board will reformat the test.

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