Race, Gender & Testing Research Paper Starter

Race, Gender & Testing

(Research Starters)

Because high-stakes testing has taken on such a major role in education in the early twenty-first century, it is important that tests provide all students an equal opportunity to show their academic skills and knowledge. Race and gender can sometimes factor into a student's opportunity to demonstrate his or her abilities. Male and female students tend to thrive in different classroom environments, and their cognitive abilities tend to develop at different rates. An instructor's gender can also influence his or her teaching style and impact students. Tests can contain subtle biases that favor one racial, cultural, or gender group over another.

Keywords Adequate Yearly Progress; Advanced Placement; Cultural Bias; Gender Bias; Gender Gap; High-Stakes Tests; Language Bias; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Norm-Referenced Test; Racial Bias; Standardized Tests; Test Anxiety; Test Bias



High-stakes testing has taken on such an imperative role in education, and it is important that tests offer all students an equal opportunity to show their academic skills and knowledge. Race and gender can sometimes factor into a student's opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

As learners, students tend to be different based on their gender. Studies have shown that boys tend to learn more when there is competition (such as grading) involved; and girls tend to learn more in a cooperative learning environment (Marshall & Reinhartz, 1997, as cited in Gool, Carpenter, Davies, Ligos, MacKenzie, Schilp, & Schips, 2006). The cognitive abilities of young males develop later than those of females, so boys usually do not do as well in language arts in their earlier years as girls. However, young males tend to do well in the areas of mathematics and science (Frawley, 2005, as cited in Gool et al., 2006). Of course, there are always exceptions, but when instructors and parents know about the results of studies such as these, it is possible that it affects the way they interact with their students and children. For example, not expecting girls to do well in mathematics or the sciences and possibly, subconsciously, steering them away from careers and classes that involve these skills.

How Teacher Gender Affects Learning

Studies have also shown proof of a difference between male and female instructors and the teaching styles they employ. Male instructors are often more direct, dominant, and authoritative and lean toward a lecture style of instruction. Female instructors are often more nurturing, provide cooperative learning opportunities, and ask questions to guide student learning (Marshall & Reinhartz, 1997, as cited in Gool et al., 2006). These differences in teaching styles and gender can affect the way instructors interact with their students. For example, it is typical for instructors to interact more with their male students than their female students, even if those interactions are related to disciplinary matters (Gool et al., 2006). Studies have shown that instructors tend to be more lenient toward boys. Instructors have been shown to be more likely to accept an answer that is called out from boys but to remind girls that there are rules (Hulley, 2001, as cited in Gool et al., 2006). Instructors tend to call on boys more than girls, give them more time to answer the questions, and give them more feedback than they do girls. Conversely, instructors tend to help girls more when they ask for assistance instead of guiding them and encouraging them to find the answer on their own (Sadker & Zittleman, 2005; Gool et al., 2006). Studies such as these show that while the more obvious forms of gender bias have been addressed, there are still attitudes and unintended behaviors that should be taken into consideration and rectified to assure that all students are being treated equally and are receiving an equal education.

With more attention being placed on such discrepant behaviors, there has been a real push in the U.S. to address the gender inequities that still seem to be so prevalent. However, despite trying to address such bias issues, boys still continue to outscore girls on most high-stakes tests, including both the verbal and mathematics sections of the SAT (Sadker & Zittleman, 2005; Gool et al., 2006). If nothing else, this shows that more research needs to be undertaken to try to determine what the cognitive differences are between boys and girls and how they can be mitigated.


Cultural bias in testing can come in many different forms. Some common examples include when the content of a test uses references or language that favors one racial group over others, or when the people or historical figures referenced in the testing instrument are all or mostly of one race. Test developers must attempt to have equal representation of all races, use famous historic figures of various races, and not use role stereotypes, such as Native American warrior and white, male business executive (Nitko, 1983, as cited in Zurcher, 1998). Tests can also be racially biased if the language that is used is not familiar to a subgroup. While the common assumption is that language bias favors white, middle class students, it is possible to develop a test that is biased against any subgroup. For example, a test was developed containing 100 vocabulary words that were thought to be a better predictor of learning ability for African American students than students in other subgroups of the population. African American students did, indeed, perform better on the test than white students did (Williams, 1975, as cited in Zurcher, 1998).

Inappropriate Standardization Samples

With more attention being given to racial bias in testing during the past three decades, the type of biases noted above are not as prevalent as they used to be. However, there is still one type of racial bias that can still cause difficulty for test developers: inappropriate standardization samples. Inappropriate standardization samples occur when the norm groups are not racially diverse or do not include enough of each subgroup to be similar to their percentage in the population. Therefore, the assessment's results may not reflect these students' abilities and achievement levels (Overton, 1996, as cited in Zurcher, 1998). This is more difficult to address, because even if the norm groups have an appropriate percentage to match the overall population of each subgroup, these groups can still be biased against because the majority will always be over represented simply because they are the majority.

Closing the Gender Gap by Subject

The Educational Testing Service conducted a review “of gender differences in elementary and secondary education within racial and ethnic groups” which showed that the gender gap varied only slightly in certain instances (Coley, 2001, as cited in Gender Differences in Educational Achievement, 2001, ¶ 3):

• In grades four, eight, and twelve, girls scored higher than boys across all racial and ethnic groups in both reading in writing.

• In mathematics at grade four, white males scored higher than white females, but there were no gender differences within other racial groups. At grades eight and twelve there were no gender gaps for any group.

• In science at age nine, there were no differences within any racial group. At age thirteen, white males scored higher than white females, but there were no gender differences within the other racial groups. At age seventeen, white and Hispanic males scored higher than white and Hispanic females, but there were no gender differences for African American and Asian/Pacific Islanders ("Gender Differences in Educational Achievement," 2001, ¶ 4-6).

The gender gap is also closing for students taking mathematics courses with all races, except Hispanics, where boys still take more mathematics classes than girls. While girls are now even with boys in mathematics courses, there are still more boys than girls taking four years of science. Based on 1999 information, racial participation in the Advanced Placement Program has increased tremendously, with the number of Hispanic females showing the greatest increase, of 308 percent. Females in general are participating in the program, which allows students to enroll in high school classes that are able to earn college credits, at greater rates than males. However, males comprised a vast majority in computer science and physics courses. The gender differences across races varied depending on the subject. “There was little difference in English literature and composition exam scores, but there was considerable difference in biology and calculus, with males scoring higher. The greatest gender gap was for Hispanics in biology” (Gender Differences in Educational Achievement, 2001, ¶ 11).


Gender Bias in Tests

A test is considered gender biased if male students and female students with the same ability obtain different scores on the same testing instrument. Many factors can figure into testing errors, including the conditions under which a test is administered, how each test item is worded, and students' attitudes toward the test. However, these factors can randomly affect both males and females. Systematic error, which is the result of characteristics of students that do not change — such as their gender or race — that also end up being inadvertently measured, is a type of testing error that has received much attention. While test developers do their best to ensure that tests are not biased, instructors should still examine a test's questions for possible bias. This can be done by checking the material over to see if there are any references that may be offensive to members of one gender, looking for references to objects and ideas that are likely to be more familiar to males or to females, and determining whether one sex is featured more frequently in the...

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