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I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test

October 23, 2014
Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop "I'm More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test."

Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test.”

On Friday, October 17th, Loren Towle, Mekhi Taylor and Saida Mahamud, as leaders from the s.t.a.r.t. network, presented their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test” at the 3rd Annual Twin Cities Social Justice Fair. Nagma Garane and Sara Osman were contributors to the project but unable to attend the Fair. Loren, Mekhi and Nagma are all seniors at South High School in Minneapolis. Sara Osman is a sophomore at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and Saida a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. Sara and Saida were former Co-Chairs of s.t.a.r.t. at South High School.

After introducing themselves, the leaders told the 25 workshop participants that they would be taking a “Community Test.” (The test was created by the workshop planners to exaggerate bias and show how it often appears in standardized tests. A few of the questions were taken from actual tests.) Saida told the participants that the test was easy, and they could expect to do well on it. If they didn’t, however, they would be expected to take it again.

Test questions purposely highlighted the different forms of bias. For example, to illustrate socio-economic and class bias, one actual test question asked students to choose which item was not a fruit based on whether or not it had seeds.

See if you can identify other biases in a few of the questions that the students included on their test:

1) Who were Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Aurelia Browder?
a. They were the first African American students to graduate from Little Rock High School in Arkansas.
b. They were the four girls who were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama was bombed.
c. They were all women who marched from Selma to Montgomery.
d. They were all women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

2) When considering what it means to be Muslim or Arab, the following statements are true :
a. 20% of the entire world’s Muslim population is Arab or North African.
b. 61.9% of all Muslims do not live in the Middle East.
c. 10 percent of the world’s Arab population is Christian.
d. All of the above are true.

3) What is the maximum characters (including spaces) allowed in a single tweet?
a. 55
b. 90
c. 140
d. 120


The students went over the different kinds of bias and then shared a TED Talk by Oklahoma State University Provost Bob Sternberg called “None of the Above: Why Standardized Testing Fails.” To view the TED Talk, see:

They then shared a PowerPoint they prepared from the perspective of being raised as “Children of No Child Left Behind,” or NCLB. They pointed out that as youth of NCLB, they constantly compare themselves to test scores; they wonder if the tests hurt those they’re designed to help most; and they wonder how much the tests reflect cultural and other biases. They defined bias as: the pattern of information presented in such a way that results in very different performance by individuals who have the same ability, but perhaps different ethnic, sexual, cultural or religious groups.

Saida pointed out that there are still many textbooks and cultural artifacts that reflect bias (such as the currently used Massachusetts Bay Colony Official Seal from 1780 that shows a Native American man saying “Come over and help us” to rationalize colonization). Because of this, our tests are inevitably steeped in bias that must be critically examined in order to close equity gaps.

Mekhi pointed out the different types of bias, including bias with gender, culture, regional, ethnic and racial, language, socio-economic and bias impacting students with special needs.

Loren reviewed the history of test bias, discussing how tests were used: to sterilize poor performers in the 1900’s; to rig immigration quotas and rank ethnic groups in the 1920’s; and more recently, to institutionalize deaf children, discriminate against women and alienate teachers of color from the profession of teaching. He also talked about “stereotype threat,” the self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to students performing as expected.

The students offered their own solutions to test bias, including training test evaluators to view the assessments through a cultural lens and inviting more teachers and students to help design policy.

To end their workshop, the students took comments from the workshop participants. One attendee said that colleges will lose valuable skill sets if they don’t learn how to assess students’ empathy, teamsmanship, sense of responsibility and cooperative abilities. Another student said that she has been “so lost in the pressure of doing well that she doesn’t remember most of what she’s learned.” Another pointed out how she generally did well on tests, but that didn’t help her with the ability to effectively manage on-line learning. A teacher spoke to how “tons of money” is being diverted to time and staffing for test preparation, but that many students are “giving up before they even take the test, and that not learning is one strategy they employ.” A parent raised a concern that her child might be punished if he chose to opt out of testing. Another adult said there was legitimacy to that, as Native American students who receive federal funding in Wisconsin are being threatened if they opt out of testing. As a final comment, a student participant ended the workshop by saying that whatever we do, we need to develop “intensive race consciousness.” She said that “race is a key issue here”–and that identity work with students was critical in moving forward.

Test Results:
1) This is an example of cultural bias, this time in favor of students who have studied history with a critical lens. The correct answer is d) women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks, to illustrate that there were many actors involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and that Rosa Parks was carefully chosen as the best candidate to symbolize resistance to segregation.

2) The correct answer is d) all of the above. This is an example of religious bias to shed light on our assumptions about people from Arab regions and geographies where the Muslim faith is practiced.

3) Here the answer is c) 140, reflecting an age bias, as young people who have grown up with technology are more familiar with Twitter.

4) This question illustrates a special needs bias, as the question would be a challenge for creative thinkers, or people with dyslexia. If one were to strictly count F’s, the answer is nine. However, some test takers will see the F’s within the E’s for a total of 24 F’s. When a teacher complained that this should not be an issue given that an “E” is an “E,” and an “F” is an “F,” the students said, “But we’ve designed the test so we get to determine the answer.” One of the adults in the workshop said that any answer would be invalid: because the phrase did not have a period at the end, it’s not a sentence!

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