are there any credible examples of standardized tests being "culturally biased"?

I remember in a psychology class in college hearing about how standardized tests like the SAT were “culturally biased” against minorities. While the whole concept struck me as horseshit, the example they gave really sealed the deal. They basically gave an “equivalent” example of how they were biased by reversing the bias to simulate it being biased against whites. The example questoin was:

Q: How long should one boil chitlins while preparing them?

A. Five Minutes
B. Three Hours
C. 24 Hours
D. 45 Minutes
Well, the whole thing just reeked of “gotcha, Whitey!” to me - really disengenuous in order to make the point. I call bullshit on it, because there AREN’T equivalent quesitons on the SAT like “how does one tie a rigging knot on one’s yacht?” and “when serving tea, how should crumpets be arranged?” The questions on standardized tests are simply not culturally/racially/class-based to begin with, so the whole argument reeks of stink-shit.

Are there better examples that show this bias? Can anyone forumulate a credible argument for it?

When I took the GRE years ago, I remember a question that went something like:

Hatbox A can fit in Hatbox B, but not Hatbox G. Hatbox C can fit in Hatbox D and G. Hatbox D can fit in…

It went on and on, with several subsequent questions of what fit in where. I remember thinking at the time, "WTF is a “hatbox” and why would one want to stuff them into each other? It’s not as if knowing what the definition of a hatbox would be important to solving the question, but it did kind of throw me off balance, trying to recall what a hatbox’s purpose could be, and I wasted valuable minutes considering this. Since you only have about 45 seconds per question on the GRE that was perilous.

This morning I read some of my daughter’s FCAT homework. It had a math problem that started, “Yoko has 3 pairs of shoes…” Immediately I was puzzled since Yoko (and most if not all Japanese names ending in “o”) are feminine, not masculine. Why would they say “he” and “Yoko”? Afterwards I pondered why they would use a Japanese name in an example, especially in a statewide test for a state that has a bare minimal number of ethnic Japanese students. Now my county is 20% hispanic and 10-12% black, so maybe Hector or Hernan or Julio or Jesus or Jamal or Antwone or something would have made sense, but Yoko? I think someone is putting too much thought into these test.

And the example you gave is a general knowledge question, it’s not applicable on an SAT. Besides, the correct answer is E: thow them away.

Hey! Different groups are scoring differently on the SAT! There must be some bias there, ne?

From all 17 practice and real tests I took recently, there doesn’t seem to be any appreciable cultural bias, unless you count giving subjects in math problems traditional American names.

A quick Google search turns upthis site which offers this:

However, this site says the (apparently infamous) regatta question was thrown overboard in the 1970s.

Here’s a more recent example:


Nitpick. You’re right that Yoko is a Japanese girl’s name, but it’s not the “o” that make a the name feminine, it’s the “ko”, which translates roughly as “child” or “little”. It’s kind of like “-ette”, in English (from French) in Georgette or Lynnette. There are plenty of masculine Japanese names that end in “o”.

That’s just as dumb. You don’t need to know what a dance company is, you just need to know that innovation and time-honored are the only two words that make sense there.

Your link doesn’t work and I don’t see the problem with the question, anyway. Surely answering it correctly depends on your vocabulary, not your race.

Double-checked, link’s okay.

It’s not really a question of race in my view. It’s a question of cultural exposure.

I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have known what the hell a “dance company” was when I took the test, having grown up in rural Appalachia where such things were not a feature of life. I imagine I could have puzzled out the answer, but stopping to think about what a “dance company” might be would have slowed me down.

I’ve always heard that in the Bad Old Days (probably ending in the 70’s with the infamous regatta question) a few questions about batting averages would appear on the math portion. That’s not an ethnic/racial/socioeconomic divide, but a gender one.

Here’s another old example I’d forgotten:


Seems straighforward unless you know that in Latin America, the fruit called “limon” is green. And sure enough, hispanic kids were more likely to get this question wrong.

As for question examples, I remember seeing one like:

“Before leaving for school, Joe had half a grapefruit, two pancakes, a slice of bacon, and a glass of milk for his very _______ breakfast.”

The choices included “Nutritious” and something akin to “unusual”. Admittedly, these days that sort of breakfast might be unusual for most any schoolkid, but it probably seems particularly unusual to kids who are poor. At any rate, the wrong answer might seem a valid choice.

I don’t know that this was an actual question (I don’t recall seeing specific figures on how certain groups missed it more than others). But a subtle example of how the wrong answer might seem like the right answer to some groups.

I will agree, however, that the “chitlin question” cited in the OP doesn’t capture the problem. A better construction to illustrate the problem might be:


(a) Pit:Peach
(b) Organ:Cathedral
(c) Tripe:Cow
(d) Bridle:Horse
(e) Fish:Aquarium

…With extra points if you correct the misspelling of “chitlin.” :wink:

I opened this thread expecting that I would agree with the notion that the test is culturally biased. But I have to say that I’m not convinced at all so far.

Yes, I agree. “Dance-company” is not important in answering the question. The key words are “rejects” and “preferring”, indicating that the two blanks need to be dissimilar words.

Furthermore, the reasoning used in the report is preposterous:

Is she seriously trying to suggest that the lower scores of a particular ethnic group is evidence of bias in and of itself?

They could kill two birds with one stone simply by striving to remove all ambiguities from the test. There’s nothing more frustrating than taking a test where there is more than one valid answer, and you are required to choose only one. This whole idea of choosing the “best” answer is garbage. They should just make sure there is only one correct answer. If I were writing the test, I would think, “Hmmm…‘unusual’ isn’t really wrong as an answer, so here’s a wacky idea - I won’t include that as a choice”. I don’t understand what would be so hard about that.


The accusations of bias quoted in this thread reflect more on the person making the accusation than on the test. Paternalism.

As someone who has tutored students for the SATs, I can tell you that many of you underestimate the difficulty people have with words or concepts that are foreign to them (even when it is not integral to the problem). Just changing the names of people in word problems will slow most people down significantly.

Well, I remember taking one of the standardized tests in which the questions pertain to: cricket, rugby, French castles and kings, and truffles.

That was given to urban New Yorkers.