Friday, July 17, 2009

Is Discrimination Standardized

One argument against the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor centers around her ruling in the New Haven firefighters case - when she supported the city's decision to throw out the results of standardized test for promotions when only white firefighters passed. The white firefighters sued - and were eventually supported in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Thus, the big question is where the discrimination is happening .... and there are obviously two camps on this.

Mike Littwin of the Denver Post asks some good questions in this article:

This is not a new story. For whatever reason — skewed tests, too many failing schools, too many single-family homes, continuing effects of segregation, some other explanation short of a bell curve — blacks do not score nearly as well as whites on standardized tests.

If standardized tests play a key role in getting into college, in getting into law school, in becoming a lieutenant in the fire department, what are we, as a society that values opportunity, supposed to do if too few blacks and other minorities qualify?

One answer is to do nothing, except quote the Rev. Martin Luther King's line about the quality of our character — as if King wouldn't be on the side of affirmative action.

Another answer is to recognize the problem — as, say, the U.S. Army has done — and find a way to pick out otherwise qualified applicants.

New Haven clearly hadn't offered a test that was meant to discriminate. And yet, the test left the city, one with a majority-minority population, with a new class of nearly all white officers in its fire department. How do you resolve discrimination that isn't exactly discrimination?

There is validity to both sides. The white firefighters certainly don't deserve to have their results invalidated - we can and should be sympathetic to their cause. However, isn't there some pretty obvious problems with a test that seems to be systematically prohibitive to minorities.

Herein lies the problem with discrimination, affirmative action, and the use of standardized assessments.


Friends of Narnia said...

I don't see how you could rig a test so that blacks couldn't pass it. Those white firefighters worked hard and passed it, so that shouldn't be taken away from them! Couldn't it just be that the other people didn't study as hard or whatever? I mean, just because the results happened to be like that, why does it mean it was rigged? It could be coincidence.

~Queen Lucy~

mazenko said...

Because you have never taken a standardized test, you may not understand how they could be biased. However, if you do enough research on the educational models, you will discover that cultural bias is a distinct possibility. Though, I am not say that is what happened in this case.

However, if you look at it logically, a reasonable person would suspect results in which all of one race passes a test, and all of another fails it. The "other people" may not have studied as hard - but could a statement like that imply "black people don't work hard as white people." Certainly, no study of the issue would support that conclusion.

If you are interested in some compelling new research on why poor and minority kids perform, as a group, more poorly than white kids, you might check out Richard Nesbitt's "Intelligence and How to Get It." He challenges the notion - which some use standardized tests to conclude - that black and latino people simply are not as smart or do not work as hard as white people.

What Littwin's article posits is that the test should certainly be suspect, though nothing should be taken away from the people who passed. However, it is clear, as Littwin notes from testing used by the US army, that alternate evaluations can be used.

Just as a point of interest, I'll give you an example of how a standardized test could be biased.

My seven-year-old son took a math test on measurement. Seems like a pretty un-biased subject, right? He got a 47/48. Clearly, he knows his math. However, the questioned he missed was what could be termed "culturally" biased.

The test asked them to choose between two answers for appropriate measurement - for example, should a shoelace be measured in inches or miles? He was asked whether a "can of pop" should be measured in ounces or liters. Of course, "everyone knows" a can of pop is 12 ounces, right? He chose liters. Why?

Austen has never had a can of pop. We never have them in the house. He never drinks them at school or out. He never drinks pop at all. Thus, he applied knowledge of personal experience. He has seen cans of juice - tomato or fruit juice - his mom uses in the kitchen. They are usually quart sizes. He has also seen liter and two liter bottles of pop at school functions. Thus, he concluded, from his background knowledge that a can of pop should be liters.

Now, my son is a rather intelligent kid who reads and experiences a lot. Imagine how all kinds of questions - from reading to math - can be biased against people who have very limited experience.

Friends of Narnia said...

Hmm, I see how it could be...But could it really be possible that all black people have less experience in some things than white people (and vice versa)? I mean, obviously everyone has different levels of experience in different areas of life. But to say that ALL of them do/don't have experience seems like saying a lot...Maybe you ought to let Austen drink soda. :P Just kidding, of course. :P :P Yeah, but I think everyone just assumes that EVERYONE in America has drunk a can of soda pop (BTW, that makes me laugh since I've not drunk maybe at ALL :P). They weren't trying to be biased...LOL, when you said "if you look at it logically", I could just hear Peter Pevensie: "If you think about it LOGICALLY, we're not even taking them out of the wardrobe!" :P Sorry, we are just ALWAYS quoting from books/movies, so I say things like that a lot. :P I do see your point, and you're right that I've never taken a standardized test...Yikes! Does PSAT count? Then I'll have taken one soon... :P


Friends of Narnia said...

I meant "I've not drunk MANY at all". :P

Anonymous said...

I suppose an important question would be "does a standardized test measure things that a supervisory fire fighter should be good at?" At a minimum, it measures how well a person can read American English when he/she has to hurry, and how accurately they can think about what they have read. Doing basic math quickly is probably measured, as well. Assuming that these are, in fact, essential traits for the job, I guess another question would be, "If a candidate can't do these things well, can a reasonable accommodation make up for it?" [Not all accommodations are necessarily reasonable.] Some jobs probably don't really require the kinds of skills being tested. In other cases, perhaps accommodations can be made. Perhaps not.

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