Effects And Implications Of The Test Bias Controversy

The dispute over test bias has given impetus to an increasingly sophisticated corpus of research. In most venues, tests of reasonably high statistical quality appear to be largely unbiased. For neuropsychological tests, results are recent and still rare, but so far they appear to indicate little bias. Both sides of the debate have disregarded most of these findings and have emphasized, instead, a mean difference between ethnic groups (Reynolds, 2000b).

In addition, publishers have released new measures such as nonverbal and "culture fair" or "culture-free" tests; practitioners interpret scores so as to minimize the influence of putative bias; and, finally, publishers revise tests directly, to expunge group differences. For minority group members, these revisions may have an undesirable long-range effect: to prevent the study and thereby the remediation of any bias that might otherwise be found.

The implications of these various effects differ depending on whether the bias explanation is correct or incorrect, assuming it is accepted. An incorrect bias explanation, if accepted, would lead to modified tests that would not reflect important, correct information and, moreover, would present the incorrect information that unequally performing groups had performed equally. Researchers, unaware or unmindful of such inequalities, would neglect research into their causes. Economic and social deprivation would come to appear less harmful and therefore more justifiable. Social programs, no longer seen as necessary to improve minority students' scores, might be discontinued, with serious consequences.

A correct bias explanation, if accepted, would leave professionals and minority group members in a relatively better position. We would have copious research correctly indicating that bias was present in standardized test scores. Surprisingly, however, the limitations of having these data might outweigh the benefits. Test bias would be a correct conclusion reached incorrectly.

Findings of bias rely primarily on mean differences between groups. These differences would consist partly of bias and partly of other constituents, which would project them upward or downward, perhaps depending on the particular groups involved. Thus, we would be accurate in concluding that bias was present but inaccurate as to the amount of bias and, possibly, its direction: that is, which of two groups it favored. Any modifications made would do too little, or too much, creating new bias in the opposite direction.

The presence of bias should allow for additional explanations. For example, bias and Steelean effects (Steele & Aronson, 1995), in which fear of confirming a stereotype impedes minorities' performance, might both affect test results. Such additional possibilities, which now receive little attention, would receive even less. Economic and social deprivation, serious problems apart from testing issues, would again appear less harmful and therefore more justifiable. Efforts to improve people's scores through social programs would be difficult to defend, because this work presupposes that factors other than test bias are the causes of score differences. Thus, Americans' belief in human potential would be vindicated, but perhaps at considerable cost to minority individuals.

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