Institutional Bias in Standardized Testing

Institutional bias – it’s a term we all probably heard once in college and then didn’t think about much. Today, I’d like to dust it off because it is becoming more and more applicable to the world of standardized testing.

A quick definition of institutional bias is any system which has procedures and practices that cause that system to favor some social groups while disadvantaging others (Oxford Reference). A system has an institutional bias if it causes some to succeed and others to fail without a real reason.

Standardized testing has long had this problem. When I was a kid, my mother was teaching fifth grade and had to give whatever standardized test was en vogue at the time. She told me about a question that included the word “silo.” Well, if you are a city kid, like all of her students, you have never seen a silo in your life, making it much harder for you to get the question correct. The institutional bias in this question favored rural students, at the expense of urban students.

However, with the increasing use of technology for standardized testing, the institutional bias is now much more prevalent, and the victims are poor kids. Standardized testing now requires students to complete more drag-and-drop, sorting, and other interactive activities. They also have to manipulate rulers, protractors, and other math tools online. Who would have the advantage: the poor kid who rarely sees a computer outside of school or the rich kid who has his own iPad, iPod, and Chromebook? This technology experience gives affluent students an advantage before they even begin the test.


The choice in reading selections on a standardized test can often create an institutional bias against poor students as well. Tests often choose nonfiction topics for which some students have significant background knowledge while others have none. I recognize this is not something the test developers can control, but we must understand it exists. Imagine two students equal in all academic ways who are presented a standardized reading passage about dolphins. Again, who would have the advantage: the poor kid who has never left the city in which he lives or the rich kid who has been on vacation to see, and maybe interact, with dolphins? Live experiences provide advantages.

Finally, the resources of the school itself can affect the outcome of standardized tests. In a school not far from where I live, the classroom teacher proctors the standardized testing sessions to the general education students. Upon completion, the support staff is brought in to supervise those students while the teacher proctors the same sessions to the special education or English Learner students. The classroom teacher, with whom the students feel most comfortable, can administer the test to everyone. In my own school, this is  impossible. We simply don’t have the personnel to make this happen. Our school faces a disadvantage, and I’m sure many others do as well, based on the structure of the test and how it is organized.

There are no easy solutions here. However, we need to be aware and make others aware of the institutional bias in standardized testing. With so many judgments made using student test scores, decision-makers must know and understand the variety of factors that affect these scores.


About mrwhitehb

I teach 4th grade and am the chair of the Young Hoosier Book Award Committee for grades 4-6.

Posted on April 30, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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