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The Culture of Testing (Part 1) March 12, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in ACT, African American Students, Black Students, Higher Education, race, SAT, SAT II.

If the following report from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education does not disturb you, then you haven’t taken a standardized “aptitude” test lately:

Black-White Divide in Cultural Pursuits

A survey published by the National Endowment for the Arts compares the rates of attendance and participation in various cultural activities for blacks compared to whites. In almost all cases, whites were more likely than blacks to attend or participate in these types of events. And in many cases, the differences were large.

For example, whites were three times as likely as blacks to attend a classical music performance, the opera, or the ballet. Whites were twice as likely as blacks to attend a musical play or other type of theatrical production. Whites were also twice as likely as blacks to go to an art fair. Whites were also significantly more likely than blacks to attend a dance recital or an art museum.

The cost of attending these events is undoubtedly one reason for the racial gap in attendance. But money is not the only reason for the cultural gap. This is demonstrated by National Endowment for the Arts data on people who watch these types of cultural events on television. Here, blacks and whites have roughly equal access to the performing arts. And the racial gaps are considerably smaller. But whites are still more likely than blacks to watch classical music performances, plays, ballet, and dance programs on television.

You may be tempted to dismiss this report as but another attempt attack on African American culture and traditions. There are two very good reasons that you shouldn’t.

First, aside from classical music, opera, and ballet, there is nothing specifically racial about the events and activities described. Black people participate in dance and theatre (musical and non musical) as choreographers, directors, playwrights, and composers. Black people also make art of all types, from sculpture, to paintings, to textiles, to performance art. Also, classical music and opera are only racialized in terms of their origins. A number of African American performers have distinguished themselves as among the finest practitioners of these musical arts, including pianists like Andre Watts and Awadagin Pratt, and operatic divas like Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Marion Anderson, and the grande damme of them all, the great Leontyne Price.

Few young Black people realize that before integration African American high schools had a strong tradition of high-level vocal training in both traditional Black art forms like the spirituals and gospel music and classical and operatic forms for all voices. That tradition lives on at America’s HBCUs, in the form of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Bethune-Cookman Concert Chorale, and other similar vocal groups. Unfortunately, our cultural memory is short, and while a Black child in — say — Jacksonville, Florida in the 1950s could well be accustomed to seeing young Black men and women singing works of Bach and Gershwin or a choral arrangement of “Go Down Moses” at school and church programs, today’s African American youth consider such activities to be far outside the scope of normal or even acceptable entertainment in their environs.

This second reason that the NEH report on the divide between Black and white participation in and attendance at certain cultural activities is based on my own anecdotal experience as a one-time standardized test taker, a long-time veteran instructor in summer bridge programs (at two institutions), and as a long-time reader of college applications (first as an admission office and later in various capacities as a faculty member). Over the years I have had the opportunity to teach, mentor and evaluate the full range of Black student standardized test takers, from those who struggled to simply complete the exam, to those whose scores place them among the elite ranks of National Merit Semi-Finalists.

The difference I have seen between these two groups is that the former group, comprised of those students who struggle with the SAT and similar exams, engage the test as an alien environment. For this group, the world of the test — the testing environment, the testing conditions, the tone of the instructions (both written and spoken) the questions asked, the topics addressed in the reading comprehension and essay sections — feel troublingly unfamiliar, as though they are part of an exclusive culture or community from which the test taker has been excluded.

Those Black young people who score well on their SATs, ACTs, and SAT IIs are those for whom the world of the test feels like familiar terrain. While they may feel challenged by specific questions, or by the time limit, they do not feel challenged by or alienated from breadth of cultural exposure and experiences that the test assumes.

Indeed, the SAT and ACT reward a breadth of experiences and cultural exposure, both directly and indirectly. The vocabulary on the language and literature-oriented portions of these exams are structured such that those test-takers who have encountered a range of words much broader than the relatively limited vocabulary that we use in our daily lives.

High scorers on verbal, reading comprehension, and other language-oriented tests tend to have encountered an extraordinarly broad range of words through two primary channels; such students tend to be avid readers, and they also tend to have experience a broader than average range of leisure, athletic, and arts activities, each of which has its own specialized vocabulary.

Black students decreased exposure to musical and dramatic theater, classical and jazz and world music concerts, museums (art, natural history, historical, and others), and dance (tap, modern, ballet, African, and other forms) as either participants or audience members leaves them at a disadvantage relative to many of their white counterparts, whose attendance at or participation in such events both provides them with opportunities to add the specialized vocabulary of these areas and significantly decreases the likelihood that they will encounter on standardized exams topics, settings, and figures with whom they are wholly unfamiliar.

Posted by Ajuan Mance





1. Richard - April 16, 2008

A big part of preparing for standarized tests is taking the mystery out of the test. Knowing what types of questions will be asked, being familiar with the structure of the test, knowing the instructions beforehand, knowing good test taking strategies such as time management.

In many ways taking these tests is a skill.

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