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Racism and Sexism in Standardized Testing

November 13, 2009

Image via by Tyler J. Kupferer.

As I prepare to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in a little less than two weeks, I have begun to think about the politics behind standardized testing. While I understand that colleges and universities need some sort of measure of how to test applicants, the standardized test continues to be sexist and racist. I can only speak from personal experience, but in browsing around the web I have found that other people have written about the problems with standardized testing. Here are some examples of blatant racism and sexism:

  • Racism: I was told by many test-prep books that I should learn all sailing and opera/music words. Luckily I used to be a classical pianist, so I have no trouble with words such as “overture” or “aria.” But I wasn’t so familiar with sailing terms, such as  “sextant” ( which is a navigational tool used by sailors measuring longitude and latitude).
    • Sailing is usually associated with someone who comes from a wealthy background, and/or has access to a sailboat. Many underprivileged minority kids have never sailed a boat before; how are they ever expected to know this?
  • Sexism: While it is known that generally girls excel at standardized tests in reading and boys excel at standardized tests in math and science (see here), I came across an important part of the whole standardized testing culture: consistently referring to an author or writer as a “he” in test prep literature. So what, are there no women writers out there? A week ago, Elizabeth addressed sexism in the literary world in her article  Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Books by Men. As a result of this astonishment, I personally contacted the test prep company (name will remain anonymous) and wrote this:

I have absolutely nothing to complain about the course or the materials that [test prep company name redacted] has provided me—in fact, I find everything helpful!

However, I have a problem with something: I am going over the critical reading workshop before my class, learning about the author’s “scope,” “topic,” etc. and find it sexist that [test prep company name redacted] has chosen to only use “he” in referring to “the author.”

There are many great women authors who write well (i.e., in [test prep company name redacted]’s terms, have an argument, scope, topic) and you might want to consider changing some of the he’s to she’s. For information on great women authors, in case you were wondering, go to

I find it personally offensive because I am a woman writer myself, and to not see my gender represented on practice quizzes for a standardized test makes me that you, as a company, think that women are not capable of writing.

Furthermore, I would prefer someone to address this, as to why [test prep company name redacted] assumes that the author is a male. Let’s remember that ETS* is for diversity (see here for Diversity at ETS), and [test prep company name redacted] should go for diversity as well.


Emily Heroy

*For those who don’t know, ETS stands for Educational Testing Services. They write the SAT, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, PSAT, etc. tests.

While the company responded a few days later, and said that they would try to “fix the problem,” I do not think that they completely understand the implications of referring to all authors as “he.”

Additionally, as someone who is frustrated with the whole concept of standardized testing, I find that I will not retain in the long-term all of the 500+ vocab words that I have memorized over the past two months for this test. The GRE only tests what the meanings of the words are, not how I use them in context. Additionally, many of the words on the GRE are words used in 19th century Jane Austen novels (i.e. “sextant” used above)—words that I do not use in everyday conversation and/or in my writing.

And finally, while I continue to be bothered by standardized testing, taking a GRE prep course really helped raise my score. What really helped was that the class taught me more about how to take a test and less of the content that is tested. I am fully confident that I will do well on test day. But, those test prep courses cost a butt load, and while I think that it is definitely worth it, what about the students who cannot afford to take test prep courses? How is that fair?

To read more about sexism and racism in standardized tests:

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