Tenth graders across the state spent much of their time last month taking tests – the Ohio Graduation Tests to be specific. The OGT’s are given in five subject areas, and some students found one question on the Social Studies portion of the exam objectionable.
The question asked:
“After the Holocaust, many Jews felt that they needed a state of their own in order to provide security for the Jewish people. In 1948, the state of Israel was formed. Many Arabs disagreed with this action. Identify two perspectives of many Arabs that explain their objection to the establishment of Israel.”
The Ohio Jewish Communities, a registered lobbying group, petitioned the Ohio Department of Education to remove that question, alleging bias that offended some Jewish students. After review, state officials concluded the phrasing was inappropriate and won’t be used again.
The incident got us here at StateImpact Ohio wondering, how are questions for the Ohio Graduation Test normally vetted to avoid giving offense?
There’s a committee for that.
The Fairness and Sensitivity Committee. It’s made up of 25-30 people representing a variety of interest groups, including women, special needs students, black students, and deaf and blind students. It’s the only review committee that is not made up primarily of educators.
Jim Wright is the Director of the Office of Curriculum and Assessment at the Ohio Department of Education. He says Ohio doesn’t have any words or subjects that are outright banned from appearing on the Ohio Graduation Tests, but the Fairness and Sensitivity Committee has its radar up for pretty much anything that could be controversial, including stereotypes, anything to do with religion, sexual orientation, or diversity and “differential familiarity.”
Differential familiarity means that everyone taking the test should be familiar with what’s being asked. Take for example a question on sports. The committee has to be careful around questions about golf or tennis, and consider if all students taking the test will be familiar with those types of sports.
“One of the ones I remember when I first got to the department was talking about somebody using a backyard and that that was somewhat biased against urban students because urban students that lived in cities may not have an idea of what a backyard is,” says Wright.But, he says, controversial topics nonetheless appear on the statewide tests. Among them are evolutionary theory, genocide and the creation of the Israeli state…topics that are all covered in Ohio’s curriculum, and so they inevitably show up on the tests that are designed to assess if students are learning that curriculum.
Wright says it’s wouldn’t right if Ohio shied away from such tough subjects on the OGT’s.
“One of the big issues is that there are controversial topics out there and there are viewpoints and perspectives that are other than (students’) own and sometimes unfortunately you can’t get as deeply into this with a short constructive response item as you can with classroom discussion and debate,” he says.
“We take as much care as we can to ask the question in a fair way but there could be a question on there that could ask for the Jewish perspective on the creation of Israel, or one that asks for one perspective from each side. So I think it’s important for students to at least be exposed to that.”
Given the fact that certain touchy subjects are bound to appear on the tests, the Fairness and Sensitivity Committee has their work cut out for them. For one thing, they have to sort through hundreds of questions, recommended to them by the American Institutes for Research – the company Ohio uses to write the test questions. The committees then have to whittle down those questions to create a “bank” from which the final five exams are written.
The questions are also reviewed for fairness by the Content Advisory Committee, made up largely of teacheres. The Department of Education doesn’t have to take their advice but what the Fairness and Sensitivity Committee decides is binding – so if they say a question is offensive or biased or for some other reason it should not appear on the test, then that question will be cut, or at least reworked.
This whole process takes about three years, but soon a new system will replace this one.
Ohio is switching to the so-called Common Core curriculum, and with it new tests.
Wrights says there will be a group similar to the Fairness and Sensitivity Committee to oversee those exams but reaching consensus will be a bit more of a challenge. Committee members will come from Ohio and 23 other states, representing vastly different student populations.
Ohio’s students can look forward to taking the new, online tests based on the Common Core starting in 2015.