This land is your land…this land is my land.

A good friend of mine from the UMass Boston Applied Linguistics Master’s program is from Israel. She’s special for lots of reasons – her intelligence, her passion for learning and pushing boundaries of culture and political hierarchy among them – but her cultural and ethnolinguistic identity contribute to her unique perspective as well. She is from Israel, and she is Palestinian, Christian, and, of course, a woman.

Though she comes from a set of complex and politically minoritized positions in her culture, my friend was outspoken in our program and continues to draw upon her cultural identity as a source of authority. Recently, she posted an article about standardized testing in Israel, which I suppose I knew occurred in many countries around the world. In countries where there are minority populations that speak a different language – like the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, or the Basques in Spain – schooling, and testing as a part of the schooling process, is usually conducted in the majority language (though in the latter example, Basque is taught in many schools in northeastern Spain alongside the majority language of Spanish nowadays).

The article my friend shared, Study: Arab-speaking students at a disadvantage when it comes to psychometric exams, posed an interesting dilemma. It discusses a study conducted on the results of the main college entrance exam in Israel in Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students; the study found that Jewish students consistently scored an average of 100 points higher than Arab students. The researchers concluded that because Arabic is diglossic (meaning that it is used differently depending on the sociocultural contexts), the students who speak it are considered to be bilingual: “The difference between spoken and written Arabic is so great, the researchers wrote, ‘that acquisition of the written language could be defined as acquiring a second language.’” The researchers discovered that as a result of this unique character of Arabic, its speakers read more slowly than “monolingual” Hebrew-speaking students.

Further complicating this fact, according to the researchers, is that the texts used are translated from English or Hebrew and contain expressions that do not always adequately reflect the cultural understandings and environment of the Arabic-speaking students. (Imagine, for example, that I tell you a chap wearing a bum bag parked the lorry he was driving, walked around the front, and smacked the bonnet angrily because he’d gone the wrong way and missed his diversion.) The cultural ideas embedded in these translations tax Arab students’ capacity to complete the timed academic tasks on the tests more so than they do Jewish students.

This is frustrating enough for those of us who care about bilingual education and minority languages and ethnolinguistic identity, especially since it seems to illustrate another example of how standardized testing can favor the majoritarian view of schooling and disadvantage those students whose contributions are dismissed because they don’t speak, process, and participate in the same way as the mainstream. But here’s the part that really got my goat: When asked about the issue relating to the cultural content of the tests, one of the collaborating researchers – a Hebrew speaker, and, I assume, a member of the educational elite as a result – had this to say:

“We don’t take texts from the world of Jewish or Arab society, but neutral ones,” she said. “It’s regrettable if an Arab child has never encountered a philosophical text, but you must remember that he’ll have to deal with texts like that in academia. If we have to guess who will succeed in university, the right way isn’t to test fields the future students have already mastered.”

First off, the term neutral carries my emphasis, not the doctor’s. Saying that a text is neutral is like saying that schooling is apolitical; text is generated from a certain sociopolitical, historical, and cultural perspective, and this orientation is always reflected in the discourse with which it aligns. Think about the Dick and Jane readers from the 1940s and 1950s that were considered a standard, neutral primer for children in the U.S. (Who were they about? Who were they for? What exactly did they teach? Point: were they really neutral, or just supportive of the notion that mainstream is “normal”?)

Secondly, and this is the part that really gets me, is the researcher’s comment that while it is “regrettable” that an Arab child may lack experience with philosophical writings, s/he will have to buck up and do the best s/he can on the test. Let’s think through this logically:

  1. Let’s assume that this researcher is aware of the basic premises of testing. (She is – if you look up her bio, she works at the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation in Jerusalem – so we can assume she has quite extensive experience in test creation and development, which is her field in addition to psychology and psychometrics.
  2. Anyone who develops tests knows that if you use a question that every single student will get wrong, this is a bad question.
  3.  However, this researcher assumes that this question will get some correct answers as she keeps it on the test.
  4. If she knows that certain students from a specific ethnolinguistic identity will do poorly on this question, yet she keeps it on the test, we have to assume that she knows that some students will not do poorly on it.
  5. If Arabic-speaking and Hebrew-speaking students are taking the same test, and we know that Arabic-speaking students typically do poorly on this question, we can therefore assume that the Hebrew-speaking students are getting this correct.
  6. Thus, the researcher accepts the bias inherent to the test because some students (Hebrew speakers) get it right, thus rendering not the test a problem, but the students who speak Arabic.

And there you have it: state-mandated, test developer-/psychologist-supported, bias against minoritized students in major standardized exams, which clearly define their future livelihoods.

Funny, this sounds a little like America, doesn’t it?

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2 thoughts on “This land is your land…this land is my land.

  1. What is the sense of testing students on material they’ve never been taught? Setting that absurdity aside, I wonder if the Palestinian students are prepared for these “philosophical texts” in any way. Do their teachers tell them to anticipate such texts on the exam and suggest that they prepare on their own, or is the subject never brought up? I suppose these tests have been given in this format for years; if the Palestinian teachers know that the exam includes this kind of content, why don’t they prepare their students for it?
    What does it say about both cultures that one teaches young students philosophy and the other does not? Is there something Israeli/Jewish about the material itself? If the Palestinians designed the test, how would it be different?
    There is a lot of talk in the U.S. about bias on standardized tests. One solution would be to create regional tests with references local students would likely understand. This strikes me as a bad idea, though, because it would probably increase provincialism. Several years after I graduated (when my sister was a student there), my middle school adopted a new history curriculum; the teachers spent an embarrassing amount of time discussing an obsure historical figure whose main claim to fame was that he had been from our town. There is a world out there; it wouldn’t hurt any of us to hear and read more about people with different lives (living in other parts of this country or abroad, or even in our own towns). I think this will promote an important message: a person does not have to look like you or live the way you do to teach you something.

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    • Really interesting points, Casey. I agree that we have a challenge in the standardization vs. regionalist education issue, and the one place I get stuck is here: If we avoid teaching local culture/discourse/history, then we have to teach something that is considered what would be a national standard. Unfortunately, this implies that we’re using what is considered an “approved” version of the American story in which minority and marginalized cultures and voices were characterized as either abnormal and deviant or pitiable (which happened for centuries); further, these stories were not told by the speakers themselves, but by the mainstream’s interpretation of these stories.

      Definitely a complex issue, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment!!

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