Cultural Differences

Psychological and educational tests typically compare the subject with a so called "normative group" for purposes of determining if the subject equates to or is different from the normative group.  This process requires a number of underlying assumptions, the most fundamental of which is that the "normative group" used for comparison is really representative of the normal population.

One of the key issues that can challenge the assumption of the correctness of the normative group pertains to cultural differences.  Simply stated, what is so called "normal" for one culture is not normal for another.  While efforts are made by test authors to adjust for cultural differences, nonetheless, there are very painful examples of situations where the attempt to adjust for cultural differences does not work.

Most measures typically used by psychologists are highly respected, scientifically valid, and assumed to be valid with all cultural populations that are not linguistically a minority (i.e. they speak English). The most respected of all tests is the "standard IQ test" of which there are many, and the centerpiece of all is the WISC-III for children and WAIS-III for adults.  It happens that thousands of African-American children were placed into special education programs in California in the 70s and 80s based upon an assumption that these standardized tests of intelligence were valid measures of their intelligence. In 1979 massive litigation occurred in California generally known as the Larry P. v Riles cases that went on for more than a decade, one chief citation is 495 F. Supp. 926, and then other rulings issued from this the net effect was that the 9th Circuit issued an injunction against California schools prohibiting them from using about 20 tests on African American children as it was determined that all of these measures improperly categorized these children as being in the mentally retarded range when they were not.

What is striking about Larry P. is that all of this educational testing occurred for decades with the complete approval of all of the authors and publishers of these tests, with the complete approval of thousands of credentialed school psychologists, and with the complete approval of the California Department of Education. Larry P. was brought by the African-American community who fought and won their injunction over the howls and protests of the professional community who stood behind those tests. A principal focus of this case was on testing, specifically on the use of individual I. Q. tests to classify black children and assign them to E.M.R. classes in California schools. As a result of Larry P. v Riles 495 F. Supp. 926 the 9th Circuit issued an injunction against California schools prohibiting them from using about 20 tests on African American children to assess for special education eligibility as it was determined that all of these measures improperly categorized these children as being in the mentally retarded range when they were not. Much of the more than 10,000-page transcript of the trial represents detailed expert testimony about these tests. The Court concluded: 

"This court finds in favor of plaintiffs, the class of black children who have been or in the future will be wrongly placed or [*933] maintained in special classes for the educable mentally retarded, on plaintiffs' statutory and state and federal constitutional claims. In violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, defendants have utilized standardized intelligence tests that are racially and culturally biased, have a discriminatory impact against black children, and have not been validated for the purpose of essentially permanent placements of black children into educationally dead-end, isolated, and stigmatizing [**7] classes for the so-called educable mentally retarded. Further, these federal laws have been violated by defendants' general use of placement mechanisms that, taken together, have not been validated and result in a large overrepresentation of black children in the special E.M.R. classes". 

The California Department of Education currently has published a memorandum clarifying the use of intelligence tests for African American Students as a result of this decision.

The painful lesson of Larry P. is that obviously profound cultural differences exist when using basic IQ tests, and these differences were ignored by the professional community who used those tests. It took decades of litigation to correct this abuse.  Are there other situations where cultural differences ignored for other cultures with other tests? Certainly there are. Does this mean that a parent should ignore test results if their child is in a unique culture? No, test information is still valuable data.  The lessons of Larry P. tell us to just put all data into perspective.  Test data is not always correct. Errors can be introduced from a number of sources, in addition to cultural differences.   

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