Finance assessment tested for bias

Thursday, August 7, 2008 | 7:11 p.m. CDT; updated 7:45 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 7, 2008

COLUMBIA - MU's Assessment Resource Center and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education met last week with a group of educators and others to look for bias in questions on an online personal finance test.

The test was first administered to high school students in 2006. The test measures proficiency in personal finance, which is now mandatory for high school graduation in Missouri. This is the third year for the bias, or sensitivity, review, which is a regular practice in the development of standardized tests.

The group looked at how questions were worded to see whether they were slanted, for example, by gender or race.

The bias review followed a content review meant to ensure the assessment questions are accurately testing students' personal finance knowledge. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said that public school students graduating in 2010 and beyond will be required to complete a half-credit in personal finance.

Pam Humphreys, senior coordinator for personal finance, led the training for the bias review. Test questions may have different meanings for different groups of people based on how they are worded, Humphreys said.

Test items that distract or offend students have the potential to lower test scores, she said. The reviewers, who came from various backgrounds and parts of Missouri, were divided into two teams and asked to say whether test questions had elements that might distract or offend, or present content unfamiliar for cultural or geographical reasons.

The group was shown a sample test item that contains bias:

"Juan and Maria apply for unemployment benefits. Which expense should they

pay first?

A. apartment rent

B. credit card debt

C. children's medical bills

D. down payment on a new car"

By tying traditionally ethnic names to a question about unemployment, negative racial or ethnic stereotypes might be inferred or perpetuated, said Tim Parshall, associate director of the Assessment Resource Center.

The group was asked to look for slang or stereotypes within test items. For example, slang or cliche terms such as "cash-in-hand" or "hard money" are discouraged, because they can be difficult for non-native English speakers, Humphreys told the volunteers.

They were also asked to look for stereotypes based on ethnicity, gender, race, culture, religion, socioeconomic status, occupation,

regional or geographic origin, linguistic/language traditions and specific issues that could disadvantage special education students or English Language Learners.

The test is administered online because schools are generally equipped for it and the instant feedback online testing provides was desirable.

Jim Morris, the department's public information officer, said that with an increased use of technology in classrooms, the transition to online testing seemed natural.

Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he thinks personal finance is important for students to understand.

"They are getting credit cards at much younger ages, ATM machines, just the availability of plastic cash," Johnson said. It is "better to establish good personal finance habits at a younger age."

Students have three options to fulfill the graduation requirement. They can complete a half-credit personal finance course, in which teachers may elect to include the state online test. The second option is to take a course that covers a broader range of material and has a personal finance section in it; those students will be required to take the online test. Students may also test out of the course by scoring 90 percent or better on the online exam.

The aim is to teach students how to properly manage their finances by providing information on how to best use and manage credit cards, how to save and invest, and loans.

Said Johnson: "People at a much younger age are experiencing now financial decisions that, quite frankly, my generation never had to deal with."


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