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Biased Standardized Tests And Professional Licensing Exams Hurt Everyone

Posted on May 30th, 2024


Associate Attorney 

For many, spring means longer days, warmer weather, and a return to the great outdoors. For some, spring means one last push to wrap up school, including studying and sitting for final examinations or other standardized tests.

Standardized tests have become firmly established in the U.S. over the past 100 years or so and have brought about an entire industry devoted to ensuring tests are “psychometrically sound.” Psychometric soundness means the test is valid, reliable, and fair. 

But standardized tests can still be a concern, even after you leave school. Numerous states employ generally accepted exams to test the basic competence of applicants for licensure as nurses, physicians, cosmetologists, engineers, psychologists, morticians, social workers, and lawyers. The use of common tests across multiple states helps ensure uniformity in evaluating competence in the profession and facilitates licensure portability across states. 

For people in disadvantaged groups, however – like people with disabilities, people for whom English is a second language, or people in minority groups – it may be harder for them to pass standard licensure tests than it is for others. This is called an “adverse impact.” Otherwise competent and qualified candidates may fail an exam simply because the tests and testing procedures were not developed with them in mind, or they did not have access to expensive preparatory materials. 

Biased tests, even ones that strive to be fair, prevent people in disadvantaged groups from practicing their chosen professions, which harms the candidate and may continue perpetuating discriminatory impacts on minorities. Biased tests also cause a collateral, but consequential, effect in restraining competition in the marketplace of services. Unfairly restricting competition is harmful because it stymies innovation, limits access to otherwise qualified providers, and keeps prices high for consumers. 

Also, the traits of individuals in disadvantaged groups can provide recognizable benefits to consumers. Think of professions that traditionally require trust, like healthcare providers. Meaningful relationships between mental health or primary care providers and their patients rely on mutual trust. When looking for a therapist, patients seek someone they connect with; someone with whom they can speak their native language, who can empathize with a physical or mental disability, or who understands their religious and cultural values. That initial connection can be an invaluable first step in building the trust necessary for meaningful care. If someone who is otherwise qualified to practice has been barred from doing so because of a biased exam, a patient may miss out on this connection. 

Fortunately, efforts are being made to address the problem of biased tests. Test developers purposefully strive to rework exams to ensure that every test-taker is on an equal playing field. Professional licensing boards that utilize standardized tests have also been discussing options to address adverse impacts. For example, the Montana Board of Behavioral Health considered the adverse impact that license examinations have on minorities, particularly Native Americans in Montana, and chose to accept results from exams specifically intended to minimize the issue. Some individuals and organizations have also called for the immediate cessation of standardized tests. 

Standardized tests and licensing exams, however, do not appear to be going away anytime soon. Professional licensing boards are far from comfortable with any system that would eliminate exams while ensuring the minimum competency of license applicants. 

So, how can you help address unfair examinations? I suggest that the most important thing you can do is simply to stay engaged in the conversation. Keep informed of opportunities to participate in public meetings or proposed rule changes on the issue. Submit public comments to boards and public agencies that use standardized tests and ask them to keep reviewing and assessing tests and test-administration policies. Challenge poorly written questions or unfair test administration procedures wherever you encounter them. If you are a licensed professional, consider volunteering to tutor or mentor candidates, or offer to help develop or administer exams. Reach out about becoming a test proctor or a subject matter expert to help draft exam questions. 

By being present and expressing your opinion, you may shine light on policies that others may not even realize contribute to adverse impacts on candidates, and which, therefore, negatively impact everyone.

If you are being prevented from practicing your chosen profession due to an unfair test or testing procedures, please reach out to connect with our Montana professional licensing defense attorneys today for assistance. We can help you navigate the complex license application process or assist you in any other issues you may have with your professional licensing board. Call 406-449-4829 or contact us to get help now! 


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