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. Summer 2016;15(2):ar23.
doi: 10.1187/cbe.15-12-0246.

Cognitive Difficulty and Format of Exams Predicts Gender and Socioeconomic Gaps in Exam Performance of Students in Introductory Biology Courses

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Cognitive Difficulty and Format of Exams Predicts Gender and Socioeconomic Gaps in Exam Performance of Students in Introductory Biology Courses

Christian D Wright et al. CBE Life Sci Educ. .
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Abstract

Recent reform efforts in undergraduate biology have recommended transforming course exams to test at more cognitively challenging levels, which may mean including more cognitively challenging and more constructed-response questions on assessments. However, changing the characteristics of exams could result in bias against historically underserved groups. In this study, we examined whether and to what extent the characteristics of instructor-generated tests impact the exam performance of male and female and middle/high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) students enrolled in introductory biology courses. We collected exam scores for 4810 students from 87 unique exams taken across 3 yr of the introductory biology series at a large research university. We determined the median Bloom's level and the percentage of constructed-response questions for each exam. Despite controlling for prior academic ability in our models, we found that males and middle/high-SES students were disproportionately favored as the Bloom's level of exams increased. Additionally, middle/high-SES students were favored as the proportion of constructed-response questions on exams increased. Given that we controlled for prior academic ability, our findings do not likely reflect differences in academic ability level. We discuss possible explanations for our findings and how they might impact how we assess our students.

Figures

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
Increasing the median weighted Bloom’s level of an exam negatively impacts all students’ scores, but it disproportionately favors men more so than women and middle/high-SES students over low-SES students. The figure shows a point estimate for exam performance (percentage score) for (a) male and female students and (b) middle/high-SES and low-SES students based on the model-averaged regression coefficients. The bars are the regression-model predictors of performance for two hypothetical students with an incoming GPA of 3.27 (the median GPA for all students in our data set) who are either (a) middle/high-SES students that identify as male or female or (b) male students who are classified as middle/high-SES or low-SES students, both of whom took a moderately difficult exam with a median difficulty of 0.63 (on a scale of 0.33–1). Thus, these students differ from each other in only two ways: the median weighted Bloom’s level of the exam and either (a) their gender (male, unfilled bars; females, filled bars) or (b) their SES status (middle/high-SES, unfilled bars; low-SES, filled bars). The median weighted Bloom’s levels, on a scale of 0.33–1, used to calculate the low, medium, and high Bloom’s-level exams were 0.36, 0.53, and 0.71, respectively. An asterisk indicates a significant differences between groups of students on a given test. Brackets with percent scores indicate the magnitude of the difference in exam scores for the two students.
Figure 2.
Figure 2.
Increasing the number of constructed-response questions on an exam positively impacts all students’ exam scores, equally benefiting male and female students yet disproportionately favoring middle/high-SES students over low-SES students. The figure shows a point estimate for exam performance (percentage score) for (a) male and female students and (b) middle/high-SES and low-SES students based on the model-averaged regression coefficients. The bars are the regression-model predictors of performance for two hypothetical students with an incoming GPA of 3.27 (the median GPA for all students in our data set) who are either (a) middle/high-SES students who identify as male or female or (b) male students who are classified as middle- to high-SES or low-SES students, both of whom took a moderately difficult exam with a median difficulty of 0.63 (on a scale of 0.33–1). Thus, these students differ from each other in only two ways: the percentage of constructed-response questions on the exam and either (a) their gender (male, unfilled bars; females, filled bars) or (b) their SES status (middle/high-SES, unfilled bars; low-SES, filled bars). The percentage of constructed-response questions, on a scale of 0–1, used to calculate the all restricted-response (RR), mixture of restricted-response and constructed-response (CR), and all constructed-response exams were 0.00, 0.50, and 1.00, respectively. The + indicates a significant overall difference between two groups of students. An asterisk indicates a significant differences between groups of students on a given test. Brackets with percent scores indicate the magnitude of the difference in exam scores for the two students.

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