Scitech | More questions than answers

Is standardized testing really necessary or effective?

The SAT, OSSLT, PAT, FB, IB, AP, ACT, TOEFL, TOEIC, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, MCAT – you probably have or will encounter one of these necessary evils during your academic career. Besides being confusing acronyms and money-making opportunity for many institutions, all of them involve lengthy standardized testing.

Standardized tests are administered according to strict criteria that must be the same for all test-takers. The material and environment must be equivalent for all test-takers. Most of these tests call for months of preparation. Also, they are astoundingly expensive. Taking the MCAT, for example, can cost upwards of $300. So, why do students spend painstaking amounts of time and money for such torture?
Jon Bradley of the Department of Integrated Studies in the Faculty of Education at McGill points out that “tests test something!”

“Every test has a specific orientation and a specific goal,” he explains. “Further, every test is aimed a specific clientele; that is, a group of a certain age or experience.”

In this regard, standardized tests can be necessary as an objective and comparable criterion that allows admissions officers to understand the applicants’ ability in a way that is free from the bias that might be a part of the nonstandard grades that each teaching institution provides.

But, university should be a community of teachers and scholars. Not a place of test-taking experts and test-prep masters. Yet, most of us wishing to attend any highly ranked prestigious university, such as McGill, simply have no choice but take these tests – and to try to do well on them. Although some people are simply geniuses who can breeze through these tests, this is not the case for most. However, the continual perpetuation of these tests, as well as their ubiquitous influence on admissions processes, leaves little room to doubt the validity and necessity of these tests.

Many tests are achievement tests that indicate how well students have mastered a specific subject. These include the SAT subject tests, GRE A-Level, AP, IB, the French Baccalaureate, Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, the Provincial Achievement Test administered by the Alberta government, as well as the British Columbian Provincial Examinations.

Other standardized tests are aptitude tests – they attempt to predict how well you will be able to succeed in whatever higher institution you are applying to. Most standardized tests fall under this category, including the TOEFL, the SAT reasoning Test (now known as SAT I), LSAT, and the MCAT. In most of these tests, examinees are not expected to truly understand all the material due to the predictive manner of these tests and the broad scope of their subject matter. However, many aspects of these tests depend upon the students’ past experiences and, in that regard, are more like achievement tests passing themselves off as aptitude tests. For example, the MCAT has two sections just to ensure that students have sufficient scientific knowledge. These past experiences are not necessarily indicative of a student’s future abilities and aptitude. In fact, this reliance on past achievements and opportunities simply continue the cycle of inaccessible education.

Dana Simpsons, instructor of expository writing at Boston University, believes that graduate level standardized tests are necessary to ensure that applicants have the skills necessary for more specialized education ahead. But he thinks otherwise for the undergraduate admission tests: “It is an oxymoron that a liberal arts program, which is supposed to develop universal competencies – critical thinking, collaborative learning, communication skills, problem solving, and creativity – uses a standardized system to screen those who are competent in the other intelligences.”

To rephrase in a more blatant manner – how can multiple choice questions even come close to demonstrating the true intelligence of an individual? The ability to circle the right answer in the multiple choice situation does not totally depend on the person’s understanding of that topic. Luck and test-taking techniques are also important factors. Everyone knows not to circle an answer with grammatical errors, to pick C when in doubt, or to not have more than four of the same letter in a row, et cetera. Since there is no way to show that we were just guessing on a question, two identical scores do not differentiate an individual who knows the material without hesitation from one who is simply a good test-taker (or really lucky).

And what if some people are simply not good test-takers? There is no way they could explain that through the test score, and it would be unprofessional to write that on the application.

An interesting phenomenon thus appears: teaching to the test. Though companies such as Kaplan oversee the test preparation process for the graduate entrance tests, some high school standardized tests – most notably the AP and IB tests – are left under the purview of the instructors. Instead of actually teaching the AP and IB curriculum, many teachers are accused of focusing on materials that will be covered on the test, as well honing test-taking techniques. And who can say that the blame truly lies with teachers? Few students exhibit interest in the subject matter. Many more students are much more concerned with what they will be tested on. If students are always asking for what will be on the test, it is only logical that teachers will teach for the test.

To this, Bradley responds: “A common complaint regarding specific academic tests is that teachers will “teach to the test”. In other words, it really does not matter what the overall curriculum states, teachers will want to make sure that their students do well on the test. However, is this such a bad thing? If the test is a true example of the overall curriculum, then teaching to the test is actually teaching to the curriculum.”

In fact, though still hoping to have other options beyond standardized testing, Simpsons notices that many standardized tests, especially the AP program, are beginning to explicitly accommodate for the students’ multiple intelligence. “The SAT I now has a writing section that is graded holistically. The AP language tests changed from simply filling in the verb tenses to interpreting a picture in written and spoken words.” AP studio art has a portfolio aspect, as does AP music theory. These changes have also been observed with the TOEFL test, where students have to listen to mock lectures and answer questions regarding the information presented within.

Yet, no matter whether these tests are fair, Bradley is right on one thing: “There is no question that a test written by a student at a desk in a room is the work of that student, without help from outside sources, computers, friends and the like. Therefore, tests are significant measures of ability.”