Standardized Tests, An American Addiction
America has an obsession with standardized tests and test scores virtually unrivaled by any other country. According to Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg in an interview with Skeptic Magazine,
We are one of the few societies that place so much emphasis on intelligence tests. In most societies there is more emphasis on what people accomplish.
This obsession is so enmeshed in our culture that we do not even think about these tests as we pick up yet another number 2 pencil to fill in the bubbles. They stand, unchallenged, at every point in our life journey. Intelligence tests designed for children as young as three are used to sort children for highly desired preschool spots in highly acclaimed private schools, Christian and seclular alike. Tests and practice tests are administered in elementary, junior high and high school and are used to determine the tracking of students into honors, academic or remedial courses, regardless of class performance and teacher recommendation. A disparity between test scores and performance is always questioned. A child with low scores and high class achievement is an "overachiever." When the opposite is true, the child is determined to have a learning disability because their performance is not living up to their supposed aptitude. The guidance counselor may administer a standardized test to determine what career a child should pursue (I'm supposed to become a neurosurgeon or a gas attendant).

Once a child leaves school, he must pass the SAT to get into college and the GRE to get into grad school. Things are no different in the job market. It is a test score, not recommendations, grades or job performance, that determines your ability to become a school bus driver, truck driver, train conductor, fast food manager, teacher and a plethora of other professional and not-so-professional positions. Even homeschoolers, who have traditionally been against being held accountable to state-mandated standardized tests, point to higher SAT scores to prove that they deliver as effective an education as the public schools.

Some have claimed that our public school system's obsession with test scores is part of a larger scheme for the central government to take over education and institue a "cradle-to-grave" planned economy. While these tendencies certainly exist, an overemphasis on this ignores a deeper problem lying at the heart of our culture and why we accept and even embrace education plans with a high emphasis on test scores and accountability. It also overlooks the fact that American parents overwhelmingly support these tests. Within the American psyche is a basic, albeit flawed, equation that states:

test scores = ability.

Ironically, actual performance is routinely overlooked in favor of test scores in attempting to predict a candidate's subject mastery, readiness for higher education or ability to perform in the workforce. But what do these tests actually measure?

There are essentially two issues in testing which every test designer, administrator and evaluator must take into consideration: validity and reliability. Validity essentially determines whether a test measures what it intends to measure. Reliability tells you how likely the results are to be repeated. Standardized tests have the allure of perceived validity because of their clear format and easily quantifiable scores. But how valid are they, really?

Take this item from New York's practice test:
The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year.

The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played.

A. two matches in one day
B. against each other
C. with two balls at once
D. as partners
Is this test measuring reading skills or tennis knowledge? A good reader could probably figure out the question, but the child with knowledge of the rules of tennis has a decided advantage.

And beyond isolated exam items, is the story much different? What are these tests really measuring? Peter Sacks, in his book, Standardized Minds, concludes that "scoring high on standardized tests is a good predictor of one's ability to score high on standardized tests." Research has not been able to correlate achievement on these tests with any future success in school or work. Some other facts pointed out in his book:
  • There is almost no relationship between scores obtained on the GRE and performance in graduate school.
  • A student's high school record is the best predictor of early college success. Adding the results of the SAT to this adds little to the prediction of college performance.
  • There is a strong correlation between standardized test scores and and the socioeconomic status of the parents. "The data is so strong in this regard that one could make a good guess about a child's standardized test scores by simply looking at how many degrees her parent have and what kind of car they drive."
And with little or no measurable benefit to students or to predicting future success, these test have been allowed to shape instruction. According to educational researcher Bruce C. Bowers,
However, the main purpose of standardized testing is to sort large numbers of students in as efficient a manner as possible. This limited goal, quite naturally, gives rise to short-answer, multiple-choice questions. When tests are constructed in this manner, active skills, such as writing, speaking, acting, drawing, constructing, repairing, or any of a number of other skills that can and should be taught in schools are automatically relegated to second-class status.
In subsequent posts, I will look more at the history and origins of this testing and how it took such an enamored hold on our nation. In the meantime, check out this excerpt from the first chapter of Standardized Minds.

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