Standardized Testing: Great Equalizer?

Photo: Elkhard Community Schools

Standardized testing has been a contentious issue in education for ages. On one hand, supporters of standardized testing say it is a measure of student performance and helps make teachers accountable at the elementary, middle and high school levels. On the other hand, preparing students for tests at the expense of genuine and dynamic learning experiences is often cited as a disadvantage of tests. These tests also have derived in some punitive measures for schools and educators who have failed to produce certain results. These measures, such as closing down struggling schools, can have devastating consequences for children and communities. Standardized testing also fails to take into account the inequality plagues our country. Children from wealthy areas will predictably beat children from poor, rural or inner city schools at standardized testing because they have more resources and arguably more good teachers. This analysis is fascinating, but I want to shift my attention to standardized testing in another context: using tests to determine admission to undergraduate and graduate programs.

Let me preface that, pragmatically speaking, I have no problem with tests like the SAT, ACT or GRE. I am used to regulated self-study and have found a plethora of resources online to help me prepare for these tests. I am not bad at test taking, if anything, I have actually learned throughout my years as a student different techniques to help with multiple-choice tests. My questioning of standardized testing stems from the exorbitant prices students are charged for testing preparation and services, which foster the very inequality the tests claim to fight against .These tests are not providing an arbitrary measure of success, which is a marketing angle that has been used to sell them for decades.

The current price for the SAT with the optional essay (mandatory for many college admissions, really) is 60 dollars. The ACT with the essay costs only 2 .50 dollars more. Official preparation manuals cost at least 20 dollars to order through Amazon. The price might go up when you factor in more specialized guides (those that focus in each of the sections), those by non-official companies that claim to teach tricks to be better at decoding the specific test (these are, in my experience, quite effective) and even prep seminars or courses. For a student of upper-middle class background, these prices might not be that big of a deal. Their parents, concerned about their child’s success, will cash in so their child can obtain the highest score possible. But, what about children of lower income households, whose parents are not very familiar with college applications or are not supportive of their children’s quest to pursue higher education?

It’s sometimes possible to obtain need-based fee waivers for the SAT and ACT. Students with free or reduced school lunch like me got a waiver and could take their tests worry free. The waivers, however, tend to be good for taking the test twice. The message here is simple: if you’re poor, you better study harder and appreciate your free trials, because you won’t get to take your test again for a third time like your rich friends. It’s also imperative to point out that sometimes household income doesn’t factor in the specific circumstances of a family. A family that earns 40 thousand a year might be better off than one that earns twice that amount in an area with a higher price of living, such as the densely populated areas of California and New York. It’s up to guidance counselors to notice such discrepancies, and they might not always be good at that. Guidance counselors can be biased against students of underrepresented background and lower social classes, making this situation all more difficult.

I am not advising against the use of standardized tests to grant admission to colleges and universities, but I am asking that admission departments understand these tests are not great equalizers. On the contrary, they skew towards the well-off like other measures of student success, such as some extracurricular activities. It would also be great if these tests were provided for free by schools to make things fair for every student wishing to attend college.

These tests are also not entirely honest, can be culturally biased against minority groups and include stuff that’s perhaps not very useful to determine how well someone will adapt to college-level coursework. The SAT used to advertise the fact that one could easily ace the math section without a calculator and without having taken a pre-calculus course. However, students these days are used to calculators and, if given the option to bring one (the SAT does give that option), they’ll do so. The test is already not fair if some students could use a calculator while others might have forgotten to bring theirs on test day. Should they have brought their calculator? Absolutely, but the exam claims to test on critical reasoning, not being able to remember to bring an item on a Saturday morning. Test writers should also be mindful of the very diverse group of students they are dealing with and try to be as inclusive as possible with their questions. Students of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds might be confused by questions that relate only to the experience of white upper-middle class students. Lastly, these tests historically have included sections of dubious usefulness, like the most advanced vocabulary questions on the SAT or the confusing graphs and charts presented in the science section of the ACT. I can’t support the notion that knowledge of the world « flotsam » (debris left after a wrecked ship) somehow makes a student more prepared for challenging college coursework. Anyone could look up what a very obscure word means by looking it up in a dictionary. What should be tested is the ability to understand vocabulary in context, instead of the ability to memorize the obscurest dictionary words or Latin and Greek roots. Likewise, while the ACT designers claim the science section requires minimal understanding of science and just attention to detail and to what’s being asked, this does not mean advanced science students, who are more familiarized with scientific concepts and diagrams, are not at an advantage over the rest. Just like those who have taken pre-calculus before the test have an edge in math, advanced science students will inevitably do better in this section. This implies the test is a classic case of false advertising, since the testers advertise their products as helping put everybody on equal ground. Such a proposition is admittedly absurd, but the testers still entertain it.

Regarding tests that grant admission to graduate and professional schools, I can also assure that they are unnecessarily expensive and thus a burden for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds who would like to continue their studies. The GRE costs at least 187 dollars. For those who receive financial aid, a voucher can be obtained to cut the price by half. This is still cumbersome for students who already have financial duties like paying loans, housing and tuition. The pattern of wealthier students having more time and money to prepare for the test repeats itself, as students with financial difficulties will struggle to find money for specialized guides and time from their busy schedules to study consistently. The GRE is also arguably not too different from the SAT and ACT, so as a requirement it feels rather redundant. Graduate school consists primarily of writing and research, skills whose evaluation does not translate well to a few hours of sitting in front of a computer.

I have no experience with the MCAT and LSAT, so I will restrict my criticism to the general observations I’ve made thus far: they are expensive and thus not very inclusive. I’ve heard mixed opinions on the MCAT’s inclusion of fields like psychology and sociology, but only medical students can tell whether those two subjects are essential for success in the profession (I can see why medical schools are requesting these subjects, but I do not know much about testing standards for them).

It’s pointless to mention admission officers should take into account multiple factors when they decide whether a candidate is worthy of entering a school since this is common knowledge. However, it’s important to analyze a students’ credentials carefully before making a decision. When looking at two identical scores, one should look at the students’ socioeconomic background to determine who performed well despite his or her personal limitations. If we as a society claim to be supporters of social mobility, it’s important to look at students’ achievements and put them in context. Standardized tests, in spite of their name which claims to be fair to everybody by employing the same standards for all test-takers, can’t show the full picture and therefore shouldn’t justify admission or rejection to an institution.