What do your standardized test results say about you?

Most students first encounter high-stakes standardized tests in their final years of high school, when preparing their applications for university. The most common test are the SATs. Within our cohort of undergraduate psychology students, I bet a good percentage of us have either taken or are planning on taking our next high-stakes test: the GREs. But what do these scores really measure and predict? Should they have this much control over our future?

The general answer to the first question is that standardized tests measure “scholastic aptitude”, or “academic readiness for college” for the SATs. Standardized testing has become the mainstream way to test a student’s intellectual capacity and readiness, and this quantitative grade is habitually disclosed to decision-makers, such as college admissions. However, results on standardized tests have been rising (known as the Flynn effect), and exclusive universities have responded to this trend by admitting students with increasingly higher scores. This is due to the assumptions that standardized tests have high predictive validity, and that the higher the score, the more “ready” the student is for the academic rigors of an institution, therefore the more successful the student will be.

Academic achievement has been inappropriately used as a synonym for success and intelligence, so the higher your score, the “smarter” you are described as, by parents, peers, and so on. Likewise, IQ and academic achievement have often been used interchangeably, even though IQ is simply one factor out of many that influences academic achievement. Despite the problems with centering education on standardized tests, and countless theories suggesting different forms of intelligences (for example, Gardner’s 8 Intelligences) which promote a holistic view on aptitude, educational institutions still focus largely on what they consider “scholastic achievement”, such as reading, writing, and mathematics, which are also the easiest subjects to test objectively and give numerical scores to.

This is not to say that standardized tests provide no benefit or information — they have been consistently linked to relevant outcomes such as GPA and performance in graduate school. With the ever-increasing amount of students, standardized tests provide teachers with a mode to test all the students as fairly and objectively as possible, one that is not expensive, taxing, and time-consuming. However, this is at the cost of information on problem-solving processes and a holistic view of the students’ capabilities.

The results of standardized tests cannot be extended to equally significant cognitive abilities such as creativity and practicality, or personal aspects such as motivation and interest — factors that are also important in an academic setting and academic achievement. Neither can it be extended to all job performance, where personality may play a bigger factor in the evaluation. For example, success in a Masters of Counseling does not necessarily mean success as a counselor. While it is tempting to resort to the most efficient method, different assessment methods in combination with standardized testing would produce more accurate and fair evaluations, depending on the ability that is being tested.

While standardized tests have historically been created with good intentions, they have unfortunately become so established in educational systems that these tests have now become the major focus of mainstream education (teaching to the test), can cause changes in the structure of curricula, and can even shape a school’s overall configuration.

As stated by the College Board (2015) itself, “Students who do well in the classroom are often the same ones who will do well on the SAT.” It is well worth reflecting on that statement, and whether success is solely found in the classroom setting, or not. Standardized tests remain a useful tool in giving rough approximations on academic achievement. Alas, its predictive validity should end there. Standardized test results should only be used for the purpose they were meant for, and only predict achievement in a classroom setting with formal education. These results should not be extended to ambiguous conditions or attributes such as future success and intelligence.

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