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Time to kill the standardized test

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 28, 2001

As a psychology major I was taught that standardized tests were a generally accurate, although not guaranteed, predictor of future performance which is why colleges and universities insisted judging my application to their programs with an eye to my scores. In my case, the tests were clearly wrong. I managed to finish high school with reading comprehension and writing scores that actually did go off the chart while my IQ score placed me firmly within the highest percentiles. Four years later I was all but drummed out of university -- degreeless -- thanks to mostly poor marks.

Based on my personal experience I can understand why others are opposed to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT to determine admission into post-secondary institutions, tests on which females and minorities generally score lower than their white male counterparts. Although schools are urged not to use test scores as their sole criteria, many don't look past the scores when determining who gets in.

TestThose and other concerns have spawned a growing movement to end the use of these tests and it appears to be having an effect. There are now about 385 colleges and universities that are SAT/ACT optional and the battle against testing is expanding past post-secondary institutions. On May 3, nearly 200 students in a Scarsdale, New York school district skipped a mandated science exam to protest standardized testing, a boycott organized by parents, echoing similar protests in Michigan and Massachusetts.

Unfortunately opponents of standardized testing often resort to ineffectual arguments, ranging anywhere from that they are racist and sexist to not measuring intangibles like motivation, the later which probably felled me in university. There are actually some very good arguments against testing that deserve to be considered by all sides and a good deal more effective

The first argument is to question whether testing actually accomplishes anything. Students in North America may be the most tested group in the world. As a former head of the House Education Committee remarked recently, if testing was the answer to our problems, the question would have been answered a long time ago.

Another point that proponents of testing should consider is what the tests actually end up measuring. Alfie Kohn, author and opponent of testing, stated in late April that "standardized tests are primarily measures of the size of the houses near a school or to put it in a more technical language - up to 90 per cent of the variants in test scores between schools, towns or states can be explained solely on the basis of socio-economic status without even knowing what's going on in the classrooms." Test administrators will tell you that even what a subject had for breakfast can influence a test score.

Kohn is also worried that the type of students passing the tests aren't the type of students we want passing. Extensive research as shown that the more shallow a student thinks, the better they score on a test. While the correlation doesn't always hold, students are individuals after all, in general it works that way. "So higher test scores for an individual student is not usually a good sign," says Kohn.

Perhaps most important to consider is what role these tests play in schools. Given the importance that these tests are given, one way to raise scores is to drill students relentlessly - sometimes to the detriment of other subjects. The time to raise those scores, after all, has to come from somewhere and we might be seeing that with the constant cuts to creative programs like music and art.

"Good electives, rich projects that are interdisciplinary - all of these are being scaled back across the country in the name of raising standards," argues Kohn, "so that when parents hear local officials claim our test scores went up their first response should be 'Oh no, what did you have to sacrifice to make that happen?'"

In the end, the tests may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By using them as both a measure of accountability and a measure to judge whether the methodology has been successful, we violate the basic rules of measurement. We are, in essence, giving the material to teachers to convey to their students and at the same time forcing them to prove that how they convey that material is worthwhile. When funding and salaries are dependent on raising those scores, accountability flies out the window.

The parents refusing to allow their children to undergo standardized testing realize these things. They want their children to be creative, engaged and in command of an interdisciplinary knowledge base, something that is not happening under the current régime of testing and the accompanying drive to raise scores for reasons both good and bad. Given the bureaucracy surrounding education, there are, as Albert Shanker once stated, "few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve." The parents of Scarsdale realized that and acted on their own and hopefully more parents begin to do so.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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