Standardized Tests: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

As someone who makes money preparing others for standardized tests, I can say that I think they generally fulfill their purpose.  I do think that in recent years, far more attention has been given to them than they deserve, however.  In particular, the SAT hype is out of control.

The Stanford Achievement Test was originally developed by the state of California as a way to mass-screen all of the candidates for its university system.  Following World War II, there were an unprecedented number of applicants, because of the GI Bill, and the colleges needed a way to filter out the most successful ones quickly. Because the SAT primarily measures one’s ability to take standardized tests, it’s actually a pretty good indicator of how a student will do in college.  But if you’re applying to a school like, say, St. John’s College, where your grades depend on your ability to write and perform on oral exams, a high SAT score doesn’t say much of anything.  Bottom line: it certainly doesn’t measure intelligence.  Not even close.

The ACT, despite what you may have heard, is not much different from the SAT at all.  There is a Science section, but it mostly involves data analysis and logic – the same things the SAT tests for in its Math sections.  Oh, and there are four possible responses to each question instead of five.  But if I had a dollar for every time someone told me they’d heard the ACT was easier than the SAT, I would be the world’s richest teacher.  As it is, I’m just very frustrated.  Honestly, I want to say, do you think there’s some kind of trick here?  If the ACT was easier, why would anyone even take the SAT, when most colleges accept either?

The really unfortunate part of this whole business is that, regardless of your test preference, you really can’t take the test without preparing.  If you do, you’ll be at a disadvantage, because this time, everyone else really is doing it.  You can check a prep book out of the library and learn most of what a tutor like me would tell you, if you’re smart and a quick learner.  Or you can pay someone to explain it to you and drill you on the concepts.  Either way, though, you cannot possibly get your highest score by taking the test cold.  There’s just too much psychology involved now; the test writers have to keep upping the ante as tutors uncover more of their secrets, and now the experience has so much cross and double-cross that it feels like a spy novel.

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I am more of a fan of the AP exams, because they tend to contain fewer tricks than the SAT and, with the free-response section, give students a chance to formulate their own answers.  The AP exams test book knowledge: if you know a certain number of things about a certain subject, they postulate, you don’t need to bother taking that subject in college.  This is a good thing.  I was able to miss a full semester’s worth of English and History courses when I finally went to a university that recognized them; my first college experience involved taking, basically, the same types of Humanities courses I’d taken and aced in high school, and I was miserable.  Someday I’ll tell you more about that sad story.

My experience with post-secondary standardized tests has obviously been a lot more limited.  The PRAXIS I was a complete joke; I took it after wasting far too much time studying and got almost a perfect score.  In this case, the school just wants to see that you’ve passed; I certainly could have done that without cracking a book open.

The PRAXIS II was harder because it was more specialized, but again, I know I studied more than I needed to, and again I got a perfect score.  It’s a simple scaling system; there are 120 questions on the test, and a score ranges from 100 (none right) to 200 (all right.)  Then I found that Maryland’s state score, 164, means you have to get 80 questions right.  Unlike the SAT, there’s no guessing penalty, so basically, you can miss one question out of every 3 and still pass.  One out of 3?  33%?  Wouldn’t you want your English teacher to score higher than a D?

I’ve always hated the statement “Those who can’t do, teach,” even I was a teacher myself, and even though I know it’s meant to be a tongue-in-cheek witticism.  I think teachers should be brilliant.  They should be smarter than their students, but try to teach the students to be smarter than them.  They should get A’s on all the tests they take, and the questions they got wrong should bother them later, because they should want to be perfect.  Otherwise, how are they going to teach students to have impossibly high standards?  In my opinion, they’re the only standards worth having.