Commentary

Abusing Standardized Testing

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The history of testing in this country and in Europe, where the modern testing movement began, is filled with examples of the misuse and abuse of tests. Various minority groups (whichever group was a popular target at the time) have been wrongly labeled and excluded from full participation in American society on the basis of their scores on a wide variety of instruments designed to assess everything from aptitude to intelligence.

Tests have been used to demonstrate the feeble-mindedness of Southern European immigrants (a false conclusion upon which this country's immigration policy was based near the turn of the century). They have been used as well to document the "inherent" inability of women to excel in higher mathematics. There are numerous examples, more contemporary and closer to home, of the use of tests to justify racist or elitist social policies. The infamous "literacy tests"--in use less than two decades ago--prevented blacks in the South from registering to vote.

Given the less than exemplary performance of the testing movement, it should not be surprising that members of minority groups and others who have been its victims maintain an attitude of healthy skepticism about the use of standardized tests today. History justifies their skepticism, which is not likely to be easily dissipated. And it should not be. The important role that tests play in all of our lives makes it crucial that their uses and the controls for their quality be constantly questioned and re-examined.

Tests touch all of us regardless of our status because they provide a relatively inexpensive way to acquire information that enables us to make some very difficult choices. Which student, for example, should get an A in a course, and which should get a C; who should be hired for a job as a bus driver, and who should not; who can enter the armed services, and who cannot; who will be admitted to graduate or professional school and who will not; and who will be promoted in a job and who will be left behind.

Because of the enormous importance of these questions, the instruments used to help make such decisions must be subjected to intense scrutiny and be required to meet exacting standards. If they are designed to predict academic performance, as are the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), then they should be used for this purpose only, and they should be both accurate and reliable predictors--as these tests are. The predictive ability of each of these particular tests, however, decreases with each year after the first year of college or graduate school. Yet, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the results of SAT's or GRE's to be used to predict the successful completion of college or success in a later career--uses for which they are entirely inappropriate.

The competitive nature of the test-construction industry is partly responsible for the misuse of tests. As with competition between producers of other commodities, competition between test producers to promote the sale and use of their tests leads to a tendency to oversell the product. Whether the motive is profit or prestige, the temptation to make claims for a test that it cannot fulfill can result in applications that are totally unjustified by their design. Witness, for example, the widely held perception that tests can measure innate, immutable "intelligence," or accurately--and with certainty--predict the success or failure of individuals in their careers. These beliefs did not just arise of their own accord but resulted from the exorbitant claims of producers for what tests could do. Although test theorists today reject such beliefs, it was not until relatively recently that those who were most negatively affected by tests began to question and doubt the ability of tests to measure up to the expectations that had been created.

It is important to remember that while the tests we use are often called aptitude, ability, or intelligence tests, these are all essentially assessments of achievement. The tests attempt to determine how much of certain kinds of information (e.g., word meanings or mathematics) a person has learned or how well he or she can apply certain skills (e.g., logical reasoning, problem solving) that have also been learned. They directly measure a person's performance at a given time only--how well he or she can reproduce, under test conditions, what has been learned and practiced in the past. Other qualities such as intelligence or aptitude are then inferred from performance on the test.


Although the history of tests and their continued misuse dictate that a healthy skepticism be maintained, our focus on the test as the culprit is often misdirected. It is akin to the slaying of the messenger because he is the bearer of bad news. In many cases, the targets of our displeasure should be the parents and the educational system that fail to prepare our children to compete effectively once they have left school. This is not to say that there are not poorly constructed tests and that tests are not misused to the detriment of minority groups. But often they are merely serving to highlight the consequences of other, basic problems: Schools are producing large numbers of black and brown children who at 17 years of age are in real danger of being relegated to a growing underclass of people who cannot read, write, or compute; and we, citizens and parents, have not applied enough pressure on the schools to teach basic skills, and we have not assumed enough responsibility in the education of our own children.

As members of groups that have been the victims of inequities because of the misuse of tests, we should take the advice that is often given to persons complaining about old age--we should consider the alternative. As long as educational opportunities are unequal, members of minority groups will be adversely affected by the use of tests, but tests also provide an objective standard that is publicly observable and that can be met and surpassed. The alternative to testing might well be a return to the use of subjective standards--a return to the days when membership in the old-boy network and ethnic identification were the primary standards for selection and advancement.

Vol. 01, Issue 29, Page 17

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