Assessment Commentary

Standardized Realities

By Jose Ferreira — February 09, 2010 3 min read

I began taking standardized tests for fun. I would take them in the morning with a cup of coffee, the way other people do crosswords. I found a hidden structure to standardized tests that makes them quite easy. And hilarious. I was obsessive, taking every GMAT, LSAT, SAT, and GRE that had ever been published. I took an MCAT once just for laughs. I don’t know any science, but I did well enough that I could have gotten into medical school.

My friends were unsupportive. They’d pick fights with me about the fairness of admissions testing. One even suggested that I join the test-prep industry. And so I did.

People always ask me whether I think standardized tests actually measure anything. I used to give them nerdy statistical answers about scoring validity and concordance tables, often with the enthusiasm a computer programmer has for an “X-Files” marathon or a new flavor of ramen noodles. Eventually, though, I realized that what these people want to hear is this: “Standardized tests combine the diagnostic efficiency of a banana-republic health-care system with the personal touch of the airport immigration line.” It helps to throw in a reference to the Nazis for good measure.

Standardized tests are very effective predictors of academic success in college or graduate school. That's a fact of statistics, whether we like it or not."

The reality is that standardized tests are very effective predictors of academic success in college or graduate school. That’s a fact of statistics, whether we like it or not. It’s also just an average, and you may be an exception one way or the other. That’s why standardized tests are only part of the application process, and are never (or should never be) the most important part.

Probably the most frequent complaint I hear is, “I worked really hard and got good grades, but I just don’t do well on those tests.” But if standardized tests perfectly correlated with your current academic transcript, they would be utterly useless. And for every hard-working kid who struggles with the test, there’s another kid who hasn’t yet gotten it together in school but will with a little more maturity. The test is designed not to penalize the former but to identify the latter.

Another pop-psychology protest is that standardized tests are ipso facto biased against minorities, since African-Americans and Hispanics on average underperform the mean. This argument is about as logical as divorcing your spouse upon reading that most billionaires are single. Other minority groups perform at or above the mean, so the issue isn’t ethnic identity. And it isn’t the tests; every question is now statistically vetted to eliminate any cultural bias. The failure is in society itself. Americans spend more than anyone else on public school education, but we spend it irrationally and extremely unevenly. Been to any inner-city schools recently? I have. It’s a miracle the scoring decrement isn’t even greater for the minority students who predominantly populate them. In fact, standardized tests have historically been the deserving minority candidate’s best friend, giving admissions officers hard data to help overcome even the most subtle perceptual biases.

Yet a growing number of colleges say standardized tests don’t measure anything and are making the SAT voluntary. Some of these schools use intellectually dishonest arguments like “high school grades are a better predictor of college performance.” That’s true, but high school grades combined with SAT scores are a better predictor still. So why not use them? After all, getting more information can’t possibly hurt—can it?

My suspicion is that schools making the SAT voluntary are doing so for affirmative action purposes. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly narrowed the allowable use of affirmative action in university admissions. Shortly thereafter, admissions rates across the country declined for Hispanics and African-Americans. Since these groups historically underperform the mean, SAT scores tend to be a mildly deflationary force on their overall admissions rates.

The ivory-tower solution? Drop the test so that affirmative action admissions are easier to justify. And, wherever possible, shoot the messenger. It’s come full circle: The same people who once demanded standardized tests in order to keep minorities out, now attack the tests so they can let more minority candidates in.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Standardized Realities


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