Assessment Opinion

Standardized Realities

By Jose Ferreira — February 09, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Assessment Whitepaper
Five Ways to Use Universal Screening Data to Inform Instruction
To maximize your investment in collecting universal screening data, here are five ways to use it to inform instruction and improve readin...
Content provided by Voyager Sopris Learning
Assessment States Have Soured on the High School Exit Exam. Here's Why
The pandemic is one reason, but interest has waned for some time in light of mixed research.
3 min read
Photo of high school students taking exam.
Assessment A Huge Publisher and a Big Testing Company Are Teaming Up. What This Means for Educators
Four key questions to consider about how the pairing of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NWEA might affect educators.
3 min read
Students testing.
Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment
This Spotlight will help you examine updated testing guidance from the U.S. Dept. of Ed, analyze college-placement test scores, and more.