Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Standardized-Test Prep Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf

By Travis Coleman — August 02, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When the College Board announced it would debut a new version of the SAT this year, it also announced a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free online access to official SAT practice material. This signaled a big step toward leveling the playing field in standardized-test preparation, but it also highlighted some common misconceptions about the value and purpose of the test-prep industry.

Soon after the announcement, Sal Khan, the CEO of Khan Academy, offered some critical words about other test-prep programs, implying that they offered only “tips and tricks,” as opposed to the “real learning” enshrined in Khan Academy’s new approach.

This misleading representation of the test-prep industry undermines efforts to encourage students to learn the skills necessary to succeed on standardized tests.

BRIC ARCHIVE

As a former SAT tutor and current LSAT curriculum manager, my views are painted by my own experiences teaching these exams. That said, I agree with many criticisms of standardized testing’s interference with classroom learning, and the overemphasis we place on test scores in general. What I don’t agree with is that standardized tests are inherently flawed, and that preparing for them is counterproductive.

In fact, it’s dangerous to view the test-prep industry as ineffective and an obstacle to learning. First, such a view misrepresents the role that traditional test prep plays in preparing for a standardized test. Second, it places too much pressure on organizations like Khan Academy and the College Board to solve all the problems that our vast systems of public and private education cannot.

Most Americans go to school for about 12 years before taking their first big standardized admissions test, the SAT or the ACT. They have that much time to learn basic math, reading, and writing. Compare that to the one to three months that most people spend studying for the exams themselves, and one fact becomes clear: the goals of test prep must be different from the goals of school.

There are real problems in the world of standardized testing, but the simple existence of test-prep programs teaching students pragmatic skills is not one of them."

The goals of good standardized-test prep are to help test-takers analyze their performance, target weaknesses that can realistically be addressed in the time available, and play to their strengths on test day. That usually does involve teaching math, grammar, or critical-reading skills—I’ve spent plenty of time teaching students about sentence structure or transitional language or fractions and percentages. But it also involves teaching people how to prioritize based on an awareness of their own abilities.

Many successful people are successful not because they are good at everything, but because they understand and exploit their own strengths, and rely on other people to support them in areas of weakness. A strong test-prep program helps test-takers recognize what they know and what they don’t.

To vilify the type of test prep that teaches time management and prioritization rather than “real learning” is to replace a manageable task with a nearly insurmountable one. Addressing the underlying fundamentals rather than working on test strategy takes an enormous amount of time. Students struggle to master these topics in the classroom over many years, much less on their own at home, after a long day of school and an afternoon of homework, part-time jobs, or extracurriculars.

The SAT and the ACT are admissions tests, designed to measure readiness for college. They are not tools designed primarily to provide guidance to students on how to improve, or to tell schools where they are succeeding or failing. They are not tools designed primarily to assess our education system as a whole or to assess the overall intelligence of a human being. They may have been repurposed to fill those roles, but they do so inconsistently and unfairly.

If you’re going to take issue with something in the standardized-testing world, do so with purpose. If you believe that statewide standardized testing to assess the efficacy of the school system is counterproductive, then contact your local school board. If you believe that admissions tests have too much influence in admissions decisions, then stop reading U.S. News & World Report’s higher education rankings. If you think admissions tests are unfair to minority students and those from lower socioeconomic classes, then fight to protect policies like affirmative action.

And if you believe that admissions-test prep gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford it, then support the many organizations out there offering test prep for free or at a very low cost.

There are real problems in the world of standardized testing, but the simple existence of test-prep programs teaching students pragmatic skills is not one of them. Instead, test prep is an alternative source of education for students who seek it out, offering them lessons that aren’t often taught in school, but which they may come to value much more than any of the formulas and parts of speech they will promptly forget after taking the test.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 2016 edition of Education Week as Standardized Test Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

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.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
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.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
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.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

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.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
Proven Techniques for Assessing Students with Technology
Dr. Doug Fisher’s proven assessment techniques help your students become active learners and increase their chances for higher learning g...
Content provided by Achieve3000
Assessment Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End 'Outdated' Year-End Exams
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will shift to "progress monitoring" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes a new testing regimen is needed to replace the Florida Standards Assessment, which has been given since 2015.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
iStock/Getty