The Pain of Standardized College Testing

by Lauren Anderson

For many students, standardized tests are the bane of their existence. From district exams to state exams to the PSATs, SATs, and ACTs, they are stressful and overwhelming, causing some students to literally break down. Still, the number of students who take these exams continues to grow as more and more enter the college admissions process. Some students might even tell you that months of preparation, hundreds of dollars, and seemingly endless anxiety is worth it when that acceptance letter comes in the mail. That piece of paper represents, among other things, emancipation from the idea that the value of one’s intelligence can be determined from a set of scores.

But now comes an idea for yet another test.

A year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed that colleges and universities create their own version of a standardized test. There was a loud outcry against it from the academic world. But, according to a recent article in Newsweek many colleges and universities are not as opposed to the idea as was originally indicated. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges have agreed to eventually include test scores that measure “student outcomes” on a website where prospective students can use to compare colleges. More than 200 colleges and universities have already agreed to be a part of this website, called College Portrait.

Proponents of standardized testing argue that it will encourage schools to be more honest about their costs and standards of education. In a time when tuition can be more than $37,000 a year (D.C.'s George Washington University tops the most expensive list at $37,820), the transparency colleges and universities maintain regarding their costs is extremely important. Still, the implications of standardized testing in college cannot be ignored.

College provides an opportunity for intellectual growth. It teaches students to differentiate between information to be regurgitated on a test and true knowledge by allowing them to study the topics that truly interest them. In order for it to serve them in their careers, that knowledge must be deep and insightful. Any type of standardized test would be an insult to that process.

Secondly, standardized testing also makes education into a competition, distracting it from its actual purpose. If colleges are overly concerned with standardized test scores, they will likely put pressure on faculty to teach to the test, infringing on the professors’ authority to share their knowledge as they see fit. This competitive atmosphere would most likely deter accomplished and noteworthy faculty because they will not be able to take their talent elsewhere if the trend is for such tests nationwide.

Lastly, the availability of standardized test scores for the benefit of prospective students only exacerbates the issue of universities putting obscene amounts of money and effort into attracting students. Colleges and universities need to redirect their energies to maintaining the most productive, beneficial environments possible for their students and faculty. Standardized testing is no way to do this.

(Photo by Brittay Smith of Idaho, via morgueFile.)

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Anonymous said...

I would actually like to see universities rely only on standardised testing to determine who gets in.

that way, students who get into top universites because daddy is an alum who donates big money to the college, would be forced to go to the school they deserve to get into and maybe more poor kids and black kids might find their way into the Ivy league

what is wrong with a little competition?

Caitlin Servilio said...

What's wrong with it is that students whose daddies can afford to donate big money to colleges are the same students who can afford to take ultra-expensive SAT prep courses, and live in areas where high school education is more rigorous and well-funded, and are, in essence, the students more likely to do well on the SATs in the first place.

I don't think that making standardized testing the lone qualification for university acceptance is a good idea, not only because the test is skewed towards upper-class white kids, but because by doing so you're totally disregarding other skills--artistic, musical, leadership, etc--and sending the message that only kids who excel at fill-in-the-blank vocab and algebra deserve to go to college.

Rick Rockwell said...

These are really two different subjects: standardized tests for entrance, and a new standardized test for graduation. However, they boil down to the same issue: how can you make a multiple-choice, standard test the only way to evaluate the complex issues of intelligence, education, and potential for future growth.

You can't.

First, let's deal with entrance exams. Caitlin is correct in her assessment, at least from my view. This compounds the problem. From my experience in evaluating graduate candidates using standardized tests and for using those tests to judge undergraduates for admission to special programs, if that is the only evaluation tool, you are going to leave some very talented people out. Some folks don't do well on those tests. Also, look at all the criticism over the years from minority groups who correctly criticize those tests for coming from a particular cultural point of view. We need to create better ways to evaluate potential students, not scrim our admission criteria down to one test.

As for the idea of standardized tests to graduate, this is part of the outcomes and assessment movement in accreditation. It is also part of how consumerism has invaded the academy. Students are not customers. The relationship between professor and student and between university and student is much more complex. Otherwise, just make us the education cafeteria: come in, get the courses you want, and punch out with those courses at a price. Buying an education is not like purchasing food and clothing, but those who want to smash all we do into one evaluative test often think so.

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