Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change Itby Peter Sacks
We've been told time and time again that standardized tests aren't perfect but that they're the best tool we have for gauging aptitude and achievement. Is this really true? What are the flaws of such testing? Why is your father's occupation a better predictor of SAT scores than virtually any other factor? And, most important, what can we do to hold one another
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We've been told time and time again that standardized tests aren't perfect but that they're the best tool we have for gauging aptitude and achievement. Is this really true? What are the flaws of such testing? Why is your father's occupation a better predictor of SAT scores than virtually any other factor? And, most important, what can we do to hold one another accountable to standards at all levels of schools and in the workplace?Standardized Minds dramatically shows how our unhealthy and enduring obsession with intelligence testing affects us all, from the day we enter kindergarten to the day we apply for that corporate job. Drawing creative solutions from the headlines and the frontlines, Sacks demonstrates proven alternatives to such testing and details a plan to make the American meritocracy legitimate and fair.
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Most Americans take standardized mental tests as a rite of passage from the day they enter kindergarten. Gatekeepers of America's meritocracyeducators, academic institutions, and employershave used test scores to label people as bright or not bright, as worthy academically or not worthy. Some, with luck, are able to overcome the stigma of poor performance on mental tests. But others do not.
Indeed, not only is it a stigma, but one largely unrecognized in our culture. Meritocracy's gatekeepers brand those who score poorly on standardized tests as somehow deficient, incapable. Educators have used a quasi-clinical term for such people: Remember the teacher or counselor who scornfully labeled an ambitious, competent child an "overachiever" because her academic performance exceeded what the tests predicted? Or recall the hand-wringing over the "underachiever," the student whose brilliant test scores predicted greater things than what he actually accomplished.
These terms are disappearing from public discussion, a result of concerns about standardized testing and its role in the American merit system. Some scholars have forcefully argued against the narrow views of ability measured by traditional mental tests. Many educators have sung the praises of new, authentic alternatives to standardized testing, such as performance assessment. Advocates of performance assessment say schools ought to focus more on what people can do and less on how well kindergarteners, high school students, and prospective teachers take tests.
Although the antitesting bandwagon has gathered new adherents, the wagon itself has crashed head-on into an entrenched system that is obsessed with the testing of American minds. With roots in intelligence testing that go back generations, the mental measurement establishment continues to define merit largely in terms of potential ability rather than actual performance. The case against standardized mental testing is as intellectually and ethically rigorous as any argument about social policy in the past twenty years. And yet such testing continues to dominate the education system, carving further inroads into the employment arena as well, having been bolstered in recent years by a conservative backlash advocating advancement by "merit."
How has the standardized testing paradigm managed to remain entrenched, despite the many criticisms against it? Like a drug addict who knows he should quit, America is hooked. We are a nation of standardized-testing junkies.
The Antitesting Movement
Granted, there has been scattered criticism against standardized testing in American education in the wake of the explosive growth of such testing since the 1960s. Baby boomers were funneled through the school system and tested to death. Sales of standardized tests to public schools, in real dollars, more than doubled between 1960 and 1989 to $100 million a yeareven while enrollments were up just 15 percent, according to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. That some parents, consumers, and teachers would voice concerns about the effects of standardized testing on schools and schoolchildren was perhaps an inevitable by-product of its growing cost and presence in American life.
Criticisms of testing became somewhat pronounced during the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in a string of successes for test consumers and their advocates. There were books and reports, such as Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim's The Case Against the SAT, and the 1980 Ralph Nader report, The Reign of ETS, about the Educational Testing Service, the company known famously as the maker of the SAT college admission test. New York's 1979 Truth in Testing law gave consumers of standardized mental tests a minimum of protection. Activists and educators launched the National Organization for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), the nation's first organization devoted to protecting the interests of millions of consumers of standardized tests.
These uprisings against standardized testing fueled suspicions that such tests played a key role in a rigged game, one that favored the society's well-educated elites under the guise of merit. The Nader report focused its attack on the Educational Testing Service. "An independent analysis of the dominant testing culture is now coming on the scene," the report's author, Allan Nairn, enthusiastically observed. "There will be no turning back this time. The shallowness of the ideology and depth of ETS's political power to preserve its way of testing are apparent to increasing numbers of students, parents, educators, administrators, and most refreshingly, to those deprived people who never made it through the first multiple-choice gate." (1)
Since 1980, the antitesting movement, if one exists, has occasionally lurched forward, even gaining a certain popular cachet. One might even be persuaded to conclude that the Nader report hit the bull's-eye by anticipating the ultimate demise of standardized testing as we know it. But to do so would underestimate the near magical power that quantification, standardization, and the measuring of minds continues to have over Americans.
A Glimpse at the Evidence
To be sure, independent research by academics in recent years, particularly those who aren't employed by the testing industry, has further bolstered the claims of the antitesting movement. Much of this recent researchwhich upcoming chapters will elaborate onconfirms suspicions that such tests have thwarted rather than helped educational reform and that they continue to be remarkably biased and inaccurate assessments of the abilities of many Americans. From this recent work, we know that:
· Standardized tests generally have questionable ability to predicts one's academic success.
Take, for instance, what's known as the Graduate Record Exam, a speeded, multiple-choice test that most of the nation's graduate programs require for admission or financial aid. University graduate departments have shown unwavering reliance on the GRE to predict a candidate's chances of success. This, despite reams of studies showing just the opposite: One's scores on the exam have almost no relationship whatsoever to his or her performance in graduate school.
What about the validity of the SAT, which is required for admission to many undergraduate colleges and universities? Numerous studies show that SAT scores explain just about 16 percent of the variation in actual freshman grades. A student's high school record alone is the best predictor of performance in the first year of college; further, the SAT, when combined with high school grades, adds only modestly to the predictive power of high school grades alone.
What is more, standardized tests like the SAT and GRE tend to especially penalize women and many minority students. Females tend to do worse than males on standardized tests but consistently earn better grades than males. Researchers consistently find that adding test scores to the admissions equation results in fewer women and minorities being accepted than if their academic records alone were considered.
Although the testing arena and the stakes involved might vary from university admissions testing, researchers have reached similar conclusions about the validity of standardized testing in the public schools. Teresa A. Dais of the University of Illinois commented in 1993: "Minorities and students with disabilities, in particular, are suffering as a result of traditional assessment practices, which have proven to be inaccurate and inconsistent, yet continue to be used in prediction, decision-making, and inferences about student performance and lifelong success." (2)
Perhaps a more fundamental point about the relationship of test scores and academic success is often lost in many studies of their validity. It's worth remembering, for instance, that the SAT isn't designed to predict one's ability to succeed at four years of college study, merely freshman grades. When researchers have asked the larger question of how test scores correlate to broader measures of college success or to a student's performance beyond the freshman year, the case for the SAT becomes weak indeed.
"Can a college effectively recruit and enroll students whom it is likely to regard as most successful four years later by evaluating applicants only on the basis of school rank and test scores?" William W. Willingham asked in a 1985 study, Success in College, published by the SAT's sponsor, the College Board. "If the institution defines success broadly ... the answer is no."
When researchers have asked the even more basic question of how well standardized test scores predict one's eventual success in the workplace, correlations all but disappear. At best, high test scores are pretty good indicators of participation in professions such as law, medicine, or university teaching, for which one must make certain standardized test cutoffs to enter a required academic program. But test scores tell us little about someone's real-world capabilities in medicine, law, or teaching. In short, scoring high on standardized tests is a good predictor of one's ability to score high on standardized tests.
· Standardized tests scores tend to be highly correlated with socioeconomic class.
Although standardized tests have a relatively bleak record of predicting success in school and work, we know that they do tend to correlate exceedingly well with the income and education of one's parents. Call it the "Volvo Effect." The data is so strong in this regard that one could make a good guess about a child's standardized test scores by simply looking at how many degrees her parents have and what kind of car they drive.
For now, consider some evidence from just the SAT. Recent data show that someone taking the SAT can expect to score an extra thirty test points for every $10,000 in his parents' yearly income. In a study of California high school students, parent education alone explained more than 50 percent of the variation in SAT scores. (3) And, according to recent U.S. Department of Education examinations of the backgrounds of students who made the SAT cut (a minimum score of 1,100) for highly selective colleges, fully one-third of these high scorers came from the upper-income brackets; that's compared to well under a tenth of high SAT scorers who emerge from the lower economic rungs.
· Standardized tests reward passive, superficial learning, drive instruction in undesirable directions, and thwart meaningful educational reform.
Teachers, researchers, and other educators have expressed widespread disenchantment with the results of several decades of standardized testing in American public schools. Evidence strongly suggests that standardized testing flies in the face of recent advances in our understanding of how people learn to think and reason. Repeatedly in the research over the past few years, especially in the grade school arena (K-12), one finds evidence that traditional tests reinforce passive, rote learning of facts and formulas, quite contrary to the active, critical thinking skills many educators now believe schools should be encouraging. Many suspect that the speeded, multiple-choice tests are themselves powerful incentives for compartmentalized and superficial learning.
At the K-12 level, teachers often don't believe the tests accurately measure their students' abilities, and do believe that widespread practice of "teaching to the test" renders test scores virtually meaningless. In 1994, the journal Educational Policy published a study on teachers' views of standardized tests. Just 3 percent of teachers in one sample agreed that such tests are generally good, "whereas 77 percent felt that tests are bad and not worth the time and money spent on them." According to the study, about eight in ten teachers believe their colleagues teach to the tests. (4)
Preoccupied with winning the standardized testing game for the sake of kudos from parents, principals, and state legislators, schools have often neglected reforms that would promote deeper and more active ways of thinking and learning than multiple-choice tests typically capture. The Office of Technology Assessment concluded in a 1992 report, Testing in American Schools: "It now appears that the use of these tests misled policymakers and the public about the progress of students, and in many places hindered the implementation of genuine school reforms."
A widespread tendency of teachers to "teach to tests" might be harmless if the tests were adequate indicators of the skills and abilities that would well serve pupils in their later academic and life endeavors. But that's doubtful. Listen to educational researcher Bruce C. Bowers:
However, the main purpose of standardized testing is to sort large numbers of students in as efficient a manner as possible. This limited goal, quite naturally, gives rise to short-answer, multiple-choice questions. When tests are constructed in this manner, active skills, such as writing, speaking, acting, drawing, constructing, repairing, or any of a number of other skills that can and should be taught in schools are automatically relegated to second-class status. (5)
The Shifting Policy Landscape Since 1980
To be sure, concerns over the validity, fairness, and efficacy of standardized testing's role in the meritocracy unquestionably have wrought some notable changes in how our society chooses to measure the merit of American citizens.
As many educators have become disillusioned with standardized testing, some reformers have managed to implement different ways to evaluate students and educational progress. In the schools, these alternatives frequently fall under the rubric of authentic assessment, the notion that students ought to be judged on the basis of what they can actually do, not how well they take tests. Also called performance assessment, these methods can mean anything from evaluating portfolios of student work or writing samples to art and science projects.
By fall 1996, as many as thirty-six states had begun to include open-ended, performance-oriented questions on their statewide student tests. But it would be an overstatement to conclude that states had embraced performance assessment and abandoned traditional tests. Indeed, fully forty-one states continued to rely on the garden-variety multiple-choice tests to measure educational progress of their students. (6) Only a tiny handful of states, such as Kentucky, Vermont, and California, took steps to eliminate traditional multiple-choice testsbut in almost all cases even those moves proved to be short-lived.
What is more, a relatively small but increasing number of undergraduate colleges and universities have made standardized admissions tests optional in the past few years. By 1995, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge counted 236 such institutions, an increase of 40 in just a year. In 1998, 281 institutions either eliminated or significantly curtailed the use of admissions tests. Many of these colleges are small, private, and not particularly choosy, but there have been several selective ones as well, such as Bates College in Maine, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, and a handful of colleges in Pennsylvania. Probably the largest is the California state university system. But like others on FairTest's list, such as Kentucky State, Golden Gate University, and the University of Kansas, the SAT is still required at Cal State campuses if a student's grades fall below a certain cutoff.
Entrenched or on the Wane?
What, then, are we to conclude from these recent developments? Is standardized testing in America's schools on the wane? Some observers say so. But it would be naive to underestimate the seemingly magical power that the standardized measurement of minds has on the American psyche. In fact, antitesting trends have been counterbalanced by a backlash that promises to reinforce standardized testing's continued domination of the American meritocracy.
It's worth noting that the mental-measurement culture has certainly withstood similar attacks in the past, as when the journalist Walter Lippmann wrote a series of articles in The New Republic in the early 1920s, warning that the prevalent use of IQ tests of the time "could ... lead to an intellectual caste system in which the task of education had given way to the doctrine of predestination and infant damnation."
Some seventy years after Lippmann's warning, we got The Bell Curve, the 1994 book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein arguing that inequality in America was largely the result of people born with different endowments of "intelligence." Tests such as the SAT, the roots of which go back to the very same intelligence tests Lippmann and others condemned, continue to flourish; indeed, they remain the centerpiece, the given in "meritocratic" views of who has "merit" and who does not.
The hegemony of testing to measure academic talent in our culture became especially evident amid assaults on affirmative action in the late 1990s in American education. These included new legal precedents and ballot measures in California, Texas, Mississippi, and the state of Washington. Critics of affirmative action have argued that people ought to be judged on "merit" not on gender or race. For them, the indisputable, unbiased criteria are grades and (especially) test scores. Abolishing affirmative action has often meant a renewed vigor in the decisive role that test scores have played in the "merit" system.
Similarly, under the banner of higher academic standards, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gave new prominence to the already huge role standardized test scores played in determining which athletes would receive scholarships to attend college. Despite strong opposition from civil rights organizations, the NCAA recently raised the standardized test scores required for an athlete's eligibility. The NCAA changed its policy contrary to compelling evidence that the real effect of the new rules would be to exclude many minorities from scholarships who would nevertheless have succeeded in college.
Similarly, consider what happened when college leaders convened in a closed-door meeting at Harvard in May 1996 to mull over their affirmative action strategy in the wake of Hopwood v. State of Texas. The Hopwood court, aligning itself with the "test scores equals merit" faithful, had simply assumed that different test scores for different races was proof of wrongdoing. That decision, ominous for affirmative action policies, prompted the president of one elite institution at the Harvard meeting to suggest that the SAT be eliminated from the admissions process. But other presidents at the meeting promptly dismissed the suggestion, arguing that quitting the SAT would be unwise in the current political climate. The public, long accustomed to the sanctity of standardized tests as a measurement of merit, would believe colleges were going lax on standards.
Moreover, in the name of education reform and higher academic standards, a conservatively rooted backlash in the 1990s resulted in several states shelving efforts at alternative forms of assessment in public schools. In California, former governor Pete Wilson, under pressure from conservatives, vetoed the reauthorization of the California Learning Assessment System, largely a performance-based assessment. Similarly inspired, conservatives in Arizona forced the state to shelve its performance assessment program. Kentucky, once a leader in performance assessment, brought back multiple-choice standardized tests because parents demanded a return to individual test scores for children in order to compare them on a national basis. The Indiana legislature too defeated proposals to replace multiple-choice tests with essays and open-ended questions.
When one adds up these shifting, often contradictory trends in policy, the net result suggests the standardized testing establishment is stronger than ever. Indeed, in many respects, the standardized testing industry has assumed an even greater dominance in Americans' lives since the Ralph Nader report in 1980. And as Chapter 10, "The Big Business of Testing," explores, the testing industry is poised to dig itself even deeper.
In 1980, just about half of the states had mandatory testing programs; by 1998, says a recent study by Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trusts, all but two did. By 1997, Americans were spending close to $200 million annually just on testing in the public schools, almost double the outlays of ten years earlier, according to the Bowker Annual. Between 1982 and 1994, standardized test sales grew faster than sales for school and college textbooks, mass market paperbacks, book clubs, and other segments of publishing. According to one recent estimate, Americans are taking as many as 600,000 standardized tests each year in schools, colleges and universities, and the workplace. (7)
What Are the True Costs?
Why has standardized mental testing managed to continue to explode in this fashion and remain entrenched in American life despite what we know about its dubious validity?
Excerpted from STANDARDIZED MINDS by PETER SACKS. Copyright © 1999 by Peter Sacks. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Peter Sacks is a journalist and essayist. His essays on education and American culture have appeared in Change, Thought & Action, The American Enterprise, and the New York Times. He lives in Boise, Idaho.
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I took the ACT and the SAT as well as many of the other "tests" out there and I didn't benefit from any of them. In fact, for the SAT, I checked out one of the College Board's test-prep books and took four practice tests and still only got an 1170. These tests were and still are designed to benefit the rich and well-off. Our colleges and universities need to move away from sorting and selecting students and focus on actually ensuring that everyone in this country gets a college education by changing admissions policies so as to acknowledge achievement in any form and actually educating students rather than privleging a few.
This book is a total fraud. Standardized tests are the perfect way to measure a student's abilities!