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Thinking Out Of The Box

On Standardized Tests

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Is There A Correlation Between Standardized Testing And Proficiency Or Is The Notion Of A Pioneering Individual A Lost Aspiration Of An Optimistic View Of The Future?

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 19, 2013 — With a professional environment that increasingly looks for workers that think outside of the box — at least that’s the schtick — isn’t it a little ridiculous that higher education still relies so heavily on standardized tests.

While multiple factors affect a student’s chances of attending universities, which university a student gets into and how much support the school doles out is largely determined by standardized test scores. Between the SAT and ACT for high school students and the multiple GRE tests for graduate school hopefuls, these tests hold an inordinate amount of weight in university admissions.

College is supposed to be the place where students distill their adolescent education into a more focused career path. While standardized tests and basic curriculum are a necessary evil in pre-college education, post-high school students should be focused on gaining knowledge tailored to their specific career goals, not preparing for grab-bag tests that include a wealth of information completely unrelated to a student’s focus.

What this standardization does is undermine the specialization that college should be all about. Of course, students should be encouraged to take a variety of electives in order to have a relatively rounded academic career. But, when it comes to entering college, students should be tested on the subjects that they are planning to pursue.

Judging a student of the humanities by their competence in math makes little sense. While the critical thinking skills tested through mathematics should not be discounted entirely, the student’s proficiency in math should not be equally weighted.

Furthermore, a student looking to a subject that does not fall under the broad categories of the SATs is out of luck. A history student, for example, will find very little of their preferred skills tested on the SAT.

I will use my own life as an example.

Like any other university hopeful, I took the SAT during the end of my high school career. I scored a 600 on the math portion and a 670 in verbal reasoning for a total of 1270. That overall score placed me in roughly the 88th percentile.

That score is not too shabby if I do say so myself and I received a decent tuition package from Arizona State University, where I initially studied journalism before double majoring in English and history.

However, if I was judged solely on my verbal reasoning score of 670, I would have placed in the 92nd percentile of my class. While a four percent jump may seem minute, it makes a big difference in the world of fellowships, grants and scholarships.

Additionally, the SAT failed to cover most of the basic skills I would need to attain a degree in journalism, so it really told ASU nothing about whether it should admit me or not. I was not tested on an ability to interview, hound a source or dig up news. All ASU really found out was that I was decent at math and an avid reader, something my high school transcripts already laid out.

The people behind the SAT and the GRE attempt to solve this problem with supplementary subject tests that cover specific areas of study. However, they fall very short of the stated goal.

Once again, I will turn to personal experience for support.

I have taken the GRE English Literature subject test once and plan on attempting it at least one more time and let me tell you, this thing is a doozy. Once again, the people behind the test (Educational Testing Service) fail to specialize the test and instead throw a smattering of information at the test taker that may or may not relate to his/her field of study.

I, for instance, plan on pursuing a PhD in English with a focus on English and Irish Modernism, but I will be lucky if 10 percent of the test covers this material. This is because the test covers all English language literature and the non-English literatures that have informed it...since the beginning of time.

That is right. The test covers hundreds and hundreds of years and nothing is off limits. So, every student taking the test must attempt to not only remember everything they’ve read in school over the past 15 or so years, but also catch up on the thousands of books and poems they have missed out on.

Now, I don’t think the GRE should have a test made up of 100 percent Modernist questions for students like me as a well-rounded knowledge of literature is pertinent for all English students regardless of focus. However, ETS should provide different versions of the test that give a greater emphasis to a student’s focus area.

Like the SAT, the GRE is not the sole tool used by graduate schools to determine who receives admittance, but it is a big piece of the puzzle. The University of Texas at Austin English program, for instance, states that a low GRE subject test score will not disqualify an applicant, but their students have generally scored above the 65th percentile.

While this may seem like a rather low bar, consider that the percentiles on the GRE subject tests are not determined on a year-to-year basis like the SAT, but by comparing all students who have taken that version of the GRE English test (and the same test version can be administered for years on end).

In the end, standardized tests only test how well a student can take a test. They do little to actually discern what kind of knowledge a student has or what they can bring to a university or graduate program. Rather than give these tests undue weight, academia needs to get rid of them in favor of more personalized, accurate methods already in use such as essays, interviews and letters of recommendation.

Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at wschutsky@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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