On March 8, thousands of students poured into testing rooms armed only with a sharpened #2 pencil, a calculator and the knowledge that these next few hours could make or break their college applications.
As the SATs and other widespread standardized tests such as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) began to get questioned, researchers tried to stem this speculation, concluding that the road to these anxiety-filled classrooms was truly paved with good intentions.
Although it was not the sole cause of the heavy implementation of standardized tests, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a program mandating annual testing in all 50 states with the intention of improving individual outcomes in education, acted as a trigger for the slew of tests that came pouring out in the years to come. Since the program’s creation in 2002, public education slowly transformed from an entity educating for the sake of education to a system based off the ability to fill in an answer key. Especially since the amount of funding given to public schools through NCLB continues to be determined by the scores of the students taking the tests, giving schools the drive to base their educational standards around the content in the tests, not the relevance of the material. And as the case is slowly being built against the deeply ingrained system of standardized testing, the question arises: Is this doing more harm than good?
A 2009 study proved exactly this when the U.S. slipped from its position of 18th in the world in math to 31st place, with a similar, but not as drastic drop in science. In a more recent, and a perhaps more daunting study, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), revealed in its 2013 assessment that the U.S. ranked 26th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science out of 34 other nations.
The SAT and similar tests are a whole other demon. Not only have they become a dominant part of the college application process and the bane of any high school junior’s existence, these tests strayed from their original purpose.
In its origins, the SAT was never intended to measure the quality of learning. The tests are designed so that only about half the students taking the test will actually respond correctly to most questions. The primary goal of the tests was to assess the strengths of each test-taker, not to base a student’s academic merit off a number. So while the test was formed under the intention of measuring students’ strong points, the test quickly mutated to fit the growing competitiveness of the college application process.
Also, due to an enormous achievement gap between ethnic groups, scoring on the SAT relies more dominantly on economic status and ethnicity than it does on the ability of the test-taker. A 2010 study done by the Harvard Educational Review concluded that African American students, at an average, scored 99 points behind the average Caucasian student.
“The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results,” the members dictating the study concluded.
Consequently, the study itself was widely attacked by the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, the agencies responsible for the creation of the SAT, saying in defense that American society isn’t fair, but the SAT is. So why is the U.S. still judging students with different backgrounds and abilities off an average?
Although recently becoming a more publically acknowledged issue, the debate over the validity of the test is not a new one. Over the past 10 years, a wide range of college admissions leaders questioned the effectiveness of the tests, with more jumping on the bandwagon in the past year. Among them was Richard Atkinson, the president of the University of California, who announced his desire to abolish the test as a requirement for university admission.
Fortunately, the reliance of colleges and universities on standardized tests continues to drop as they weigh more heavily on sections such as the college essays, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and portions of the application that give the admissions officers a more personal look at students and their talents. However, the solution to the annual tests required by NCLB becomes far more convoluted.
The issue with abolishing the tests conducted by public schools extends far past the day of the test and into the classroom where educating, in many cases, consists of teaching students to take multiple choice tests, not understanding the topic matter. Many critics of the system place the blame on the schools for deciding the curriculum, but the blame should be instead placed on laws such as NCLB that mandate the tests and standard -based curriculum. Unfortunately, the role of fixing this obviously flawed system falls on students and educators to both raise awareness and begin to break apart the vicious circle created by NCLB.
The easiest and, really, the only solution to the testing-based culture is to slowly loosen the proverbial noose tied around the U.S. education system and instead focus on developing students’ unique qualities and interests. After all, education is about learning, not scribbling in test bubbles.
— Megan Janetsky is an editor of her school publication at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix.