Standardized Testing: Key to a Dumber Tomorrow

Kaplan: Profiting off a broken educational system since 1938.

Recently, I’ve realized that if I want to have a real career, I need to go back to school.  And that means I get the delightful opportunity to take the GRE.  Oh hosanna of hosannas.  Now, there’s something I need to make really clear here, right off the bat.  I’m good at standardized tests.  Back in the day when I was getting ready for the SAT, I started out with a good score on the practice tests and wound up knocking it out of the park.  NYS Regents tests, SAT2s, the works, I score well on tests.  But that doesn’t make me smart.  And it’s no indication of my intelligence.  It’s an indication of one thing and one thing only: I know how to prepare for and take standardized tests.  And the fact that if I get a good score on one of these tests it may have any bearing on whether I get into school over someone else who may in fact be a better candidate, if only that person had my aptitude for test taking, is a travesty to our educational system.

Looking over my GRE prep, I’m finding all these words that are just useless.  “Aver” (declare), ten different words for either “happy” or “easy-going,” four different words that all mean “rural” – a word that almost doesn’t have the same meaning in an age where everyone is wired up to the same damn internet – it’s insane.  For everything I’d get out of learning these words, I’d get better value investing in a good dictionary.  The math I’m looking at, none of it goes past what I learned in High School.  Is this what grad schools care about?  I’m trying to get a degree in literature and they want to make sure I passed High School math?  Aren’t my AP scores enough?

Tests like the GRE are about three things.  1 – getting an idea of what material is going to be covered.  2 – knowing how the questions are going to be phrased, where they’re going to be particular about the answers and where they’re not.  3 – knowing how the test works enough to approach it calmly.  That’s why enrolling in a course for taking these tests tends to work.  They get you familiar with the material.  But how does it make sense to study for a test that is supposed to be a measurement of your aptitude and your readiness to enter an educational environment?

If you want to put forward an argument that states that something like the GRE is intended to show that the student is willing to study, I sort of get that.  But at the same time, by making the decision to go to grad school, the prospective student is already stating their readiness to learn.  If you want to know more about them, look at their academic history, make them write essays, interview them, ask about what they’ve done since college – that seems to be what’s actually important about them.

Standardized tests are becoming more and more important to education at every level.  Unfortunately, they have little to nothing to do with actual learning and everything to do with learning to take standardized tests.  They’re why teachers don’t have time to teach students to think, because if their students don’t perform well on the standardized tests, that means budget cuts to the school.  I know that it’s hard to measure student performance without being able to test them, but these fill in one in four tests cannot be the answer.  Our educational system needs to help kids learn how to think, and perhaps one of the best things we can do is try to create systems where we can test children on how well they can solve a problem, instead of how quickly they can memorize a fact.

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3 comments to Standardized Testing: Key to a Dumber Tomorrow

  • You want to know what is worse? Once you get into grad school, many grad student oriented grants also use your GRE scores in their decision to fund you.

  • Benny

    Jake,
    That’s a very uncritical look at this, I’m surprised. I don’t see any references here to actual research on the relationship between these tests and things like success in grad school, earning potential, etc…
    Not up to the usual GS high standards.

    • There is little data demonstrating the relationship between the GRE and outcomes for two reasons. One, the GRE is a filtering device; we don’t often get to know if the student who scored 1000 would have done worse than the student that earned 1300, because the comparison isn’t available (the student who scored 1000 is unlikely to be offered admission). Further, to assess the ability of GRE scores to predict outcomes, the variability of GRE scores needs to match the variability of the outcome measures (such as graduate school course performance). Given that you’re unlikely to earn a grade below A- in graduate school, there is a very small degree of variation in the dependent variable. If someone earned a 1200 on the GRE takes a course with someone earning a 1300 and a 1350, if these measures were correlated, then we should see a course scores correspond in a linear fashion. And we can’t view this is all of them earned As.

      This only applies to the general test. Now, the subject tests, they might actually be important because they establish a baseline of content area knowledge relevant to graduate course work. However, I’d argue as well, that this should be only to determine a sufficient competency and the offer of admissions really should depend on other factors. And frankly, (and yes, I know, here comes my anti-affluence bias) all a good GRE score means is that you had substantial preparation and practice for it, or in other words, you had time for, and were able to afford, a prep course. It doesn’t measure competency to work independently, produce original work, navigate the politics of grad school, write publishable papers, and a whole host of other things that are actually important traits in determining success in a grad program. Those kinds of things, however, can be examined by reviewing letters of rec, transcripts, and a personal statement. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier annd cost effective to establish a cut off GRE score, and sort out applicants accordingly.

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