5 Reasons Standardized Tests Aren't Able to Do Their Job
In this post, I want to talk a little about standardized tests. I could easily have titled this: “Why I Don’t Like Standardized Tests,” yet I think the current title is just as suitable. Note that these comments regard the standardized tests generally required for admittance to an undergraduate degree. And also keep in mind that I do not offer any citations in this post; as with most of my recent posts, this is rather “unformal.”
I will be discussing five reasons why I think that standardized tests can’t do their job: they can’t “objectively” measure language proficiency, the underlying philosophy of the tests do not allow for universally correct answers in mathematics, the testers have the presupposition that the student isn’t a person, the testers are caught in the fatal trap of modernity, and the tests don’t actually measure intelligence. So if you want to know my whiney thoughts about standardized tests, then here you go.
First, they can’t “objectively” measure language proficiency. If you’ve ever taken one of the tests I now refer to, you will be familiar with such questions asking you to critique the punctuation in certain sentences; asking you to analyze what said character from the excerpt thinks about the situation he’s in; asking you to make a critique of the author’s basic argument (all the while not knowing his intentions). Mind you, that I be not misunderstood, I do not think all such questions in the linguistic sections are unfair; I merely propose that some of them are unable to be “objectively” answered. For example: my use of a colon earlier on in this very sentence would have been judged as “wrong” according to the master testers, for they would have said a comma was correct; and yet, this use of a colon (and my more recent use of the semicolon) are simply “older” and more “traditional” ways of stylizing my English sentences. The great testers must never have considered the stylistic differences between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; God forbid they had read Emily Bronte, for her punctuation would surely be considered damnable.
Second, the underlying philosophy of the tests do not allow for universally correct answers in mathematics. Within the frame the greater testers are using (something I will touch on more below), it is impossible to say that two added upon two equals four. This is why it should come at no surprise that the “woke,”—(a term I would rather not use due to its pedantic nature)—who do not accept the same First Principles as the testers, can claim that “math is racist:” meaning, effectively, that it is “subjective.” If there is no Ultimate grounding of the universe, something which would claim that one thing is right regardless of the cries of men, then we must find lesser groundings. These groundings, unsurprisingly, usually end up being ourselves. The great testers would do well to read at least a little Nietzsche: if there is no God, we must become gods. In other words, before declaring right answers in mathematics, we must first realize that we are acting as if a right answer exists because there is an Answer Giver. This is far from the minds of our testers.
Third, the testers have the presupposition that the student isn’t a person. This is not the first time I have expressed the former concerns to others. The most popular, and perhaps most powerful, objection comes in the form of a question: “What, then, will be our measure for the entrance into college? What kind of operation might we invent that would measure one’s college readiness.” As I said, this is a potent question. You can agree with me about my above points (and ones below) yet still ask, “Do you have anything better?” To which my answer is yes, yes I do. Not only do I have something better, but I also think that the very nature of this objection is in and of itself an argument for the tests: we need the tests because they allow for an easy measuring stick. The thing which I bring forth as being superior to the current model is a more personal approach. Instead of trying to assign everyone a number and assessing academic value based on that, we should be looking at who the students are as people.
This obviously would not work with all of the preconceived notions we bring to bear on such an issue in the modern world, because, for one thing, it would require an actual community: a community of people who know the students as people and who can attest to their “college readiness” first hand. Granted, again, I know that this is in no way conceivable in the framework of modernity. For in this age, with our present wealth and efficiency, we don’t stop to consider people to be much beyond the means to our desired end; we don’t live in communities anymore and we don’t hold each other accountable anymore. Some who know me know that I’m fond of saying that a marriage ceremony is more valuable than a marriage certificate. With the present laws of divorce in the United States, for example, you can get a divorce for just about anything (the major change in being married is one’s legal status as regards taxes and such). But, if you get married into a community, then, at least in principle, that community will help hold you accountable to your promises. A good community will not let one leave a marriage for “irreconcilable differences.” The tests are as the legal papers while my proposition is as the ceremony. (Of course, I’m only thinking of the personal aspects here, not the fact of commitment or lack thereof to a test.)
The tests act as if you are a cog in the machine. Do the scanners know you? Do the administrators know you? Do they care? “Here is your score, your value, the sum total of all your academic capacities up to now.” What if we had a “system” where you could “get in” based on more than a number—based instead on something that respects personhood more exactly?
Fourth, the testers are caught in the fatal trap of modernity. I have already alluded to and even treated this to some extent already; I will try to say something here as well. For those of you who are reading and may be unfamiliar, modernity is the meta-philosophy that says that we can be “rational” through the means of “science” and “math.” Modernity is the source which brings forth most, if not all, of the things which I have complained about thus far: The idea that there is a right way to write and read, the idea that you can get consistent mathematical answers without an Ultimate Deity, and the treating of people as though they were cogs. This meta-philosophy has done many great things for us, such as producing a great number of material goods, advancing our understanding of the natural world, and giving us “facts” (by this I mean something more or less like “truths” which correspond “accurately” to reality). It has, however, stolen many things from us as individuals and as people. I could treat and ramble on about Modernity here, but I think it would do both you and me better if I didn’t. Perhaps I will write a series of essays on Modernity sometime in the future.
For now, this will have to do: standardized tests were birthed out of Modernity’s idea that one can measure everything with a numerical value (hence your “tests score”) and that this is the best and most “objective” (a word the Modernists like to use) way to describe what is. The very philosophy of the tests are predicated on a much deeper meta-philosophy. And, being as such, they will forever be unable to un-root themselves from this parent without pulling out their own roots, thereby fading away.
The tests need Modernity. They live by Modernity and they are soon to die by Modernity.
Fifth, the tests don’t accurately measure intelligence. For all of the tests’ claims to Modernistic objectivism, they still can’t truly do what they would be best to do: measure intelligence. I will be speaking here about IQ, so may the attentive reader be aware that I do concede that the notion of IQ is a more or less Modernistic idea; at the same time, I do not think that Modernity has fought an entirely unuseful war. With regards to IQ: IQ actually turns out to be a very helpful measurement tool we can use. We cannot unsee what Modernity has laid bare.
Back to the standardized tests: the tests claim to be effectively measuring intelligence; or, at least, “elite” schools consider the tests to be doing so. The problem with this, however, is that intelligence (IQ) is fixed and cannot be improved. IQ tends to peak in one’s mid-twenties and from there declines, more or less precipitously. What one can do is maintain IQ through both aerobic and anaerobic exercise; mind you, not improve, but maintain. With that, you must recall the very plain fact that you can raise your score on a standardized test through studying. Notice that there are many companies that claim to help improve a student’s ability to score high on the tests. The Princeton Review hides nothing when they claim, “The only thing that the SAT measures is how good you are at taking the SAT!” If you could improve your score by entering closer and closer to your mid-twenties, then we would know that we are dealing with actual intelligence. On the other hand, when it is the case that I can raise my score by study—this is when we know that we deal not with intelligence but with knowledge. Knowledge is, no doubt, a great thing, but it is not intelligence.
Why does this matter? One of the things that has been rather well documented is that IQ plays the largest role—out of any single determining factor—of one’s potential wealth and social status (consciousness or “work ethic” comes next). And if we want to enable the smartest people to get the best education so that all of us could benefit, wouldn’t it be best to test more accurately for intelligence? Again, I must stress that the tests are not entirely flawed in their attempt to search for intelligence: It will be extremely difficult for someone in the twentieth percentile for IQ to test in the ninetieth percentile on a standardized test; it can be done, but it would be a feat for the standardized testing ages. My complaint and the whining I am doing here is merely in hopes of showing that the tests are, once again, not quite as “objective” as they hope to be. Not only that, they aren’t even testing what would be most effective to test. If we really did want a more “objective” test for measuring intelligence, then we would use IQ tests and not the SAT, ACT, CLT, or any other standardized test. Perhaps, we wouldn’t send so many kids to college to waste four years of their lives to “train” them for jobs that either don’t exist any longer or won’t exist in ten years’ time. (That’s not to say that I think all colleges are corrupt or that no one should go to college.)
If the tests actually want to be more useful and objective, perhaps the great testers should adopt some sort of IQ test; or, even better, the College Board, with all its piles of money, could invent a better IQ test than any we have now. They won’t do this, of course, because it isn’t about effectiveness. If we use the tools of Modernity, then we ought to use them well. IQ tests are by no means free of critique, but they would, to the best of our knowledge, be better at predicting academic achievement and job performance than the ACT is.
To conclude, then, I think that standardized tests aren’t able to do their job for these five reasons. Perhaps now, though, I should tie my whining to the former statement and to the title: it is true, as I said in the introduction to this post, that these are my reasons for not liking the tests. But, it goes beyond that.
If the tests are really meant to help measure college readiness, then they shouldn’t, I would insist, do it in this way. If the University is to be a place where one actually learns and studies God’s “universals,” wouldn’t it be best to actually recognize a God?1 Wouldn’t it be best to not trap oneself inside a dying meta-philosophical system? Wouldn’t it be best to presuppose that the test taker is an actual person and not a cog in the machine?
I wish not to be unfair and I understand that this critique may appear to be harsh. I do hope, however, that our college admissions officials will soon be able to recognize the flaws in their approach and change for the better. We should wish to do our jobs well; there are better ways to assess high school students than using standardized tests. In other words, the tests are not particularly good at their job.
We are moving into a new age. The tests will not last much longer because Modernity will not last much longer. And so, may we strive and hope for a better worker to do the job, not a worse one.
I know, by the way, that most colleges fail to recognize a God as well.