• Thomas Jones

Talking About Standardized Testing (Part 2)


I received many thoughtful comments on my recent post "Talking About Standardized Testing". My friend Bob Stewart wrote "I grew up in the part of the Bronx called Fort Apache. I attended public schools and I too took a standardized test to get into a technical high school where you majored in some form of trade but also prepared for college in academic subjects. I was steered to this school by a well-meaning counsellor who believed that black people needed the ace in the hole of a trade to compete economically...I managed to graduate but my overall record was so poor that I did not believe any college would accept me and passing the SAT was out of the question. I was drafted into the Army in 1965, and upon completion of my service I started looking for a career...The country was going through an upheaval and many colleges and universities had adopted open enrollment policy. I jumped at the opportunity and using the GI Bill enrolled in the EXCEL program at Fordham University. I graduated summa cum laude...I am sure there are a lot of young people who are attending inner city schools who are bright and are equally fearful of standardized testing as I was...The difference in class sizes, teachers, teaching materials and curriculum all work to reduce the capability of public school children to compete equally on standardized tests."

My friend David Stein wrote "I've always been a great test taker and it has allowed me to attain undeserved admission to outstanding academic institutions where I underperformed. Clearly, they are an invalid measure of likelihood to function well in an academic setting...It's not as though disregarding these measures which disadvantage certain communities is depriving anyone of hard-earned achievement...Measures of actual achievement should be the basis of admissions in various fields as well as grades and recommendations which say something about the subject."

Lori Reese, a consultant for SAT and ACT test preparation and daughter of my friend Mike Reese, wrote "The problem is two-fold: a) people think the tests measure a test-takers ability. That's only partly true...They actually measure the effectiveness of the school system the student comes out of and/or the students' exposure. If a student scores well but comes from a low-quality school system, then he or she has been exposed to the necessary materials by some other means -- self-study, tutoring, an awesome relative...The No. 1 variable that accounts for any kind of standardized test score is EXPOSURE. The more exposed you are to challenging skill developing tasks, the smarter you get...

b) The tests are teachable. The test makers claim emphatically that their tests aren't. But, everyone who...makes money teaching them knows that...they are. If the tests were truly unteachable and all the school systems were equally funded with equally excellent resources and teachers, then they would be an apt meritocratic tool. But until that happens, they will continue to favor the rich...If we could put resources into funding schools and even the stop-gap of funding one-on-one college prep for underprivileged students (those who want it!), then we would be in much better shape."

My response to Bob is your story illustrates why I believe every low-income child should be empowered with a voucher sufficient to pay full tuition at any public or charter school, and equivalent dollar support at any private school. Low-income children should not be captives of underperforming teachers and guidance counsellors, and under-resourced schools. But open enrollment is not the answer because top schools will be overwhelmed with students, many of whom are unprepared to handle the academic rigor.

My response to David is that the tests probably measured accurately what you had learned, but not your motivation and self-discipline which are critical components of academic performance. And, contrary to your assertion that disregarding these tests does not deprive anyone of hard-earned achievement, Jewish students were victims of "unofficial quotas" for many years and Asian Americans may be quota victims currently. Grades and teacher recommendations are subjective, and the quality varies from teacher to teacher and school to school. One potential benefit of the current moratorium on test requirements is that top schools may gain data on the predictive quality of grades and teacher recommendations from a broader swath of secondary schools.

My response to Lori is I agree with your insights, which do not actually refute that the tests are probably accurate measures of student learning. If the tests can be taught it probably reflects the reoccurrence of certain types of questions, and all competent schools and teachers should be preparing their students to handle them. But I do not see wealth as the primary driver of Jewish and Asian American success on standardized testing -- it may reflect cultures which value academic achievement and the related work effort.

I support vouchers for low-income students to escape underperforming schools, and for standardized test prep. I also support teaching them that academic success for most people requires the same daily grind of three or four hours of afterschool practice as is required for athletic success on the basketball court or football gridiron.

What do you think?


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