Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Measuring Up to the Big Test

Scholastic testing has long come under fire.  It was interesting to see that Nicholas Lemann had written a book on The Big Test, in which he questions the meritocracy the tests were supposed to inspire.   Lemann apparently stretches his argument a bit thin as he links the early attempts at Harvard to establish an entrance exam with the 1996 fight over Proposition 209 in California.

There are other books written on the subject of testing, including Daniel Koretz' Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, which has received very favorable reviews.

Interesting topic for discussion, since standardized scholastic testing has become the chief instrument for admissions into universities, sometimes making it difficult to establish the diversity most universities are looking for in their student body.


  1. Standardized tests are a dismal failure from Day One. I took the SAT and the LSAT and did quite poorly on both. It was projected that I would never succeed in college or in law school. Despite these cloudy projections, I was an honor student at both levels and have two degrees to prove it. Standardized tests are of no value when it comes to testing the potential abilities of the learning disabled. I'm living proof of that.

  2. A thought occurred to me ~ I believe Rob Whelan indicated at one time that he also has learning disability difficulties. It is amazing how so many people succeed despite obstructions like these. Indeed, the subject would make for an interesting discussion.

  3. There's a reverse problem, too. When I took the National Teachers Exam (all multiple choice) it was a fall football morning in my senior year and we had an away, but not too far away game to attend, so I just raced through the quiz. The result was that I placed in the 99+ percentile of those taking the test that day, and the education department in my university went ape over their excellent tutelage. But there were other students in my classes who were far better teachers than I would prove or even want to be, more patient with the bored and clumsy, and I stayed in that profession only until I could get out of it, MA in hand. Even now. 50 years later, I am inclined to tell you more about penguins than you really care to know and I'm blind to the lack of interest. So standardized tests are a crock in all directions.

  4. In my experience standardized tests are IN GENERAL best at disclosing knowledge deficits. This doesn't tell you, however, whether a student is capable of learning. Everyone is capable of learning, and almost everyone is capable of excelling at it.

  5. I did poorly the first time on the Verbal SAT. Score was up more than 100 points the 2nd time. Some people just know how to test and do very well.

  6. "Some people just know how to test and do very well."

    It has become more and more common for otherwise intelligent people to explain test scores with statements like the one quoted above. But it's nothing more than a lame excuse, in my opinion. Stated another way, it amounts to this: "I'm really smart but my test scores don't show it." This is embarrassing.

    And, no, I was not a whiz when it came to standardized tests like the SAT. But I've also never felt the need to make excuses for my performance. I scored higher than many people and lower than many people, and I can live with that.

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  8. I need a new Keyboard.I refused to take the SAT in the early 70's.The test was and is a total load of shite with no relevance to how "smart" one is or isn't.

  9. I think there is plenty of truth to what Marti said, which is why there are so many prep centers around the country. Much of it is gearing yourself for the test, getting yourself in the right frame of mind. And, some persons are simply bad at testing, no matter how smart they are. Not to mention that the whole idea of a multiple-choice exam reduces it to an almost purely quantitative test, better suited for testing math skills than it is verbal skills.

  10. There are plenty of test prep centers because Americans (and perhaps the trend extends beyond our borders, but more about that in a minute) have swallowed "I don't test well" hook, line and sinker.

    We need instruction in getting ourselves in the right frame of mind. We do?

    As for the tests, just because they use multiple choice answers doesn't mean they are solely quantitative. I use tests (actually quizzes) in composition classes to test . . . verbal (writing and reading) skills. So do tests like the SAT.

    Back to my first point. In a recent essay assignment, I asked students to characterize the typical American of today. Since about one third of my students are foreign, I thought this might lead to an interesting classroom discussion once the essays had been written. Was I ever right.

    A number of my foreign students, who are Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and African, argued that Americans are more likely to make excuses and accept excuses than people from other countries in the world. They contrasted this with the way things work in their own cultures. I wasn't too surprised by this because as a rule my foreign students are way more conscientious than their American counterparts. In the ensuing discussion, some of the American students agreed with their foreign counterparts. Then they began to make excuses, citing their parents and teachers as the main culprits. And some of these American excuse makers were downright angry about this. They felt their parents and teachers had let them down. I'm not making this stuff up.

    What many adults are doing these days is following the lead of the weak kneed and the faint of heart. Through word and deed, this is what they are passing on to their children.

  11. Nonsense. How can multiple choice tests possibly give any strong impression of verbal skills. Grammar and to a certain degree reading comprehension, yes, but the ability to communicate no. I think universities and teachers have fallen into the trap of using such tests because they are convenient.

    I thought one of the funniest exams I ever took was the foreign service exam. There was a "graded" section that assessed your profile by asking a number of pointed questions like how many foreign movies did you watch this past year, and a variety of other questions assessing your "interests." All multiple choice. It did provide a space to "explain." It asked many of the same questions over again, which I could only assume was an attempt to measure the veracity of your answers.

  12. A dust up over standardized testing ... who would have thought?

    Having had to be re-tested to enter graduate school, I can attest (sorry) that you can prepare for these things. Part of the prep is just knowing how they work and what they are looking for. But you also have to have a good command of basic mathematics which, for me because I don't use it much now, is a real test.

    On the other hand -- and Rick has called me on this before but here it is -- I just passed the written part of the test which, in theory, is designed to go beyond the multiple choice selections. And I even prepped for that, reading about how they are rated and I still got at best a C+.

    As most of you know, I make a living as a writer and have written two books. So I don't think the test did a very good job of determining what I'm capable of -- but 5 pts. off for dangling preposition. Or whether or not I'd be a successful graduate student - the jury is still out on that one!

  13. From a different perspective, I work with academics interested in K-16 testing in the sciences. Research in those fields has demonstrated that while standardized, multiple choice tests are easy to grade, they are not very effective in testing for learning.

    In fact, they can have the opposite effect, encouraging students to study for the test -- usually vocabulary in the sciences (or dates and names in history) -- and not worry about the bigger picture.

    If in doubt, check out these short films of Harvard and MIT graduates trying to explain the basics of physics and biology:

  14. Well, luckily for me (funny way to call it, I guess) I don't have to make excuses as I have been certified as learning disabled.

  15. Who would have thunk that, trippler?

    From what I've read of Lemann's book, he is mostly questioning the role of scholastic aptitude tests in created a meritocracy. He appears to argue that the tests are just as elitist as the old system and that many of those who benefited from these tests are now arduously defending them when it comes to referendums like Proposition 209.

    Koretz appears to argue that these test miss the mark entirely, and that a better value-based set of criteria should be used for admissions.

    I managed to squeeze by on both the SAT and GRE without prepping, at least as far as UF was concerned. I doubt it would have gotten me into Harvard or MIT.

  16. The SAT has an essay writing component, as does the GRE for instance, which tests a person's ability to communicate in writing based on an assigned issue. But an equally important facet of communication, or verbal skill, goes to a person's ability to interact with text. Like it or not, that ability or the lack therefo can be tested objectively. What is nonsensical is claiming that it can't be so tested and evaluated.

  17. avrds: Having graded GRE "essays," I can understand how easy it might be for an accomplished writer like you to score only a C+. I found the grading rubric for the writing portion of the GRE to be borderline arbitrary in some instances. For that reason, I would much prefer to have my verbal skills tested objectively. It has been years since I graded SAT essays, but I don't remember the rubric being quite so problematic.

  18. I don't remember any writing element to the tests when I took them. Must be a relatively recent addition.

    I thought the ACT was better balanced, spread out over 6 components, but it seems to have become obscured by the SAT.

  19. I actually have no problem with the tests generally -- as long as they are part of a "portfolio" of considerations when admitting students to university.

    Learning how to "read" and weigh evidence or data, for example, are important for all undergraduates and an area I think you can study for (there it is again -- 5 pts. off).

    Ditto reading for comprehension, and learning how to parse the dense paragraphs they ask you to decipher. Sadly, in many ways, they are testing to see if you can function in a challenging university environment, since that is how many academics write!

    The problem with assessments generally is figuring out what you want to test for -- what you value. And that's where some students may be at a genuine disadvantage.

    It's been awhile since I took it (two days after burying my mother so it was quite a chore), but as I recall the emphasis is half on mathematics and number literacy generally, and half on vocabulary and comprehension. Something like that. And then you write your essays.....

  20. Just the other day I was looking at an online map as I had a meeting to go to near Jackson Street in St Paul. It looked d@mn near impossible for me to get to that destination without going through hassles of all kinds. I checked out another map and saw what the hell my problem was: thanks to my godd@mn dyslexia I saw Jackson street was actually West of my intended destination (I thought it was East of that area & thought I would have to cross a highway on foot to get there) - it actually took me 40 minutes to figure out something that would have taken you no more than half a second.

    Yes I know this sounds like absolute bullsh^t. But it is true. No excuses. Just a godd@mn fact of life that makes me curse up a storm.

    Every time I post online I have to check my spelling about 365 times because I keep spelling backwards. Laugh if you want. Go ahead and say I'm making excuses. But if you were me you'd realize what a sh*t being learning disabled is all about.

    By the way I was once told by an educational psychologist that if it were not for these learning disabilities my IQ would be anywhere from 165-190. All that potential wasted away. But such is life.

  21. Gosh, Trippler. I don't think anyone here thinks that's funny.

    But on the positive side, I do know several very accomplished people -- including the paleontologist Jack Horner -- who are extremely dyslexic. I think it's just one of those many different disabilities bright people learn to live with and accommodate in different ways, as you obviously have done.

  22. Yeah, and my IQ is 205, but . . . yada, yada, yada. Good grief.

  23. ''many different disabilities''

    The difference being that society goes out of its way to accommodate certain handicapped people such as through kneeling buses, bathroom facilities, automatic doors. But it makes virtually no effort to help those who need similar accommodations in school. As you can see the usual answer to any such request for assistance is 'yada yada yada'.

  24. By no means was a belittling in your situation, trippler. I had a good friend had had dyslexia. He was given his examinations orally in high school. An estimated 1 in 10 persons suffer from mild to accute dyslexia.

    Reading Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye has been fascinating as he discusses dyslexia, and various other forms of reading impairment suffered by stroke victims, like what Robert has gone through. In some cases there is no recovery. Stroke victims have to learn to compensate for their losses, but as Sacks amply illustrates it makes them no less vital after a shock to the system like this.

    Also reading Sacks I can imagine what Wilson suffered through after his strokes.

  25. I guess I need to better proofread my comments now that we are discussing scholastic aptitude tests. Nevertheless, I have a hard time seeing any real connection between the SAT and college performance.

    UF, in 1982 (give or take a year), admitted 500 students, who had scored below the entrance requirement on the SAT, into a special summer program before the Fall term. Those who made it through the summer program, which was most of them, ended up with the same graduation rate as their conventional classmates.

    Anecdotal, but it illustrates that the SAT had no real bearing on student aptitude. Basically, it is a convenient screening process that allows universities to weed out a substantial number of applicants, thereby making their process of admissions much easier. Those left out can use junior colleges as a back door to universities, often successfully.

  26. Peter Sacks has also weighed in on the issue with his books, Standardized Minds and Tearing Down the Gates.

  27. "As you can see the usual answer to any such request for assistance is 'yada yada yada'."

    I've made no comment about any assistance you might need as a person with dyslexia. How such a disability could be accommodated on an aptitude test is beyond me. What I did comment on is the silly tendency some people having of parading their IQ scores, whether real or imagined.

  28. ''the SAT had no real bearing on student aptitude''

    Bingo. This has long been established. Yet the institutions continue to cling unto an archaic idea that such testing is indicative of a student's potential success when it isn't.

    ''parading their IQ''

    People go around parading their therapy or 12 step sessions as if that was something to brag about.

  29. Trippler, I don't know if you were referring to me (among others generally) as "making excuses," but I was not making an excuse. I improved over a hundred points the second time I took the Verbal SAT.

    We didn't have test prep in those days, and we were not diagnosed with learning disabilities.

    So there it was. College admission was based mainly on high school grades and SAT scores.

  30. No. I was referring to people who attack the learning disabled as ''making excuses'' for their unavoidable mistakes.

    Most people will not fault you if you fall in a ditch because you can't see. Ditto for just about every other handicap. All except learning disability. This has been my experience and that of others in the same boat as myself.

  31. Taking this further, I have to take tests for my word processing/typing skills at every job I apply for, whether at a firm or at employment agencies. I don't always find out what my scores are, but they fluctuate wildly (while always above passing mark). This is particularly how it is with the automated tests called "Prove-It!" They include simple, intermediate and "advanced" tasks, but usually include items just aren't used while working on documents in a law firm on its network.

    This is often quite frustrating. I've spent as much as 4-5 hours in an afternoon at an agency, and up to 4 hours at one firm.

    But you can ace the tests (or not) and the usual factors affect whether or not one is hired -- whether they are really going to hire anyone, whether they like the candidate or not for any reason whatsoever.

  32. "I was referring to people who attack the learning disabled as ''making excuses'' for their unavoidable mistakes."

    If you are referring to my comments, you're off base.

  33. No need to get paranoid Rick. It's the ignorance of the uninformed that I'm referring to.

  34. I'm not paranoid. But I have been reading your posts. That was a mistake.