If You Hate Standardized Testing, Blame the Higher Education System

As the pushback against standardized testing continues to expand, the quest for less testing remains squarely focused on K-12 decision makers. The feeling seems to be that all we need is the fortitude and boldness to buck the scoundrels who are ramming test-based accountability down our throats. At first glance this makes perfect sense. After all, elementary and middle schools are the places where standardized testing seemingly engulfs the entire school calendar.

But the focus on K-12 education reveals a lack of awareness for why standardized testing is so robust. People complain that we’re creating a generation of students whose only skill is taking a test, but being able to do well on a test is arguably the most important skill for a young person to have. To get a good job you need to graduate from a good college, and in order to get into a good college you need to know how to do well on the SAT or the ACT. So the rampant standardized testing in elementary schools isn’t an arbitrary method of accountability. Schools measure succes in test scores because that’s how society measures success. Our elementary schools aren’t driving the testing movement, they’re responding to a world that demands it.

Imagine you offered every parent a choice when their child was eight-years-old. Their child could either score in the 99th percentile on their SAT, or they could graduate from a good high school that claims to focus on important social, emotional, and problem solving skills, although there would be no guarantee about the child’s SAT performance. Many parents would take the first offer. And it’s not clear that’s the wrong decision when it comes to maximizing their child’s future. Similarly, you can’t blame a bureaucrat or an elected official for thinking that the easiest way to help an at-risk child is to make sure they can do well on the SAT.

When viewed as a key element of our country’s system of social mobility, standardized testing becomes more difficult to do away with. Parents ultimately want a way to be sure their kids are on track to get a good job, and as long as good jobs require good college degrees, and good college degrees require good performance on a standardized test, K-12 standardized tests are going to seem like an ok solution. None of this changes the fact that too much testing is bad, but having no accountability or a system that’s purely subjective wil never pass muster. That means there has to be an accountability alternative to testing. Thus far, conceptualizing such a thing has been difficult.

Fortunately, there is another option. We can make standardized testing unimportant in K-12 education by making it unimportant for higher education. But that means making significant changes to the system we’ve constructed for allowing social mobility. We need radical reconstructions of the way universities do admissions, credit allocation, and credentialing. Of course we need to start small, and that’s why it’s good news that colleges are beginning to drop SAT requirements.

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, this year nearly 850 schools are opting to accept freshman who haven’t taken either one. Schools like DePaul University and Smith College don’t require the tests at all while institutions like Bryn Mawr and NYU waive them in favor of SAT subject tests or AP or IB exam results. According to FairTest, over “40 liberal arts colleges ranked among the top 100 do not require all or many applicants to submit ACT/SAT scores before admissions decisions are made.” Other schools waive the tests if students are applying to specific programs, or have grades that put them over a particular GPA threshold.

Imagine that top cooking schools based half of their applicant evaluation on the applicant’s ability to cook a spectacular piece of grilled salmon. A K-12 cooking education system would probably spend a disproportionate amount of time on grilling salmon relative to other types of seafood dishes. Yet in this scenario people wouldn’t attack the K-12 system, they would focus on the crazy admissions practice of putting an absurd amount of emphasis on grilled salmon.

At the moment our K-12 education system functions in a similar manner. We overlook the role of testing in the college admission and professional credentialing process because it’s relatively practical and nobody knows a different way of life , but its effect on the K-12 education system is enormous. If the anti-testing crowd wants to make a real difference in discouraging K-12 test-taking, they should focus on moving away from a higher education system that rewards test-taking skills.

One Response to If You Hate Standardized Testing, Blame the Higher Education System

  1. Pingback: What's the alternative to high-stakes testing | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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