I am become the SAT, the destroyer of students

It’s like a game of battleship, except every dot is a direct hit on your soul.

by Eric Tweel

Standardized testing: the bane of a student’s existence, the altar upon which all else is sacrificed. Like prisoners on death row, students spend their grade school years resigned to their eventual fate. Each year millions of innocent, ambitious young pupils flock to their test centres, their minds overflowing with the minutiae they have been memorizing for years on end. Why does their society force them into this abyss? For all students – whether they are bold enough to say so or not – this is the ultimate question. Although most students moan at the mention of standardized examinations, they rarely refuse to write them. Generally speaking it is better for them to dredge through the sleepless nights than to face the consequences ending up near the bottom of the universal standard. It is unfortunate that students must face this dilemma, because it only impairs them and their society as a whole. Standardized testing is a virulent disease that is crippling modern education, but like most diseases, it is politically attractive.

The origins of standardized testing can be traced back Imperial China, where imperial examinations covered topics such as archery, horsemanship, arithmetic, and writing. In the nineteenth century British colonists introduced the Chinese system of testing to Europe. Western academia’s tradition of critical thought, inherited from the Ancient Greeks, was opposed to a standardized testing system, and so the first British colony to adopt the system was India. Eventually the system spread to Britain and then throughout Europe, America, and the rest of the commonwealth. The contemporary form of standardized testing in North America emerged during in the United States during World War 1, and since then it has been widely adopted in the U.S. and Canada, reaching even into the elementary school system. Computer technology has given shape to the standardized test of today, and its emphasis on impartiality, which arose out of this technology, distinguishes it from its predecessors.

Students are not alone in their dislike of standardized testing. The vast majority of education specialists and developmental psychologists are critical of the purported benefits of standardized testing, attacking their inaccuracy, ineffectiveness, and overall detriment to the education system. One has only to consider that standardized tests are designed to be graded by computers to understand how useless they are at assessing intellectual abilities. All the so-called virtues of standardized tests – universal, cheap to grade, fair – are dependent on the archaic methods of multiple choice; by being standardized they are by necessity simplistic. A society that would rather have computers rank and sort its individuals than other humans – that is a troubling notion. The argument in favor of avoiding a human teacher’s favoritism is nothing new, and it is confusing why such a flawed argument continues to persist. If we want to assess how students will function in society, why do so in an environment completely removed from the basis of society – the human individual?

Ultimately we cannot escape ourselves, and many of the politicians who support standardized testing realize its stated aims are impossible. Standardized testing is popular because it is closely aligned with the American Dream where anyone can make it to the top. The results would indicate otherwise – internationally, America ranks far below most developed countries, and domestically, poor and minority students have consistently lower than the rest. To counterbalance this, bias enters the interpretation of test scores – it is well known that the university applications of members of certain minority groups, such as hispanics and blacks, are given preference over applications from whites and asians. Standardized testing persists, like so many other things, because it is a nice story, one that politicians are wont to retell. “No child will be left behind,” they say, as though a child not being thrust into the stressful world of test taking is a tragedy that the American people cannot tolerate. It is more a matter of no child being allowed forward – rather than developing its students, a standardized educational system is concerned only with assessing them.

Any serious defense of standardized testing rests on unfortunate fact that we don’t have many better alternatives to assessing intelligence. ‘Intelligence’ is a poorly defined concept, and for this reason even most standardized tests claim to measure other variables; for example, the SAT claims to predict how well a student will do in his or her’s first year at university. This is just as vague. Given the difficulty of measuring the traits of individuals – and which traits we choose to measure is in itself a bias – we ought to focus on developing students rather than assessing them within some “objective” framework of standardization. Judgements about other people are a necessary part of society – but it shouldn’t be the purpose of education.

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