Telling Fish to Climb Trees: Standardized Testing and its Flaws



“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid. “-Albert Einstein

One of my ongoing struggles is my performance on standardized test. In elementary school and middle school, it was the PSSAs, in high school, it was the ACTs and SATs, and now that I am in college it is the GREs. One thing that these test all have in common aside from the fact that they are standardized is that the majority of them predicted that I wouldn’t do well where I was going. For middle school, this wasn’t that big of a deal. However, in high school and, now in college, as I am looking at advanced degrees this is a huge deal. I have proved time and time again that my test scores don’t speak to my intellectual abilities, yet I face the same struggles everytime I look for a new degree to pursue. Admissions committees don’t believe that I am a strong enough candidate because this test says so.  We live in a society that puts so much emphasis on attaining degrees and building a career, but we regulate entry to these programs with a tool that systematically oppresses and discriminates against students who aren’t a part of the majority. In this blog post, I will be discussing the standardized test, what they are, and the limitations that they have in regards to predicting a student’s potential to perform well.

To highlight the issues that standardized test produce I would like to begin this blog by sharing this video by John Oliver from the HBO show Last Week Tonight.

Standardized test are “test that are usually commercially prepared for nationwide use and designed to provide accurate and meaningful information on students’ performance relative to that of others at their age and grade level” (Slavin, 2012, p.448). The idea behind standardized exams is that when they are administered to students they are administered using the same conditions for all students that the test was created for (Slavin, 2012). This allows the testing company to establish norms so that individual scores can be compared (Slavin, 2012). In this case, norms refer to “Standards that are derived from the test scores of a sample of people who are similar to those who will take the test and that can be used to interpret scores of future test takers” (Slavin, 2012, p.449). In the definition of standardized exams, we see two important phrases “commercially prepared” and “nationwide use”. These phrases are important because they speak to why the exams are administered as well as their biggest flaws.

One of the reasons that standardized test are so appealing is because they produce and regulate capital. There are a variety of test companies out there that make standardized exams that range from ETS to Pearson. These companies don’t just produce the test but they also produce the preparation materials. So they bring in a lot of money. Which raises the question of who these tests are really benefiting. The GRE cost around $300 every time you take it, and that’s just the exam when you add in prep courses, and preparation materials the bill is that much more significant. This is important because these test impact a student’s ability to access higher education, and the ability to achieve advanced and professional degrees. If you have a student with ADHD, and specific learning disabilities this test already is high stakes for them, but then when you factor in the cost of multiple exams that produce relatively the same scores it becomes that much more intense. I can’t deny the benefits of standardized testing but I also can’t deny the flaws in it either. Schools place too much emphasis on these scores. Especially when there are cases where the scores don’t match the student’s actual abilities. There are cases where students achieve high grades and are very successful in school but then they are denied opportunities to expand their education because of a standardized exam.

The second reason that standardized test are appealing is that they are able to be used nationwide. The problem with that is while the test is standardized education, and learning are not. You can administer a standardized exam to every student in the United States of America and create a “norm” at which to compare people, but what is that really telling you? Students in the US also don’t have access to the same quality of education depending on their sociodemographic characteristics. Furthermore, standardized exams measure one type of intelligence. This creates a major flaw because we know from the work of Howard Gardner that there are at least eight different types of intelligence. Howard Gardner in the video below talks about assessment, specifically standardized testing. He asserts in this video that when students are applying to colleges it’s fair to have a standardized test but it’s stupid for that to be your only assessment, the student should also be able to build a case for themselves in other ways.

While most colleges will allow students to build cases for themselves and say that test scores don’t matter they will still set caps for scores. For example, if a student has high grades in all classes, is in route to graduate their master’s program with honors, and has done a variety of service related activities they still run the risk of being rejected from programs if they produce a score that is under that school’s cap. What are we telling those students? Sorry, you’re smart and you work hard but that doesn’t matter because this piece of paper says you won’t do well in a program even though you’ve already proven that false. In placing emphasis on these scores you are taking smart capable students inducing anxiety, and destroying their confidence and drive. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that negatively impacts a students chances in life.

When these test were designed they were designed in a time that the only people who had access to education were predominantly high class, white, heteronormative, able-bodied, men. We know that the issues with standardized testing intersect with different minority groups, but what have we done to address that? As times are changing our methods for assessing student learning need to change. We need to be more inclusive in our strategies and create exams that employ universal design. We need to take the focus off of money, and off of ratings and put it on our students. If you invest in someone and you cultivate their abilities and show them that you care, you are more likely to produce smart and capable students who can contribute something to society. There are countless stories, my own included, where students who do well are discouraged or hit roadblocks because of these exams. Below is a video where Bob Sternberg talks about his experience with aptitude test, which highlights some of the points I have made throughout this blog.

So to conclude my thoughts on standardized testing  I just want to say that these exams measure one type of knowledge. They ask you to regurgitate information that you haven’t seen since your first semester of freshman year and they are highly generalized. College is about being able to have knowledge but its also about comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Alternative assessments, like portfolio evaluations, can capture all of those areas and give students something that they can work with as they are looking for jobs. In the real world, your employer isn’t going to hand you a standardized exam they are going to ask for a product. Standardized exams have components that are biased towards students of diverse backgrounds, they induce anxiety because of the high stakes and they make education inaccessible to a large number of students. So, in my opinion, something needs to change.




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