STUDENT: Why do we have to take standardized tests?
TEACHER: That’s a good question. Standardized tests were introduced because universities felt that they shouldn’t rely too heavily on grades. Different—and sometimes obscure or unknown—educational institutions use very different criteria for grading, so grades ultimately don’t have much objective meaning.
STUDENT: But aren’t my grades pretty important to colleges?
TEACHER: Yes, yes, of course! Grades are still important. But standardized testing provides another, more objective measure of students’ abilities.
STUDENT: But what gives my standardized test scores more objective meaning than my grades?
TEACHER: The very fact that they’re standardized. Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographical location, takes the same test. And there’s no subjectivity or bias involved, because computers do the grading.
STUDENT: But computers don’t grade the essays.
TEACHER: No, no, qualified graders do that.
STUDENT: And who are the graders? What makes them qualified?
TEACHER: They’re the same people who write the questions. Generally, they’re teachers and school administrators.
STUDENT: So, the same people who give grades?
TEACHER: Well, yes. So their grading makes the essay sections more subjective.
STUDENT: More like grades.
TEACHER: Yes, a bit, I suppose.
STUDENT: But the multiple-choice sections are objective.
STUDENT: Because everyone gets the same questions.
TEACHER: Well, everyone gets questions selected from the same pool, anyway—though some tests adjust their difficulty based on the test-taker’s performance. The GRE, for example, assigns easier or more difficult questions based on how many previous questions you’ve gotten right. That way, the test doesn’t waste your time with questions above or below your level.
STUDENT: So people at different levels take different tests?
TEACHER: No, no, it’s the same test. The scoring is just adjusted for the student’s level of ability.
STUDENT: So, how is that different from grades?
TEACHER: It’s more objective.
STUDENT: What score should I be shooting for?
STUDENT: What constitutes a good score on a standardized test?
TEACHER: Oh, that varies from institution to institution.
TEACHER: Different schools expect different scores from their applicants, and most don’t actually maintain a hard-and-fast cut-off score or publish the average score of the applicants whom they accept.
STUDENT: So, the meaning of the score is subjective, even though the score is an objective mathematical entity?
TEACHER: It’s an objective entity with a subjective meaning, yes.
STUDENT: Like a grade.
TEACHER: No, because grades aren’t objective.
STUDENT: But don’t grades represent percentages? Aren’t they objective numbers, too?
TEACHER: Yes, you’re right that they represent numbers. But the criteria for grades aren’t standardized, so we can’t agree on the meaning of those numbers.
STUDENT: But we can agree on the meaning of a standardized test score?
STUDENT: Then why can’t universities agree on the meaning of a standardized test score?
TEACHER: Because they don’t want to make the process too mathematical, too cut-and-dry. Every applicant is unique and should be treated as such.
STUDENT: Then why standardize?
TEACHER: Because we need objective measures of skill as well as subjective ones. Admissions shouldn’t hinge on any single criterion.
STUDENT: Why not?
TEACHER: Because that wouldn’t be fair. Some people are better at writing essays, others are better at taking tests, and so on. Having a variety of criteria gives everyone a fair shot.
STUDENT: But don’t standardized tests involve writing essays, and taking tests, and doing math problems, and so on—just like grades?
TEACHER: Yes, except that standardized tests are objective.
STUDENT: In what way are they objective?
TEACHER: I just explained that.
TEACHER: I highly recommend that you go to the College Board website, or the Electronic Testing Services website, so that you can better understand these tests.
STUDENT: College Board? Electronic Testing Services? Who are they?
TEACHER: They’re the companies who administer standardized tests.
STUDENT: Standardized tests are administered by private companies?
STUDENT: For profit?
TEACHER: Of course. That’s good, solid capitalism.
STUDENT: Is there competition?
STUDENT: Do multiple companies get to compete, to see who does the best job at making the tests?
TEACHER: No, because then the tests wouldn’t be standardized.
STUDENT: So one given company has a monopoly on each test? Isn’t that bad capitalism? Don’t monopolies decrease the quality of products and services, because a company with a monopoly has no real fiscal incentive to do a good job?
TEACHER: I don’t know if it’s fair to call the College Board and E.T.S. monopolies.
STUDENT: But only one private company administers each test, for profit, without competition?
STUDENT: Isn’t that a monopoly?
TEACHER: So, did that help? Do you understand now why you have to take standardized tests?
I love it. Very Socratic. Just took my GREs in May and still wonder why. Thanks for the laugh!
Thanks very much for reading, and for the kind words!
I’ve been confused about the purpose of standardized testing since I was a little kid. The rationales always seemed like circular logic at its most decidedly circular. It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one who feels that way–that I am not taking crazy pills, as the saying goes.
You’re welcome. Really glad I found your blog. I was going to comment on Sotomayer’s situation too, but had to run. I’ll drop something soon though.
I’d say the irrationality behind standardized tests becomes “justified” when education gets sucked into being a business, which, ultimately, weakens our society. I do understand that currently education has to exist in capitalism, but the private sector, and the ideology of privatizing every aspect of society, too often doesn’t have the public good anywhere near the top of the priority list. Or at least I think the logical arguments I have heard tend to have several flaws. And, as you remarked, monopolies, and the concentration of power in various contexts, is dangerous and unhealthy.
Once again, enjoyed this one and the others.
Elegant rendering of inelegant confusion! PERFECT!