Malbreaux: In Defense of Testing

College entrance exams can be fair if they are reformed.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 10/4/18 2:10am

Like many high school students, I too hated taking the ACT. Even after I was accepted into Dartmouth, I felt bummed out that my score was not in the top quartile like the scores of some of my other classmates. I assumed that this indicated I had an inherent disadvantage, destined to have a dismal college transcript follow me around after graduation. Yet two years later, I can say that this will probably not be the case. I barely think about those scores now, nor do I think that they were very telling. Indeed, some of the other college students I have talked to about this issue are in agreement that these tests are inaccurate at predicting college success. 

Of course, standardized tests receive scorn for other reasons. Perhaps the most salient are the well-documented demographic biases that correlate to tests like the ACT. Whites, Asian-Americans and the highly affluent typically outscore their black, brown and low-income peers. Testing is expensive, and those who can afford to retake them multiple times, buy prep materials and hire tutors can gain higher scores. Meanwhile, other students who could perform just as well on these tests may simply lack the adequate resources.

Author Peter Sacks wrote one of the earliest and most comprehensive cases undermining these tests’ legitimacy. His book “Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It” indicts the tests from multiple levels of analysis, from how they undermine the confidence of students who don’t perform as well to how they test for skills like memory or logical reasoning, but fail to measure other key aptitudes like creativity and imagination. 

One does not have to exhaust the entire body of research on standardized tests to form a convincing indictment of them. That’s why I was surprised this past weekend when I came across Nicholas Bartlett’s column “Legitimacy Lost,” in which he argues that colleges should keep standardized tests as an integral part of the college admissions process. 

Bartlett rightly acknowledges the tests’ shortcomings: “Judging an individual’s intellectual self-worth based upon their performance on one little test rings as cruel as it does disingenuous.” Yet to my surprise, he continues to launch into a defense of testing in the status quo. He says they can be facilitators of “social mobility” for underrepresented groups. For those who attend schools with few “resume padding” opportunities, such as extracurricular activities, strong ACT and SAT scores can help the star student shine even brighter in college applications. In fact, test scores may be the only way for some to even stand a chance in the admissions rat race. 

I initially dismissed Bartlett’s article as obtuse polemic with little grounding in any research. However, after some re-reading and re-thinking, there is in fact some merit to his central claim. 

Originally, “intelligence tests,” similar in format to the college entrance exams of today, were used to identify children with serious academic talent who would have been otherwise overlooked for school acceptance. In the early 1900s, Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, developed the first “IQ” tests. The French government at the time passed laws requiring all French children to attend school. But some students experienced difficulty learning new things and therefore would need extra assistance. These first IQ tests designed by Binet helped to identify those students’ needs for success in the classroom. Binet, critically, was careful to assert that IQ test results cannot be taken alone, and that they must be balanced against background factors unique to a child that could impact their results. 

IQ tests and the modern-day college entrance exams are not quite the same. But Sacks points out that their creation stems from an all-too-familiar desire to use a single metric to assume an awful lot about ability. 

While Sacks seems to think that abolishing the SAT altogether would be a wonderful idea, I find myself agreeing more with Bartlett — that in the real world, such a move would make it difficult for those who have limited options to impress a college admissions committee. So-called “small-town prodigies” need the high scores on tests because there may not be clubs to co-chair or varsity teams to captain otherwise. 

Where I may add one qualification to Bartlett’s argument, though, is that the current system is far from perfect. The underprivileged prodigal student who performs above average on these tests is exceptional and rare. For the majority, tests need to be designed to measure different aptitudes that don’t solely reward memorization and a strong understanding of how the test itself works. The SAT writing sample is a good start, as it allows for a showcase of a student’s writing prowess, but more must be done. In addition, current efforts to waive testing costs for low-income students should continue, as well as after-school programs that offer free test preparation. 

If the SAT and ACT are here to stay, then at the very least College Board ought to expand its efforts to make it more accessible and affordable. It should measure the student more holistically and prize more than only a few attributes. Nonetheless, some people will still remain “bad test takers.” Not every student will do amazing, but every student at least deserves a fair shot.