The Good, Bad and Ugly of Standardized Testing.
A job candidate says, “After taking a personality inventory, I was told that I was no longer being considered for employment. I received no feedback about why.”
An assistant director stays up late each night studying for a difficult certification test, after spending a fortune on a boot camp and preparation materials. She confides, “If I don’t pass, it will blow any chance of a promotion.”
A college-bound junior laments, “If I don’t get a high ACT score, I won’t be considered for a scholarship.”
The mom of a preschooler worries, “I’m afraid my son isn’t ready for preschool testing. I fear he’ll lag behind and miss important opportunities.”
Standardized tests are an increasingly important part of American life.
They can present unnecessary barriers to school admission, employment, and promotion. Some tests are used to assess skills or competencies, while others assess personality or character traits. Compared to the past, today’s tests are longer and more complex—appearing in computer, rather than paper-and-pencil, form. As this summary shows, testing spans the age continuum from cradle to school to career.
- Employment: An integral part of the employment process, testing is a standardized tool for hiring, promotion, demotion, retention, and continuing licensure and certification. Many employers require a personality test before an application can be submitted. Some experts estimate that U.S. employers are testing the personalities of as many as 60 percent to 70 percent of applicants. The assumption is that personality traits for particular jobs such as customer service can easily be assessed. However, many consultants advise companies to rely more on interviews, work samples, or simulation of actual job situations, rather than standardized tests.
- Career Advancement: In addition to the re certifications that must be earned by physicians and other healthcare professionals, special licenses or designations can be earned in fields like real estate, finance, and technology to enhance opportunities for promotion and higher pay. Many of these tests are extremely difficult. For example, each year less than one-fifth of candidates pass the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) test, termed the toughest test in the world by the Wall Street Journal. Most attempt this test repeatedly. If you are highly motivated and high achieving, you’re never finished with testing—and as you get older and busier, the tests can become increasingly exhausting and frustrating.
- Certification and Licensing: The testing doesn’t stop when you get your degree. Standardized tests are required for certification or licensing in professional fields like architecture, medicine, law, and teaching. Unquestionably, there is a need to ensure professional skill or competency standards, but how fair or valid are these tests? For example, questions are being raised about Michigan’s new licensing exam for teachers after less than a third of aspiring teachers passed the new test, while 82 percent passed the previous test two years earlier. The new test was created in an attempt to set higher standards for teachers, but when students graduate from reputable institutions with good grades, shouldn’t a majority of them be passing the licensing exam? Some in higher education call this new test a bad test. Meanwhile, the controversy leaves aspiring teachers in a bind, with little control over an exam that is determining their futures.
- Professional School: Although many graduate schools are moving away from admissions tests like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), schools of medicine, law, dentistry, and nursing still require long entrance exams. Some of these tests demand extraordinary endurance—the Medical College Admissions Examination (MCAT) lasts seven hours.
Secondary, Elementary, and Preschool Students
- College-bound: Adolescents confront the stress, frustration, and expense of taking college admissions tests that last up to four hours. Over 1.6 million high school students took the ACT last year, and a similar number took the SAT. Many families feel pressured to spend hard-earned dollars on commercial preparation courses that can cost from $800 to over $1,500 for group instruction, as well as individual tutoring sessions at $50 to $150-plus. How many students from disadvantaged backgrounds can afford this type of preparation?
- K–12: No Child Left Behind brought the overuse of standardized tests for assessing students, teachers, and schools. For students, the many drawbacks of such high-stakes testing include lost time for learning and curiosity, high levels of stress, and a focus on reading and math at the expense of art, music, history, and language. There are also unfair consequences for teachers and schools—especially schools with few resources and many disadvantaged, minority, or non-English-speaking students. In addition, the costs are enormous—nationwide, states spend about 1.7 billion per year for elementary and secondary standardized testing. What could those dollars achieve if they were channeled into teacher salaries and learning resources?
- Preschool and the Cradle: In the past decade, four- to six-year-olds have been subjected to excessive and inappropriate testing. Often called low-stakes tests, these are designed, theoretically, to assess readiness to learn and ensure a smooth transition from preschool to kindergarten. But some elite Manhattan private schools require four-year-olds to use iPads to take admissions tests that assess math and literacy skills, not just readiness. And some parents are buying memberships in clubs like TestingMom.com to get practice questions for their three- and four-year-olds. Do these children have enough time for play? (Just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, a prestigious preschool on New York’s Upper West Side now requires a DNA test for all applicants .
Questioning the Testing
The question is, should you, your colleague, or your child be viewed as a score or percentile, constantly taking timed tests and being compared to others? Should we have to suffer throughout our lives from the stress and frustration of such testing? Finally, what is the impact of standardized testing on career and school success, and how can adults and students best navigate the current test mess?
Here are five tips to help you avoid the worst and do your best on standardized tests:
- Understand you have a choice, and decide whether to opt in or opt out. For example, job seekers may choose not to apply for jobs that require a standardized test with an application. Similarly, college-bound students may apply to schools that no longer require the ACT or SAT. In many states, parents have opted out of testing programs, saying, “Enough is enough.”
- Study the rules of the game and the strategies for success. If you decide it’s to your advantage to take a standardized test, prepare early and get all the help you can from tutors, coaches, or courses. Test-taking and stress-management strategies can be learned.
- Review your learning style and level of test stress. Understand your vulnerabilities and what types of questions can stump or trick you. For example, when feeling rushed, many test takers read too quickly and make careless mistakes. Others have trouble with questions where the exception to the rule may be the correct answer.
- Depersonalize the experience. View tests as one part of your entire profile or performance. A low score is a performance problem, not a personality defect. If you don’t do as well as you’d like, practice and retake the test. Practice may not lead to a perfect score, but it will lead to improved results.
- If you fail a high-stakes test (for example, medical boards), get help from an expert in learning or testing, perhaps exploring the possibility of an undiagnosed attention, learning, or anxiety problem.
- Become aware of test use, misuse, and abuse. Learn about the possible negative effects of standardized testing on you and your family. Arm yourself with information, and then find the strategies that can best help you achieve school or work success.
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