Intelligence and Questioning

Faith and Standardized Tests

I’m not writing about religious faith here, though many use this faith almost as they would a religion. I’m talking about faith in modern authorities – a kind of faith that, after a while, becomes quasi religious.

I was reminded of that again this week when the news reported that 4,000 SAT tests had been mis-scanned and their scores miscalculated. As a nation, our educational system demands great faith in standardized testing. Not just that the tests are scored correctly, but also that the questions are correctly answered by the testing company itself, and that the tests actually are relevant to what they purport to measure.

It doesn’t help that the test-takers, for the most part, are children and teens. They’re busy taking the test and certainly can’t critically look at the tests and the questions. But, for the most part, neither can the rest of us. You never get back the results of the tests as you would for a Math or English test at school – so you never know what questions the child got right or wrong, or even what types of questions and answers were on the test.

Testing companies don’t want their tests to be available after the fact – they usually say that “for competitive reasons” they can’t make their tests available or that they reuse the questions (Their lack of imagination is our problem?). But, the local, or state, or national school authorities have checked these tests out so we should assume that they’re okay.

So, now we have to have faith in the school authorities and the testing companies. People who wouldn’t trust Wal-Mart farther than they could throw it, people who wouldn’t blindly trust their local priest’s or minister’s authority, will blindly trust the testing companies and school administrator’s authority. Such faith, I do not understand.

My older son just finished the whole PSAT, SAT, SAT –II round, and was accepted to the college he wanted, thank you. In fact, if you want to say that high test scores equate to high intelligence, I’m might be tempted to agree. But, after helping him with practice tests, I can’t be so impressed by them.

In the practice tests (and I assume that the real tests, put out by the same company, can’t differ greatly), there are questions, which, if you think deeply about them, have more than one answer that works. There were a number of times that I would have to say, “Yes, that answer works also, but the testing people think like this which is why they consider the other answer to be the best.” (Have you looked into who comes up with test questions? Experts in their field? Experts in the psychology of learning? Actual teachers? Why would these people be working for a testing company?).

My son was among the first to take the new writing section of the SAT. The first few practice tests he did, he didn’t finish the writing. You’re supposed to write something well-though-out about a brand new subject in twenty minutes?! He can spend hours crafting short stories. I could see this writing test becoming a great stumbling block for a perfectionist.

So, we discussed it – the time limits, what the testers were looking for. Comprehension dawned in my son’s eyes: “Fast-food writing!” He ended up doing very well on the writing section – even though it was a stretch for him. We almost never eat fast food.

I’ve had teachers tell me that we’re lucky, as homeschoolers, not to have to do the NC End-of Grade tests – because they spend so much time preparing for the tests that they have little time left for untested subjects such as science and math, and even less for the arts. Yet educational authorities would have us believe that these tests are “improving” education. Faith again. Undeserved, I think.

“Education for tomorrow” is a current educational catchphrase. Does this faith in testing and testers really prepare us for tomorrow? Are we approaching an era where only one answer, decided by authorities, is the right one? Or, is our world becoming more and more complex, needing creative thinking “outside the box?” How can the adults of tomorrow even think outside the box if they’ve spent the long years of their education working hard to stay in it?



You brought up some great points, especially about thinking "outside the box" when youth, in particular, are spending endless hours figuring how to stay within the box. As an educator, I particularly appreciated the new category, "fast food writing".

M Light

Thank you. I guess that I have a personal bias, though - I don't like thinking "in the box."

The comments to this entry are closed.