No one likes standardised testing. They’re boring, challenging, and sometimes, they come with a lot of pressure. Students sitting down for the SAT know that, despite four years of hard work in high school, admission to their dream college could come down to how well they do on this specific test. Those are high stakes. Some critics think that the stakes might be too high. Are standardised tests an accurate evaluation of student aptitude? Or do they perhaps only favour a certain portion of the student body?
In this article, we evaluate both sides of the equation, providing an overview of what standardized tests try to accomplish, why some people think they are important, and why others feel they need to be changed. Read on to find out more about if standardised testing is keeping some kids from pursuing higher education.
What Do Standardised Tests Do?
It depends, of course, on the test. Most standardised tests are used to assess not individual students, but rather the school system itself. School districts need to be able to demonstrate that they are making progress and improving student outcomes. Tests are one way they accomplish this.
Tests that evaluate the quality of education being offered at schools are not directly weeding out students because (generally speaking) individual test-takers are not directly impacted by their test results.
There could still be a case that the tests are assigning consequences to schools that don’t deserve them. It could also be argued that standardised tests and other universal metrics may incentivise schools to make choices that may not be in the best interests of their students.
For example, if a school district is evaluated by the percentage of students receiving special education services (many states recommend no more than 15% of the student body receiving said services, and may issue penalties for numbers in excess of that) the district may feel pressure to avoid ordering IEPs even for kids who might benefit from them.
That’s an inadvertent outcome of standardised tests and universal outcome metrics. But are kids being directly harmed by standardised tests?
There is an ongoing conversation about the impact of standardised tests that are designed to influence college admission. Often, this conversation revolves around the effectiveness of the ACT and the SAT.
Some people believe that they provide valuable insights into student aptitude. Others feel that these tests over-emphasise skills that don’t necessarily have a significant impact on college readiness. In the headings that follow, we will dive a little deeper into the conversation to get a look at both sides of the question.
How Important is Test-Taking, Really?
One of the most obvious criticisms concerning standardised tests is that, well. They are tests. Some students who have the brains and motivation to do well in school simply don’t have a natural talent for spending three to four hours taking one test.
While those in favour of standardised tests could argue that mental endurance is an important quality for finding success in college, others say it’s a relatively narrow consideration. Yes, the ability to log long hours on a single subject is an important skill, both for school and future employment. But how often do the specific conditions inherent to, say, the ACT actually come up?
Not very often.
Test-taking, particularly of the standardised variety, is a skill that not everyone has.
Racial or Socio-economic Bias?
There is also an argument that standardised tests are written in a way that reflects the experiences of a certain type of student. That type being white, middle to upper middle class. This perceived bias takes the form of the type of language used, as well as the more generalised references that are used throughout the test.
The tests are uniquely challenging for English as a second language learners. Critics also suggest that getting high results is more achievable for students whose families can pay for lessons and other preparatory materials.
Naturally, this is a controversial topic. Those in favour of standardised tests for college admission argue that they target universal academic skills that all students should be learning in school.
An Argument for Standardised Tests
The most commonly cited argument in favour of standardised tests is that they provide college admissions departments with an objective way to measure student achievement. Without them, proponents fear that the admissions process will become too muddled by subjective considerations like personal essays, or extracurricular activities.
The idea being argued is straightforward: College admission is supposed to be merit-based. Eliminating a tool that is used to evaluate merit will ultimately do more harm than good. For schools, it will make it harder to cultivate a student body. For students, it could also create problems. Are you really doing someone a favour letting them borrow $100K for a program they will inevitably drop out of?
There is also a strong argument for tests that establish professional credentials. It’s great to make college more accessible, but don’t we want our doctors, nurses, and lawyers to be able to demonstrate that they know their stuff before they enter the professional space?
Tests like the LSAT or NCLEX are used to confirm that people trying to get high-level jobs know what they are doing. Without them, it could be very difficult for schools and employers to verify the aptitude of job candidates.
Good News for Test Haters?
There is good news for high school kids who hate standardised tests but still want to go to college: many schools no longer require them. The movement toward making college admission exams optional took off during Covid, when taking the ACT and SAT in person became quite literally impossible. Schools had no choice but to accept applications from kids who hadn’t taken these exams.
Almost four years later, there is no longer a tangible reason why kids can’t sit down in person for a test, but many schools have decided it’s not necessary. While “elite,” colleges will often still require standardised tests for applications to be considered, a significant number of schools have made them optional.
What does optional mean, exactly? Will a submission packet that lacks SAT scores stick out like a sore thumb? Obviously, this will depend on the opinions of the people in the admissions department. However, the idea is supposed to be that a good standardised score can help your application, but a lack of a score won’t hurt it.
This is a big win for kids with a good transcript who simply aren’t awesome test takers.