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Seeing the Good in Standardized Tests

An Op-Ed By Zinc Founder Matt Bardin

It’s not surprising that many people seem repulsed by standardized testing. The idea that performance on a test can influence important events in one’s life feels wrong on a variety of levels. Criticism of admissions tests like the SAT and ACT has gotten so pronounced that even the makers of the tests have abandoned lofty claims for their elegant products. By measuring reading and thinking skills, however, standardized tests not only convey useful information about candidates for admission, they offer unique opportunities for learning and growth.

The criticisms go like this: the tests are unfair. They seek to ‘trick’ test-takers. Standardized tests are culturally biased. They favor the rich who can afford test prep. Test prep doesn’t work anyway. The only thing these tests really measure is the ability to take these tests. They predict nothing about academic skill or future academic performance. They cause inordinate anxiety in young people, sometimes leading to mental illness. Standardized tests, originally designed to inject merit into rigged admissions standards, have, in fact, made admissions less fair.

Some of these arguments are true. The tests are certainly not fair. Anyone who can confidently read, absorb and think critically about this article enjoys a distinct advantage. Standardized tests expect a level of rhetorical skill far more common in homes that have a lot of printed matter lying around, and such homes tend to belong to people with money. Some can afford to further enhance their children’s prospects with test prep.

None of this does anything to make life fairer or offset class disparities in our society. That’s why college admissions offices evaluate candidates from different backgrounds differently. When it comes to test scores, colleges hold children from affluent backgrounds to much higher standards.

But some of the arguments against testing are just false. Standardized tests do not measure ‘how to take tests.’ They measure reading and reasoning skills. We think of tests as measuring knowledge. If a biology teacher asks you to explain the dark phase of photosynthesis, you either know the answer or you don’t. If you missed that class and forgot to study that chapter you’re out of luck. You can’t sit there during the test and figure out how plants turn sunlight into energy by thinking about it.

Standardized tests seek to do the opposite. They pose problems based on basic components that require test-takers to confront new, unfamiliar situations and figure out a path—usually a series of steps—to reach the right answer. To succeed, a student must read accurately and think both flexibly and efficiently, sometimes taking more than one approach to find the solution within the allotted time.

Here’s an example: four consecutive integers make up the digits of a four-digit positive integer. For how many such integers will the product of the digits be greater than zero and less than one hundred?