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Standardized Testing and College Admission: A Counselor’s Lament

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The whole college admission thing has been wed to standardized testing in a big way for longer than we care to remember, and for all those years its flaws haven’t exactly been a secret.

Five decades ago, my high school experience at astandardized-testing-300x200n independent school in New York State consisted of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test in grades 10 and 11, a couple of sessions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the more-or-less obligatory SAT Achievement Tests or whatever they were then called (times 3, naturally, including the Writing test required by the Most Selective colleges), the then-freestanding National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and the New York State Regents Scholarship examination. National Math and Spanish exams popped up annually, as did an Advanced Placement exam, for which preparation involved being told, “You’re taking an English test tomorrow morning in the library. Bring pencils.”

This regime probably matched that of most eastern independent schools, before the ACT forded the Mississippi on its eastward march and well before No Child Left Behind brought multiple years of testing into every public school classroom. This was quite a lot of testing—perhaps a half-dozen Saturdays ruined (and cruelly: SAT in the morning, Achievements in the afternoon), and lots of weekday special schedules for administrators to cook up. I know my family paid for the SATs and the Achievements, but the other tests cost someone something. Billed home like ink cartridges and filler paper from the school store? Absorbed by the school?

But I don’t recall there being a test-prep industry in those days, or even much of a run-up other than the tedious Junior and Senior English Review Exercises workbooks of SAT-like problems that must have bored our English teacher even more than they did us.

Where am I going with this?

Well, like a lot of middle class Baby Boomer graduates of so-called “elite colleges,” I owe a lot to the SAT. It was probably my best friend in the college application process, and I can probably say the same for my kids. The “College Boards” had been my schoolteacher father’s best friends before me, and admission tests had opened the door for our progenitor, my schoolteacher grandfather, to become a First Gen college student in 1902. We seem to be good at tests, for better or for worse.

I suppose we’ve been prosperous enough, as a clan, so that “affluence” has had some effect on our collective performance at least since my father’s day. We’re readers, which we credit for some of our success, and we’ve always had college as a given on our personal horizons. We’ve had clever spouses from academically successful families.

So, just as they’re supposed to have been, the SATs and their kin have been our tickets into the so-called meritocracy. By the standard measures of the meritocracy, power and wealth, I and my kin have also squandered our opportunities by stubbornly clinging to the idea that educating is worthy work; managing hedge funds has never had much appeal.

But the thing of it is, as a teacher for forty-some years I have seen plenty of bright kids who didn’t have the testing gene, or whatever it is, and whose future plans have been somewhat occluded by numbers that didn’t start with seven or sometimes even six. For some kids, and in the relatively affluent school communities where I have worked there isn’t a general correlation with much of anything that I have been able to observe—race, relative wealth, family aspirations—testing just isn’t their friend. Some kids are pretty good at it, and some kids not.

It has been my experience that there has been—more in recent years than even a decade ago—a palpable “effect” from formal test prep, and I rather think that more expensive—that is, private tutoring—is better than less—group tutoring or “classes.” This sucks, to put it bluntly, for the kids who can’t afford, or whose families don’t feel inclined to spring for, Rolls Royce test prep. Trying to provide some kind of “test prep for all” creates a challenge for schools with a commitment to equity, and I confess to having presided over some less-than-totally-successful attempts to make this happen. (The issue has been that kids already enrolled in their own programs opt out, setting a precedent for other kids inclined to do the same, even when in my Yoda-like wisdom I have thought they shouldn’t. On the flip side, this has made me a kind of procurer for the test-prep industry—part of the problem, not part of the solution.)

In balance, to make a long story short, I’m not really much of a fan of Standardized Testing As We Know It, although I remain intrigued by the idea that there might yet be assessments that truly “assess what we value”—those “21st-century” (or whatever) skills that really seem to matter, along with dispositions like intellectual curiosity and optimism that convert mere skills into actual performance with relevance in the world. I don’t mean “college and career readiness,” despite my interest in the dreadfully named but promising College and Work Readiness Assessment, but rather that kind of engaged “with-it”-ness that as a teacher you know and admire when you spot it in students.

Anyhow, I wish that we had a better way of figuring out which kids will thrive in which kinds of educational setting than by looking at numbers generated by three or four hours of sitting in the dystopian test centers required by Standardized Testing As We Know It.

In some ways it all feels like a weird historical excrescence from that misguided period in the otherwise estimable history of progressive education when its most fervent practitioners believed that the psychometricians would indeed develop the One True Test that would truly reveal the child in his or her intellectual and personal fullness. (I confess that when I look at the “Seven Principles of Progressive Education” promulgated by the Progressive Education Association in the 1930s, the hopeful intent behind item IV makes me want to weep—especially as the other ones remain so amazingly on point.)

But we know that neither the SAT, the APs, the ACT, nor the CWRA are the One True Test.

I guess where I’m really going with this is toward a college counselor’s April lament. Our school has a whole lot of happy seniors, but I know from my days in the classroom that What If? lingers in the air around a bunch of those kids. Did their tests get in their way? Might there have been a better measure their full capacities? Is the idea of meritocracy a quaint memory, if it ever was real at all? As a school person, am I complicit in actions that devalue or overvalue whole children in this process? Can we somehow do it better, more honestly, more authentically, in ways that more fully honor the essence of our students?

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