The Failure of Standardized Tests

It’s that special time of year here at UC Irvine. Leaves are falling, stores are stocked with decorations for Thanksgiving and Christmas and we’re getting the first signs of Southern California’s mellowed-out version of fall weather. All of this can mean only one thing. Hundreds of Anteaters are caffeinated and preparing tirelessly for a variety of standardized tests.

Yes, what a wonderful time of year indeed. Philosophy students are enrolled in expensive LSAT prep classes put on by companies that have no say in what actually appears in front of them on test day. Humanities majors, hoping to get into a top-notch grad program, are learning GRE-level vocabulary words that have not been used since the Mayflower set sail. Business students are staying up all night to learn test-taking techniques that have nothing to do with actual success in MBA programs.

The idea of the standardized test is an interesting one, to say the least. It is well understood by now that standardized tests do not actually measure how well a student will do in the graduate-level program for which the test is an admission requirement. The only thing a standardized test actually measures is how well the student is at taking standardized tests.
Many professors admit this, and even some graduate programs are starting to understand the reality on the subject. Their hands are tied, however, by the system in place, which dictates that a school has to include standardized tests as admissions requirements. Why? Because even if a school receives an application that looks outstanding in every other way, they cannot be considered a top school if they admit a student that did poorly on a test like the GRE or the GMAT.

Standardized tests do not accurately assess whether or not a student is a good candidate for a graduate program. So, if a student’s application looks good on every other count, how is it that a low or even mid-level test score is enough to deny admission to that student? It just doesn’t add up.

For students that have no choice but to take these tests in order to get where they want to go, thinking about the tests philosophically doesn’t make things any better. At the end of the day, it’s not even the GRE as a whole that stands between you and admission; it’s literally a handful of words and math problems. Not only that, many standardized tests are computer-adaptive, which means that questions toward the beginning of each section count more toward your score than questions near the end. This translates to a harsh reality: It’s not even the GRE as a whole that is keeping you out of grad school. It’s literally just the definition of “encomium” and the properties of exponents.

Perhaps worst of all, the entire standardized testing structure implicitly favors students with access to money. This aspect of the system cannot be blamed on the test writers themselves, but rather on third-party companies that sell expensive books and preparation materials and hold months-long classes to teach test-taking strategies. Students from low-income backgrounds have a hard time paying for these test aids, and while some financial assistance is available, there simply isn’t enough to help most students. This leads to the unfortunate reality that it often is not the smartest students that do well on standardized tests, but rather those students who can afford the expensive test-prep classes.

All of this begs the question: If these tests are not fulfilling the purpose that they are supposed to serve, why do students have to take them at all?

Understandably, graduate programs want a measuring stick of some kind – something that everyone has to take and that can be used to distinguish two great students from one another. If the idea is to admit students that will excel in their graduate work, however, perhaps schools should focus more on how well students did at the undergraduate level. A high GPA, strong writing ability and letters of recommendation from prestigious people say much more about a student than whether or not they were able to come up with an antonym for “profligate” at a test center.

We can only hope that more schools will begin to realize the ineffectiveness of standardized tests in their efforts to admit the best students and will do something about it. Until then … Good luck on test day, Anteaters!

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