High Stakes Testing

The SAT cheating scandal illustrates what’s wrong with the American educational system.   For so many students and educational institutions, it all comes down to a high stakes test.  We are a nation obsessed with testing – PSAT, ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAS, MCAT to name but a few.  Test scores determine rankings and ratings at schools, colleges and universities, which in turn impact fund raising, and the admissions process.  The multibillion dollar testing industry produces a dizzying array of test preparation and reference books, and promotes expensive preparation courses.

High stakes testing leads to enormous pressures on kids, families and educational institutions.   Such pressures inevitably lead to the type of cheating scandals that make headlines every year.  There is increasing evidence that standardized testing does little to promote learning in the classroom.  In fact, it often gets in the way of learning as teachers feel the need to teach to the test because tests scores have become a way to measure the effectiveness of their teaching.  And as some forward thinking colleges know, test scores are not the most reliable measure of aptitude or predictor of college success.  For a complete list of hundreds of U.S. schools that either do not require the SAT or ACT or do not place great weight on test scores in the admissions process, see Fair Test.org.

And fair is key here.  The SAT and ACT test cultural knowledge and values more than anything.  There was a study done where privileged suburban kids were given an SAT prep test without the questions.  A good number were able to identify correct answers even without the questions because they understand the cultural values system inherent in the test.   They chose answers that resonated with the values of their upper middle class upbringing.

If theses tests were to go away, more kids would have a fair shot at admissions to more colleges and universities which would bring more diversity of experience, thought and background to higher education in the U.S.   But these won’t go away, because higher education has been so thoroughly corporatized.   I wonder how many college professors and administrators are consultants to the test book and test preparation industry?  And to compete, and stay afloat, colleges and universities feel the need to play the game which reduces prospective students to a number.

The good news is that there are a growing number of institutions who have decided to change the rules of the game to attract students and families who are fed up with high stakes testing.   Now whether a school’s stance is one based on the principle of fairness is a fair question.  With tuition rates from 25-60 thousand a year, colleges are doing everything they can to attract “customers”.  In the end, higher education is big business.

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