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Standardized testing: the scourge of student life

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Finals week is in the offing, and the congregation of bikes outside Green Library is growing. As Stanford students are preparing for their finals, high school students across the U.S are clutching nervously to No.2 pencils, hedging college bets with their second or third SAT/ACT tests. Each year, more than 1.5 million students spend four stress-packed hours bubbling answers, doing everything they can to bump up their scores in standardized tests. Most call it the scourge of student life, but endure we must.

But really, must we? How did young children with an eager appetite for learning find themselves bent over an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12? And then, more of the same in college? I’m not even going to begin talking about testing in Asia, where I grew up, and where testing is a fact of student life more so than anywhere else. Exams ought to be examined: Why test at all? What are we measuring ourselves against, and who decides what’s worth testing?

“Why we test” is a question that cannot be divorced from “why we educate,” and the history of standardized testing provides some provisional answers. The earliest record of testing comes from China, where bureaucrat-hopefuls were tested on Confucian philosophy and poetry before being deemed fit to govern. The ancient Greeks tested students through socratic dialogues that led not to a score, but to more dialogue; the obsession for a “correct” response, they thought, was for shopkeepers. Then came the industrial revolution, and with it the emergence of universal public education system that took kids off the farms and trained them to become industrial workers. That was part of the whole transformation of American society in the nineteenth century and a shared experience across most industrializing economies of the time.

Historically, public education was foremost in service of industry and state ideology rather than independent learning. Certainly there are a lot of meaningful learning that goes on in schools, but there is also an awful lot of control and indoctrination. The point of standardized testing was not  as is widely advertised  to facilitate learning, but to sort people into various stations in industry. Standardized testing rewards “correct answers” and conformism, not genuine inquiry, because it was not designed for that purpose in the first place.

In the history of testing, Stanford played a non-trivial role. The famed Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale was developed by Stanford psychologist Lewis M. Terman to test for “cognitive ability and general intelligence” based on five weighted factors: knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial processing, working memory, and fluid reasoning. The Stanford-Binet test quickly gained traction across the world, inspiring many variants that continue to be widely used in schools, workplaces and the military. In the illustrious and dismal history of standardized testing, some folks at Stanford got to decide for the world who is smart and who isn’t.

The problem with any test for “general intelligence” is that it elevates those who score well on standardized tests to being “generally” intelligent, a stand-in for intelligence of all kinds. The careless assumption  that if you are “generally” intelligent you must be better at everything you do than the guy whose test score doesn’t match up  has led to a halo effect around test performance that is most pernicious. A signal of test-taking capability became synonymous with capability and (worse yet) potential itself, used as evidence for ability far beyond its predictability warranted.

Here and everywhere test scores are used as a signal, accurate to several decimal points, for admissions into school and employment – never mind that there are different types of intelligence, and never mind that test scores are imperfect proxies that correlate with parental income and racial profile. At their worst, they become for young learners a measure of self-worth: those who do well in tests bask in overconfidence of their own intelligence, and those don’t suffer crises of confidence and (often unfounded) doubts of their own faculties and potential. Both forget that all a test score can tell us is that we are capable of performing well in the circumscribed confines of a test; tests measure maximal performance, not typical performance.

This is not to argue that standardized tests must go. Neither am I advocating for the sort of heart-above-head egalitarianism that accompanies popular arguments against aptitude tests (the irony with that position, of course, is that test based selection used to be an enlightened policy among liberals and progressives to level a hereditary caste system). That tests are not perfect measures does not mean that they cannot be useful. If designed thoughtfully, tests can be part of a feedback mechanism that help us learn better. And given that a public school system through which millions of students pass necessitates some measure of performance, the more constructive question is not whether or not we test, but how we test, and  most importantly  why we test. Tests designed for sorting are going to be very different from tests designed for learning.

Regardless, tests should at no point be the be-all-and-end-all, as they are now among public education systems. Even in their most enlightened forms, they should be no more than a small part of a student’s education toolkit. From the perspective of learning, passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with inquiring and pursuing topics that engage and excite us – as learners, not test-takers. Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me  questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.

This piece was inspired by a recent roundtable discussion “Examining Exams” with Dan Schwartz, organized by The Stanford Roundtable for Science, Technology and Society. Contact chiling ‘at’ stanford.edu if you would like to continue this conversation.

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.