COMMENTARY | America has a love-hate relationship with standardized tests. Long ago, these exams were created to assess students from widely disparate academic districts and backgrounds according to uniform standards. In a world of vastly different classes and grading standards and academic customs, the poor could finally compete on equal footing with the rich! No more would colleges have to agonize over whether an “A” from _____________ was equal to a “B” from _____________. Every applicant would have a simple, easy-to-read score generalizing their level of academic aptitude. The rich could no longer simply buy their way into college with transcripts and letters of recommendations cajoled from private school faculty.
Now, of course, the same standardized tests that were once heralded as egalitarian measures of academic aptitude, allowing the poor to compete against the rich, are being criticized as elitist. Research has found that rich kids get higher SAT scores, likely because they can pay for intensive SAT-prep courses. They are better prepared for the test and have been taught the “tricks of the trade.”
The College Board has announced new reforms to the SAT, including free test-prep courses with the help of Khan Academy, to help make it more egalitarian. Unsurprisingly, critics have abounded, including myself. Bibliophiles, particularly, are likely to bemoan the loss of the mandatory essay section and the reduced use of “SAT-words,” the infamous multi-syllabic epitomes of pretentiousness. Old-school academics may chafe at the increasingly frequent attempts to make the test conform to today’s expectations rather than try to uphold teenagers to earlier, more rigid academic standards.
Some, including Bard College president Leon Botstein, want this latest SAT reform to provoke a larger movement to drastically change all standardized tests and get rid of the archaic multiple-choice testing format. According to TIME, Botstein views multiple-choice exams as woefully invalid predictors of academic aptitude and bear little resemblance to real-world conditions. After all, do most jobs allow workers to pick selections A-E for every possible task?
Botstein wants to revamp the entire college entrance test industry and do away with the multiple-choice format, using a “rigorous but enlightening process” to reveal what students can and cannot do. It would be a marriage of pedagogy and high-tech software. On the surface, of course, it sounds great.
But then again, so did the SAT at some point.
As a high school teacher I like the idea of better tests but am wary of the difficulty of creating them. For those who are unaware, it is hard to create a good and fair test. Multiple choice tests are extremely far from perfect, but often they fit the bill. If you’ve ever had to grade written responses, and deal with students who want to argue about their grade, you know what I mean.
“What is the exact answer? Why was what I put not close enough? Why did [insert name of friend] get more points for this instead of what I put? Well, isn’t what I put sort of like what you say the answer is? If you couldn’t read my answer, how do you know it’s wrong? Well, I meant that, but I just didn’t use the best words…”
It doesn’t take long to get lulled into the ease of multiple choice. As a first-year teacher I tried to avoid using multiple-choice tests. I wanted students to know, to write, to work. It turns out that many students don’t want to do that. “Why not ABCD?” an eloquent sophomore angrily asked. “At least give us a chance!”
At least with a four-option multiple-choice test everyone should at least make a 25. Honestly, I had scores a lot lower when I did free response tests. In my Advanced Placement classes, where multiple-choice sections are followed by free response and math and graphing sections, many students do better on different sections. This makes me wonder if there is any method of testing that is inherently more fair.
After all, couldn’t a lot of the griping about multiple-choice standardized tests simply be from parents and students who don’t “test well”? They feel entitled to an Ivy League admission and hate it when the standardized tests don’t reinforce that possibility, so they get upset. And, to be frank, how is the SAT any less valid because rich kids score better – don’t they score better on everything?
Rich kids get better grades because they have more study time, more access to tutors and outside assistance, and have parents who are more likely to run roughshod over teachers. Rich kids can go to tutorials and complain and e-mail their teachers and endlessly grind and grind until the teacher throws up his or her hands and gives a more appealing grade. Rich kids, like it or not, will score better on virtually any college entrance test, even one that is a high-tech wonderment emphasizing “true knowledge” and “learning ability.”
It won’t take rich kids, or their parents, a long time to figure out how to work the system. Such is life.
So, before we decide to burn our Scantrons and condemn multiple-choice tests as invalid, let’s take a step back and remember their merits: They are quick and convenient assessment tools for overworked teachers, are more objective than free response tests and therefore cut down on time- and energy-sapping grade grubbing, and are still popular with many students. Not all students fear the multiple-choice test.