Why I hate standardized tests

Why I hate standardized tests

by Elisabeth Adams
29 April 1999
last major revision 3 November 1999

"To thine own self be true." -- Hamlet

I have always hated standardized tests. This is because I do very well on them.

Sure, there are many different types of standardized tests. Some, like the SAT 9 in California, are given to all students; others, such as the SAT, the ACT, and the numerous AP exams are prepared with a more "exclusive" audience in mind. But they're all fundamentally flawed.

The point of a standardized test, as near as I can figure it out, is to give colleges, government officials, and prospective employers an idea of what sort of person they are dealing with. That is fine; there aren't many ways to evaluate large numbers of people quickly without resorting to some form of prepackaged sets of questions to be answered in a structured format in just a few short hours.

And if everyone who dealt with standardized tests realized this, and knew that they were a best rough approximations of the truth, I would not be writing this essay. (Well, I still might, because I have a chemistry midterm that I am putting off, but I digress...) However, teachers, schools, politicians and employers alike generally share the conviction that tests are far more important than they really are, and believe that they can learn enough about a person by how well they play the game of the test maker.

This is dangerous, because some people are very good at manipulating the system, or helping others to (and all for a fee, of course, which is doubly dangerous due to its inherent discrimination). Add to that the number of computer programs written and books published solely to help a student gain a higher score, and the proliferation of supposedly "college-level" AP classes structured and taught for the test and for the test only and with only passing consideration for how a subject might be taught for its own intrinsic merit, and it is evident that the insanity has gone too far.

I am not saying that standardized tests have no meaning, for some rough measure of a student's mind may be taken through the numbers attached to his or her name, but it is dangerous to raise these numbers above the level of crude images and call them reality. For the taking of many standardized test produces students who excel at taking tests; who know how to look at a question and give the grader the answer they are looking for whether or not they think it's really correct; who can take a piece of literature, a lifeless excerpt ripped from its parent text to stand alone, bleeding, and then drain it of what little life remains by commenting on the significance of the author saying "big" when he could have said "large"; who can completely miss the higher meaning, the essence, the life, the soul of the text in a sea of polysyllabic words of analysis; who do not know that perhaps the author simply liked the sound of "big" and may have been too busy living life and living his creation to analyze it to a sterile death. Good literature cannot be done justice in a turgid forty minute essay that picks at nits; and good students are not done justice in classes that teach that forty minutes is enough to arrive at a well-reasoned position and discuss it to its fullest extent.

In short, I have an ethical objection to the idea that some number, based on how willing a person was to jump through the hoops of a three hour AP test, could somehow magically show who can recognize good literature, understand it, discuss and challenge and refute and synthesize it and the ideas presented within. A knowledge of how an author says something is important, granted, just as it is important to know the alphabet before attempting to write a story, or the numbers before learning how to model the world with equations. But it is easy to forget, when you are focused on how to analyze a piece of prose in a preordained manner so that you get a higher number next to your name, a paper credential that means ultimately nothing, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and that all the standardized tests in the world cannot measure true knowledge and beauty and truth, nor reveal the satisfaction that comes with learning something well, for its sake, and your own.

© Elisabeth Adams. Hand-coded since 1998. Universal Rights Reserved.