This is what is so refreshing about the recent SAT overhaul. Rather than conclude that these challenges are evidence of the fundamental unworkability of standardized testing, David Coleman and the College Board have decided, instead, to build a better test. This is an attitude normally missing from discussions around the value of standardized testing. Too often, the shortcomings of many of our current tests polarize those in education to simplified positions both for and against testing that see it either as a panacea or a poison. But the truth is somewhere in the middle. Standardized tests do face real shortcomings, but those shortcomings shouldn’t be confused as evidence for abandoning testing altogether. They should be reasons to fix the tests.
But it’s worth considering just how radical a claim it is that all meaningful academic skills are fundamentally un-testable. Indeed, the opposite assumption — that if you have learned something, you should be able to demonstrate that learning — underpins not just the big data, reformist vision of where schools should be going, but also school as it already exists. That is, even when you’re not taking standardized tests in school, you are constantly being asked to prove what you know.
What’s more, we only seem to really doubt the efficacy of testing generally when we don’t like the specific test being argued about. As a New York Times piece on the transformation of the SAT points out, the same doubts about standardized testing that generate so much discussion of our primary college admissions test do not extend to that other set of College Board exams that dominate the end of many students’ high school experiences: Advanced Placement exams. In a Fordham Institute survey, 80 percent of teachers rated these tests a good measure of student work. Similarly, you rarely hear the same doubts about the validity of standardized tests when it comes to NAEP, the so-called “nation’s report card,” or PISA exams, which measure student achievement on an international level. And the value of the 50-hour exam that students take at the end of their secondary education in the much-vaunted Finland seems to go unquestioned by those who see the country as an educational utopia.
These inconsistent feelings about standardized tests reveal the selective fatalism of some of those who oppose standardized testing. But we should not see the challenges of a specific test’s implementation as indicative of fundamental flaws of testing generally. The truth is, when we step back from the inflated rhetoric that comes with our political fights over testing, the answer to the many legitimate concerns surrounding testing is to fix the tests and testing culture, not to abandon the tests.
CJ Libassi, a former teacher, is a public policy graduate student at the University of Michigan. Reach him via email or Twitter.