Standardized tests: part of US tradition of succeeding by merit . . . (Debate over standardized testing is heating up again. On this page and the next, two nationally known educators look at the best and worst aspects of such testing.)
Why do we do so much testing in the United States? The reasons, I believe, stem from the very founding of our country. Our forefathers and mothers rebelled against royalty. What a person has, they believed, should not be a product of that person's birth, but rather what he or she has earned with labor, diligence, and sweat of the brow. Those who came to this country believed that everyone should have the same chance to succeed, regardless of their previous station in life.
This egalitarian principle has been passed from one generation of Americans to another. While still far short of reality in our society, the commitment to equal opportunity is one-half of the equation that underlies the abundance of testing in our society.
The other half is the principle of merit. Americans believe that we should advance on the basis of achievement. Opportunity should be equal, but promotion -- whether educational, social, or economic -- should be earned. Together these beliefs in equal opportunity and advancement based on merit create the public mind-set that supports educational testing in the United States.
Standardized tests, in part, do indeed serve both these worthy goals. Tests provide useful information on performance. Since they are standardized, they attempt to provide a common measure of this performance. The best of such tests are carefully developed by experts in the fields involved, and they are based on sound measurement theory that has been researched over the years.
But it is important to recognize that tests report on only those qualities that can be measured effectively. They are good for communicating how students read and write and compute compared with other students of similar age and grade level. However, no tests that I know of measure important human qualities such as motivation, caring, sensitivity, perseverance, and integrity. They certainly do not measure personal worth, the kind of human being a person is or will be.
Test results also can only measure and report what a person has learned. Students who have not had an equal educational opportunity inevitably will not perform as well as students who do, through no fault of their own, since they do not control the quality of education provided them. And some people just don't do well on tests. They may be anxious; they may not feel prepared; they may not be at their best for any of a variety of causes.
Let there be no doubt about it -- tests can be biased, and their results can be used in biased ways. Educational Testing Service and other reputable test-development organizations go to great lengths to guard against racial, sexual, and ethnic bias in tests. Differences in test results by race, sex, and ethnicity, however, do not necessarily mean that tests themselves are biased. If we have been successful in safeguarding against bias in the tests, then differences in test results may be the most factua l evidence of the impact of unequal educational opportunity.
College admissions tests, like standardized tests at the elementary and secondary school level, provide information for use in combination with other information about student performance (transcript of grades and courses taken, rank in class). Some public state and community colleges basically have ``open admissions'' policies.
For colleges that have more applicants than they have spaces in their incoming freshman classes, however, choices must be made. There are about 2,000 public and private four-year colleges in the United States. Even those that admit most applicants must deny admission to at least some. About 500 colleges are described as selective and somewhat less than 100 of these are highly selective. Such colleges consider a variety of information in reaching these decisions, because they naturally want to admit appl icants who are most likely to succeed academically, as well as those who will contribute in some way to the vitality of the college community itself.
Admissions tests are one means of gathering information that is useful in making such choices. In my experience, parents, students, and the news media tend to attach greater significance to admissions test scores than do admissions officials and the institutions they represent. The best predictor of academic performance in the first year of college is, not surprisingly, the grades earned and courses taken during high school. Grades and test scores together predict better than either one alone.
This is the value, and limitation, of admissions tests. Test scores provide a useful ``check and balance'' for admissions officials, who must assess transcripts of grades and courses from any of 18,000 high schools across the country. But such grades and scores are also judged in the context of rank in class, references, a personal essay or writing sample, interviews, information on the application form regarding interests and activities, and special talents and other data.
For all the attention and controversy over admissions tests, little focus has been given to how students and parents make their choices about colleges. Just as admissions officers do, parents and students should evaluate information from a variety of sources. It makes good sense to apply to several colleges, especially if they are selective, and the colleges should represent different levels of competitiveness for the student.
I counsel students and parents to consider test scores along with grades earned in looking at colleges, but to recognize that even highly selective institutions each year admit students representing a wide range of test scores. And, as I always tell parents who are making decisions affecting their children -- when in doubt as to whether to apply or not, go by your instincts. You know your son or daughter better than anyone else.
Gregory Anrig is president of the Educational Testing Service.