Standardizing Success

Opinions  /  by Grace Blaxill '18  /  April 15, 2016

We all have to take ’em. Whether the SATs or ACTs or APs or PSATs, all of us are confronted sooner or later—but probably sooner—with standardized testing. Nationally, high school students in cities take an average of 36.4 standardized tests over the course of their schooling. Standardized tests reach us here in the bubble as well, with the SAT, ACT, and PSAT being all but mandatory, and APs strongly suggested for those in applicable classes. Too often we take the legitimacy and value of these tests as unquestionable, but do we really know what these tests actually test for?

The SAT and ACT—the tests that pertain the most to Lawrenceville, as one of the two is required for nearly every college application—primarily measure wealth and parental education. In statistics featured by the Washington Post, SAT total scores of students with family incomes of $200,00 and up are, on average, a whopping 388 points higher than total scores of students with family incomes of less than $20,000. Still greater is the score gap when level of parental education is taken into account: Students whose parents have graduate degrees score 395 points higher than do students whose parents have no high school education. By testing primarily for privilege, whether intentionally or otherwise, these tests essentially serve to separate the children of the rich and educated from the rest of the world.

To be fair, the separation of elite students from the average is not without reason. Colleges are trying to compare thousands of students, and so it makes their lives considerably easier to rate everyone against a common standard. But that’s just it: There cannot possibly exist a reasonable standard against which to compare every applicant. Great test takers can perform poorly in school. Students whose testing anxiety prevents them from doing well in high-pressure environments may be skilled contributors in classroom environments. Standardized tests by their very nature inadequately reduce years of education and diligence into a five-hour space in a dingy high school classroom or gym. These tests cannot possibly measure accurately the scholastic aptitude of all high school students, nor can the ability to make educated guesses about grammar and algebra predict our academic abilities—yet the college process has decided, and deluded us, that they measure not only this, but also the very merit of our characters.

So why do we continue to put so much faith in the efficacy of standardized testing if, deep down, we have always known they show nothing? One word: college. The national—even global—rat race to find admission into a prestigious school has made it impossible for admissions officers to devote significant time to individual applicants. The craze about college planning that spawned the obsession over standardized testing shares its fatal flaw: futility. Just as an SAT cannot determine your worth as a student or a person, neither can the eight minutes a college admissions officer spends reviewing the application you will invariably spend weeks or even months on. And in the view from the ivory tower, this is a desirable outcome. The lower the acceptance percentage, the greater the school’s prestige. As the seniors’ college process comes to a close—and the juniors’ just begin as a student body, we must remember that the thought of college’s determining our worth and value has no stock. The further we buy into the mania, the further control the tests and the colleges have over us.

And yet even as I say this, fully believing my words, I know that by this time next year I will be sitting down in a dingy high school classroom or gym, filling out bubbles with a #2 pencil to determine my fate.