I made it to college. We all did. And in order to do so, I had to take the SAT, the ACT, the MEAP and a whole host of other standardized tests. I trudged through them, as I’m sure many of you did, because as frustrating as they were, somewhere there was the generally accepted notion that the tests were important. They mattered — if for no other reason than the fact that they supposedly measured how prepared you were for the next stage of your life.
But a recent Washington Post blog post draws doubt on the ability of standardized tests to see how well-prepared students are for real life. In Marion Brady’s Dec. 5 blog, “When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids”, she writes about the experience of one of her longtime friends, Rick Roach. Roach is on the school board of District 3 in Orange County, Fla. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and two master’s degrees in education and education psychology. He has been re-elected to be a board member of Orange County’s school board three times. In addition to being a school board member, he’s been a teacher, counselor and coach.
Roach decided to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The FCAT is a state standardized test administered to students in grades 3 through 11 in Florida every year. It measures students’ knowledge of mathematics, reading, science and writing. Similar to the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests for the state of Michigan, the FCAT is used to determine schools’ accountability while also assess student preparedness for the next grade.
After Roach took the test, he described his response. Here is the conclusion he reached:
“I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction…
If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.”
Roach is a pretty successful professional by today’s standards. He has been through undergraduate and graduate school, and is currently working on a doctorate. He presides over an organization consisting of 22,000 employees and a $3 billion budget. The fact that he couldn’t answer most of the questions on the test is telling. It isn’t that standardized tests are too hard or that students who do poorly are stupid or lazy, but the style of questioning on the tests is obscure and abstract. The types of questions asked and the criteria for passing or failing seems to be arbitrary at best.
And, as Roach says, much of the concepts — especially in the math portion — that students are tested on will not be applicable in most college and professional careers (with the exception of the few who become math majors or go into business). How can a test claim to adequately assess how likely students are to succeed in the future if the material being tested has no connection to the criteria by which success is measured in the real world? And should such tests be used to rank schools, determine readiness for college, or grant federal funding to schools?
Standardized test scores play a large role in determining schools’ reputations and in gauging whether students are or aren’t “college material” (as Roach puts it). But, when successful professionals with bachelor’s and master’s degrees are clueless about a majority of the questions, something is wrong. Many have made the argument that standardized tests don’t accurately reflect a students’ true abilities. Roach’s experiment shows that the tests don’t relate to how the real world functions either. And yet, they continue to shape the future of countless people. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the role that standardized tests, specifically state administrated ones, play in the education system.
Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.