OPINION: The dilemma concerning standardized testing and educational success

Some have expressed concern that standardized testing does not accurately reflect a student's ability to succeed in future endeavors. (Photo courtesy of Shannan Muskapf/Flickr)
Some have expressed concern that standardized testing does not accurately reflect a student's ability to succeed in future endeavors. (Photo courtesy of Shannan Muskapf/Flickr)

What makes a student successful? In an attempt to assess students in an easy and cheap manner, many schools use test scores to determine who will make a successful student. Two recent articles in the national media, each focusing on the beginning and ending of one’s high school career, highlight the troubles facing schools as they attempt to better understand test scores. An analysis of these two articles will allow Mason to better understand what role a university will play in shaping the lives of these high school students.

Concerning high school freshmen, the Washington Post recently reported that the Fairfax County School Board is considering changing the admissions standards at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to focus more heavily on test scores and less so on the essay portion of the application. The proposed changes are in response to an alarming 15 percent of freshmen struggling with the school’s core math and science courses. A premier magnet school for top-tier students in Northern Virginia, TJ is relatively exclusive with its admissions, accepting only 14 percent of applicants. The current policy weighs applicants by three criteria: 20 percent based on teacher recommendations, 35 percent on math scores and middle school grades and 45 percent on an essay portion and information sheet. Disappointed with the 15 percent who are struggling, one Board member argued, “Too much emphasis is placed on the essay in the application for a school focused on math and science.” The justification for rebalancing the 20-35-45 split lies in the idea that a greater focus on middle school test scores, rather than a simple essay, will produce higher quality students.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that the national averages for SAT scores are falling as more students take the test. For those who have not had the pleasure of taking the SAT, here is a brief synopsis offered by the WSJ: “The SAT tests students in reading, math and writing, with a possible score of 800 on each section. Students needed a score of 1550 out of the total 2400 to indicate college readiness, defined as a 65 percent chance of maintaining at least a B-minus as a university freshman.” It is important to highlight that the outlined goal of the SAT is to assess “college readiness” by means of predicting one’s GPA in college as a reflection of one’s SAT score. 

Given this mission, what do national averages for the SAT say about the high school class of 2012, for which scores fell one point in both reading and writing to 496 and 488, respectively? Math averages offer some solace in that they have not dropped since 2007; however, overall tests scores are now at their lowest level in four decades. College Board, the non-profit that administers the test and reports all of this data, believes these drops correlate with a broader testing pool. The SAT is now taken more often by students who attend schools with below-average core curricular requirements, meaning students who are less prepared in reading, writing and math are taking a test that evaluates their abilities in these very subjects.

These two cases of test scores contain common themes. The scenario: A high school is concerned that its admissions policy does not account enough for middle school math and science scores, resulting in a growing number of freshmen who are currently struggling in those classes. To remedy this disparity, that high school is now considering giving less weight to the essay portion of its application, which is to say giving less weight to reading and writing skills. The issue lies in the fact that high schools are more concerned that students are not meeting the standards in reading and writing set by previous generations, while math scores, by staying consistent in the last few years, are seemingly more resilient than reading and writing scores. 

Overall, American students are not testing well. Should we be worried? By virtue of these articles being at the forefront of educator experts’ concerns, we as a nation have become myopic in our approach to evaluating students. We believe that data drawn from test scores properly assess the efficacy of the school system. The facts demonstrate a correlation between weaker schools and weaker test scores; but are our children weaker students?

For TJ, the assumption is that a lower threshold for middle school test scores causes a lower quality student body in math and science. By framing this as a problem, schools communicate to students that those who are less skilled in taking math and science tests are less skilled students who never should have been accepted to TJ. In other words, these students did not test well in middle school and so will not test well in high school.

For SAT test takers, the problem remains the same. Those who were prepared less to effectively take a test in high school—specifically reading, writing and math tests—perform more poorly on those sections of the SAT. What the resulting SAT scores communicate is the idea that by being less prepared in high school to take tests, students will be less prepared to take tests in college and are, therefore, labeled as inadequate to move on to higher education.

I return to the original question: What can Mason learn from these examples about its role in all of this? Mason is preparing students to thrive as leaders in a global and diverse community. Yes, grades are important, and, yes, tests and quizzes represent a portion of those grades (depending on your major). Yet, relative to primary and secondary education, Mason does not communicate to students that how one scores on a particular test, be it in math or on the SAT, will determine how prepared, motivated or dedicated one of those students will be as leaders.

The difficulty, however, is that universities accept students based upon how they perform in high school. Thus, the goal for Mason must be to determine how it can prepare a generation of students for higher learning when they have been taught to believe test scores lie at the crux of education.

The important point here is how we at Mason communicate the role of tests to students. I am not suggesting we accept students who are inadequately prepared, nor pass students in a course when they have not improved their skills in that given subject. Rather, we must ask ourselves how the university’s mission to go global and produce student leaders fits into the paradigm of a student body prepared to take tests. 

Opinions expressed in this column are solely the beliefs of the writer. 

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