Diverse Conversations: Is Standardized Testing for Colleges a Necessary Evil?

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by Matthew Lynch

Matthew Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch asks, “How can one test take into account so many variables in higher education across the globe.”

Standardized testing in K-12 education is a perennial hot button issue. Proponents feel that measuring knowledge in these rigid ways helps lift the entire educational system. Critics say the measurements do nothing but encourage “teach to the test” methods and narrow the scope of what instructors are able to teach if they want to have acceptable test results. These arguments are nothing new, but they are now seeing a new audience.

What if the same principles of K-12 standardized testing were applied to colleges and universities? Americans spend over $460 billion on higher educational pursuits every year, yet there is no official worldwide system in place to determine whether students are learning what they should, compared to other schools. In June, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development unveiled research on whether a global testing system for college students is possible. The group will continue to review its findings and decide later this year if it wants to push for implementation of the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes test, abbreviated as AHELO.

Right now the comparison system for colleges and universities lies in the many rankings that are released each year by sources like U.S. News & World Report and hundreds of bloggers who weigh in on the topic. The AHELO would be a “direct evaluation of student performance at the global level … across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions.” It would provide institutions feedback meant to help them “foster improvement in student learning outcomes.” In a nutshell, the test would not actually measure student achievements as much as shine the light on instructors that need some improvement.

To K-12 students, this sounds familiar. To college faculty, the idea is fraught with landmines. How can one test take into account so many variables in higher education across the globe? Would instructors be punished by the institution, or even worse, held to some misguided accountability scale by peers, if students did not rank highly enough on an AHELO, or some other test? If college is a time for fostering critical thinking skills, would a standardized test take away some of that freedom?

College instructors and administrators are right to have doubts, and particularly before any testing mandates go into effect. Take the classic college entrance exams — the SAT and the ACT. Though research has found little correlation between results on these tests and actual knowledge or intelligence, they are a standard part of college admissions. It is more difficult to reverse a testing mandate than to fight it off at the outset.

It is easy to see why colleges and universities are leery of standardized testing, but K-12 instructors should be, too. Presently, K-12 instructors guide students through the formative education years, dealing with standardized tests and other demands of contemporary teaching. Success with those students is ultimately determined by two other numbers: graduation rate and college placement. At that point, a K-12 teacher’s job is done, at least in theory. Adding another layer of teacher testing (cleverly disguised as core knowledge testing) at the college level could have an impact on K-12 instructors too.

If the AHELO is designed to “foster improvement” in the higher education schools that are tested, who is to say that those ideals of improvement will not then be extended to the K-12 schools that came beforehand? A student who demonstrates below-college-level proficiency in language or math would, in theory, not be the product of college that failed him or her — that student’s incompetency would be a result of a previous school or schools. Could a global test for college actually negatively impact the K-12 schools that preceded it?

As with any measurement of teaching and learning, the AHELO and other similar initiatives need close scrutiny before becoming global law. I am not sure of the necessity of such a system, and it will take some hard arguing by the other side to convince me otherwise.

Are you in favor of standardized testing in colleges and universities?

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3 Responses to Diverse Conversations: Is Standardized Testing for Colleges a Necessary Evil?

  1. Standardized testing is based on information we know about to date, which were meticulously gather from past and current information data, over the millenniums on our existence. Even though, “when in Rome do like the Romans do”, we are all held to the same aptitude and standards regarding education, K-12 or higher globally. The current standardized testing process in place can be modified and updated as new data come about, but the process in place serves us well for now. If you are asking if we should eliminate standardized testing, which measures knowledge is areas such as Law, Math, Science, English, Psychology, History and the Arts, I can’t see how this serves a purpose.

    For instances my daughter has been playing Piano for years and is now studying for her Level 4 certification, could you imagine not having standardize testing in place, then we can all say we are at levels we have not been vetted or tested for.

    Dennis Lyte
    September 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm

  2. How can Standardized Test be administered to students across the nation who receive an un-standardized education? Your state does not teach what my state teaches, so how do we measure the effectiveness of the SAT or the ACT?

    Warren Smith
    September 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm

  3. This article just scratches the surface of the problems with using standardized test as a measure for entrance into programs, whether it be at the undergraduate level or at the professional school level, e.g. MCAT, DAT, OAT, etc. As someone involved in health professional school admissions for many years with an emphasis on the under representation of ethnic minorities, this issue is of paramount importance and, in fact, is one of the main reasons that the under representation continues! For the most part, these standardized tests really do not measure the abilities of ethnic minorities (and other socioeconomically disadvantaged students) to succeed in these programs. For those who say that they do, I would ask, as a scientist, to show me the comprehensive data demonstrating a direct correlation between those scores and measures of success such as performance in courses, board scores, performance in clinical settings and most importantly success as a practicing clinicians. Heretofore, studies reporting such data have been quite isolated and limited only to certain schools, areas, etc. This issue is not surprising when you think of “standardization of students” since that definition alone is absurd, especially when we consider our educational system. For example, we know that separate but equal is probably less true now than before Brown v. Board of Education, e.g. some schools in some districts actually teach towards performance on such tests. Moreover, prep courses that are available for these tests are quite expensive and, as such, are often taken by those who are already advantaged. And, to make the standardization even more “unequal”, there is no indication when those scores are made available to admissions committees as to whether the student did indeed take a prep course! Thus, as the author states, and I have stated for many years, these are “necessary evils”,i.e. students have to take them but, in my opinion, they do not represent the students’ abilities in any standardized way. As a result. underrepresentation will continue to be an issue that we as a society must deal with. And, with the current status of minority health disparities, the health of everyone in our nation will be adversely affected.

    Thomas landefeld
    September 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm

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