Thursday, January 14, 2016


The Dark Side of Standardized Tests

Arthur Chang

[one of his papers was published in The Concord Review, Summer 2015 Issue; Chicago Laboratory High School, and Haverford College Class of 2019]

January 14, 2016

When Luke Skywalker asks Yoda whether the dark side is stronger, Yoda’s response is “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.” This difference exists between assigning papers and giving tests. Tests, especially standardized, multiple-choice ones, are easier to administer and grade, but not necessarily a better indicator of academic competence. And unless they include open-ended questions that ask for explanation, tests only encourage and reward rote memorization, where essays and papers require a deeper understanding of the hidden subtleties of any given subject. But perhaps more importantly, papers and essays ensure that students learn to form arguments and support them with evidence based on solid research. 

The process of planning and writing an essay is essential for developing critical thinking skills, which, more so than memorization and test-taking skills, are vital to succeeding in college and beyond. Forget about the SAT, ACT, and AP’s. Forget about test scores and grades. Just find a course description for any college class. I challenge you to find any class that emphasizes test taking over learning; I guarantee you that most college classes are not like that.

As a freshman in college, I can personally attest that college classes are about understanding the concepts rather than memorizing the facts. For one thing, it is quite easy to derive most facts if you know the concepts. The converse is not true. It is true many courses have mid-terms and final exams. However, I have only encountered one exam with multiple choice questions—and then it still required understanding, not memorization. All other questions have been open-ended, asking not only for a response but also an explanation. Furthermore, most of my humanities courses have papers in lieu of exams.

These papers are not the personal, five-paragraph essays that appear on the SAT or the ACT. Rather, they are analytical essays that favor critical analysis of one or more source(s), depending on the essay topic in question.  For example, my first paper in my writing seminar class was a “close reading” assignment: analyze, using evidence from the text, how a particular author defined “belonging.” Note that the assignment does not ask for my opinion at all; it only ask that I analyze (critically) what the author is saying. While undoubtedly my own experiences and opinions influence my interpretation of the author’s argument, the key point of the assignment is to assess how well I can make a point (in this case, the author’s definition of “belonging”) and support it with evidence (the author’s words).

Unfortunately, papers are disappearing from high school curriculums; fewer and fewer high school graduates have written papers of any substantial length before they graduate from high school. Coming from a high school where all papers (except the “get-to-know-you letters at the beginning of each year) were analytical, this surprised me. Even though I had read about it in Mr. Fitzhugh’s writings, it did not fully sink in until my freshman writing seminar told my class “Most high school students have never written an analytical essay. If you had written one in high school, thank your teachers.”

There are a number of reasons why papers are slowly disappearing from high school. Perhaps the most common complaint is time, on both the students’ and teachers’ parts. While there are always those students willing to take on a challenge, many more cringe at the mere idea of doing serious research and then writing a lengthy essay. But perhaps the strongest opposition comes from teachers who, for their part, complain that with their current teaching load, they don’t have time to spend grading each student’s essay.

A contributing factor to the increased complaints about time is standardized tests. Most public schools and teachers are evaluated on how well their students do on standardized tests, administered annually. To cap it all off, high school juniors and seniors have additional pressure to do well on either the SAT or ACT, a prominent part of the college application process. 

These pressures to do well on standardized tests create an incentive for schools and teachers to focus more on preparing for the tests and how to do specific types of problems rather than focusing on developing essential skills needed in a particular field. 

In the humanities, this is especially detrimental when the core of the field is building and supporting a conclusion based on evidence and critical thinking skills. There simply is no way to “standardize” a test for writing skills; not only could there be more than two sides for a given issue, there are multiple ways to argue for any given side. Unfortunately, facing increased pressure by local, state and federal governments to do well on standardized tests in the form of grants, public schools and teachers are prioritizing test-taking skills over critical-thinking skills.

Giving in to these and other pressures is a short-sighted decision. As demonstrated above, the practical skills acquired in completing a research paper are highly valuable in college. Even for those not attending college, critical thinking skills are essential in today’s ever-changing job market, where the ability to learn and adapt is equally, if not more, important than knowledge alone.

The College Board and the Atlantic are not helping to improve the college-readiness of students. As Fitzhugh noted in an article, The College Board recently announced a competition with a word limit of, was it 2,000? When any student will write such short essays in their college career is beyond me, and it may explain why, despite ranking among the highest of all countries in money spent per student on education, with students spending more time in class compared to other countries, and with smaller classes, the U.S. ranks low in its education system. It seems that part of the fix is simple: bring back term papers. Yes, there are many challenges. But are we really going to compromise the future of the U.S. just because it was “hard” to teach how to write research papers?