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Standardize Me This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

Across the United States each year, more than a million high school students take standardized tests hoping that a high score will boost their college applications for top universities. Steven Syverson, dean of admissions for Lawrence University, suggests that due to the No Child Left Behind Act (that focuses on raising educational standards), colleges are becoming increasingly difficult to gain entry to every year. For example, last year nearly 35,000 students applied to Harvard University, according to the Harvard Gazette. This is a 15 percent increase from 2010 and a 30 percent increase from four years ago.

Even non-Ivy League schools have been battling a flood of applications: UCLA recorded 57,670 in 2010. As a result, students are pressured to excel academically – particularly with regard to their grade point average and standardized test scores – to increase their chances of acceptance.

I believe that standardized test scores should be optional and play only a small part in the application decision unless a standardized test that is completely fair for all genders and races is created. Long-term evidence of academic excellence should be the focus instead of the applicant's SAT or ACT score. A student's GPA, extracurricular activities, level of classes, and record of community service should weigh more heavily than a test.

Standardized tests in high school are administered in the same manner to everyone taking the test. Tests like this have existed for centuries. In fact, in ancient China, they determined a person's chances of working in the government. The ancient Greeks also used standardized tests with essays based on the Socratic Method. In the twentieth century, efficiency became the primary focus in grading standardized tests with the first automatic test scanner created in 1936 by IBM.

Today, the SAT has a total of ten sections that cover three subjects: writing, critical reading, and math. Each is scored on a scale of 800 for a maximum total of 2400 points. The average score for males is 503 (critical reading), 534 (math), and 486 (writing); for females it's 498 (critical reading), 500 (math), and 498 (writing), which shows there are statistically significant differences in results between genders.

Critics claim the SAT is biased with respect to race and socioeconomic status. Family income can provide students access to better schools, but another advantage wealthier students have is their ability to afford prep classes that are very expensive – the Princeton Review and Kaplan charge more than $800 for group classes. This means that students from lower-income families are less likely to take these, making it more difficult for them to attain high scores.

There are also significant disparities between races and SAT and ACT scores, which can create stereotypes and expectations in each racial group, as well as testing bias. For example, according to the College Board, while the average score for Asian/Pacific Islanders on the SAT is 1641, the average score for African-Americans is 1272. This disparity is not due to a difference in intelligence; as Claude Steele, a professor at Stanford University, states, there are no racial differences in IQ tests or standardized tests in preschool (preschool children are often unaware of racial and gender stereotypes), but it is possible that these stereotypes cause the disparity later on in standardized test scores.

In fact, Steele suggests that it is “stereotype vulnerability” that causes the difference in results, because students of a particular race and gender learn the expectations of how they will do: girls are expected to score lower in math, and African-Americans and Latinos/Hispanics are expected to score lower overall than Asians and whites. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotype vulnerability gives each gender and race a predetermined idea on how well they will do. Steele claims that this could be “the root of lower grades and SAT scores for African-Americans” and why some women drop out of college-level math, engineering, and physical science classes.

Another problem with standardized testing is that it does not take the diversity of participants into account. For example, Hamilton College's article “Race and Testing” cites a culturally biased question infamously asked on the SAT: the “oarsman: regatta” analogy that the SAT used to test ­critical reading in the 1990s. This question was “more likely to be answered correctly by upper class children,” as it referred to a hobby that only wealthier families would be likely to participate in.

In addition, the correlation between GPA and standardized test scores is relatively low, according to Dr. Laura Pawlow, a professor at Southern ­Illinois University. As a result, there is not much evidence to support the idea that SAT or ACT scores can predict a student's future college performance, meaning that using the SAT or ACT as a focal point of a college application is an inaccurate predictor of college success.

The second problem with standardized testing is that many teachers and schools “teach to the tests” rather than teaching balanced learning. Teachers are given an incentive to do this when rewards are linked to test results. Similarly, teachers may fear losing their jobs, which can lead them to cheat by feeding answers to their students. Recently, 78 percent of the teachers in Atlanta public schools were caught cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) in 2009. Although Atlanta was the first district in the country to admit to cheating, the stakes of standardized tests scores are only getting higher because these tests are used to evaluate schools and teachers.

There are several proposals to reform or change standardized testing. Some critics believe that standardized testing should continue, but should not be the focus of college applications. Rather, colleges should focus on the student's achievements through performance and observation assessment and tests throughout the school year. The problem with this is that colleges would need more people and time to assess applications for subjective achievements rather than use the more objective score like the SAT and ACT. Standardized tests offer a hard and fast number that allows students to be compared nationally. Nevertheless, many colleges and universities – including Middlebury College, Lewis and Clark College, Bowdoin College, Bates College, and Bard College – are making the SAT and ACT optional or placing less emphasis on scores.

Still others suggest that colleges should counter-balance lower SAT and ACT tests for African-Americans and Hispanics by designing affirmative action programs for minority races. However, affirmative action programs cause problems since they may value race rather than diversity and fairness to all races.

I suggest two options. First, colleges can make standardized tests optional for admission, especially if the student is highly qualified in other ways, such as a high GPA or outstanding extracurricular activities. This would allow students to decide whether to show their test scores, but they could also make up for a below-average score with other qualifications and achievements. My second proposal is that either the College Board or the ACT improve or perhaps even create a new standardized test that evaluates all students equally.

Standardized testing is a complicated issue that does not have a quick and easy solution. There are benefits to standardized testing, but when testing bias exists and teachers cater to the tests, there is a problem. Standardized testing is stressful for students trying to get into college. Even smart students sometimes do not do well because of anxiety, even if their academic performance during high school has been strong. While it is great that some colleges are de-emphasizing these tests or not requiring them at all, there is still a long way to go before standardized testing becomes truly standardized for everyone.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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rap1195 said...
May 20 at 2:46 pm
Great essay!  I would very appretiate the sources you used.
 
fictionlover10 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 13, 2013 at 12:46 am
This was well written! It had a nice balance of factual information and personal opinion. And really, this applies to every student. I know lots of classmates that have taken the SAT every month and done several prep courses in a rush to get the perfect score so that they'll be accepted into UCLA and Harvard. 

The only thing I do not agree with is the disparity between test scores of students with different ethnic backgrounds; while I can understand and even expect to see d... (more »)
 
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