Standardized Tests: The Race To Nowhere?

GMAT LondonWith the new year (and its new GMAT class schedules, as of last night) underway and your wistful memories of holiday cheer and celebration fading away, you’re probably asking yourself: how did Veritas Prep’s GMAT prep instructors spend their holiday breaks?  It’s understandable that you would wonder; frankly, we’re flattered. 

And the answer?  Quite a few discussions about education, with current K-12 teachers, after-school program directors, inner-city reading program volunteers, retired principals and administrators, other GMAT instructors, alumni of “world power” educational systems as judged on math and science standardized test scores…   It was the holidays, so most of these conversations took place with Christmas-flavored lattes or Winter-flavored seasonal microbrews, but from your author’s perspective, the holidays were a time to reflect on education.  How can we improve it? What do we currently do well?  How do we even know that we’re doing it well?

As with any politically-charged, big-picture policy discussion, most of these conversations left little actually accomplished in the end, but then again the very fact that they took place was telling.  A brunch with old neighbors, for example, tackled the issue of how to fix the failing Detroit Public Schools, at which several of the members volunteer to teach reading or lead after-school programs.  In the end, policy was difficult to determine, but an underlying consensus was apropos: the very fact that those at the table would take hours to discuss education was an instrumental factor in our ability to hold it; the value that the participating families placed on education was a prominent cause of their success via education.  Accordingly, programs like the Kalamazoo Promise that seek to enrich communities with students and families that truly value education are likely to work; as the bestselling book Freakonomics posited, the number of  books in a child’s home is highly correlated with that child’s future academic success.  When education is valued, it’s most successful.

Perhaps most relevant to  the field of GMAT preparation was a series of discussions about an NPR On-Point segment, called “The Race to Nowhere,” regarding standardized tests and the heightened importance that they have taken in the national educational discourse.  The segment aired in December to coincide with the release of a documentary of the same name, analyzing the federal “Race to the Top” program to increase standardized test scores.  In the radio segment, filmmakers and education professors discuss the common belief that the United States is falling behind the world, and in particular India and China, when it comes to education — a theory based for the most part on standardized test scores in math and science.

The discussion is particularly relevant to the GMAT on multiple levels — not only does it question the reliance on standardized tests as a true measure of ability and success, but it also does so in a way that features the kind of analysis crucial to success on GMAT Critical Reasoning problems.  The argument:

  • American students perform worse on standardized tests than do Chinese and Indian students
  • Therefore, the American education system is worse than those in China and India

requires a big assumption (several, in fact): do these standardized tests accurately assess quality education?

Many would argue that they don’t; a Chinese-educated professor of education (at Michigan State University) interviewed for the piece suggests that the type of rote learning he encountered was geared directly toward standardized test success, but often left students unprepared for challenges that required more analytical or problem-solving abilities.  An Indian-educated GMAT instructor, in discussion about this segment, mentioned her excitement that her daughter would be a product of the American public school system, in which education is treated more holistically and open-ended than a more process-based, inside-the-box education that she felt she received.

Further arguments may have a Sentence Correction angle to them — comparisons on the GMAT must compare like items (the scores of American students to THOSE OF Indian students…scores must be compared to scores, grammatically).  Many nations against whom test scores are judged “track” lower-performing students out of the school system before they’re eligible to take the tests.  A comparison between the top, say, 60% of German students and the entire range of 100% of American students would therefore provide skewed results, as well.  In order to make decisions based on standardized test scores, the scores need to provide accurate comparisons and be written such that the results are tied to core values.

Standardized test scores make terrific political talking points – the world over, whether the game is soccer, football, a political election, etc., people respond to scoreboards with easy-to-digest numerical  comparisons – and no one likes to be  told they’re “falling behind.”  But often lost in the political rhetoric of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” is a discussion of how to accurately assess student achievement and learning, and of whether the numbers on that scoreboard reflect what we want from our education.  Many in the “winning” countries would argue that their “race to the top” with those numbers has handicapped true learning, and many teachers lament their appointed task to chase those numbers in lieu of what they feel are more important (if harder to calculate) lessons.  Are emphases on standardized test scores little more than a race to nowhere?  It’s difficult to argue that standardized tests are not heavily correlated with student ability — those with perfect SAT scores tend to have high GPAs, stellar performance reviews in the workplace, etc. — but do they accurately reflect and proactively contribute to quality education?

In the standardized test community — this is, after all, a GMAT blog — these are questions we ask ourselves often.  At Veritas Prep, we find ourselves often critical of “knowledge-based” tests, those for which you can cram overnight, succeed in the morning, and forget over the weekend.  If you spend some time teaching middle- and high-school level concepts like algebra and arithmetic to (successful, well-educated) adults and you’ll agree — one can memorize his way to good grades and test scores without having to truly understand or learn many concepts, and often that which he “knows” for the test is long-forgotten years later.  One can often pinpoint exactly when an adult student stopped “learning” and began “memorizing” as a younger student.  In that respect, one can argue that many tests are counterproductive in that the grading system rewards short-term recall to the point that it inhibits actual knowledge and learning.  Sure, scores may be correlated with positive attributes and ability levels, but if they stifle learning are they hurting more than they help?

Fortunately, at least in this author’s opinion, the GMAT gets it.   It is not a test of “what you know” (or, worse, of “what you can memorize in the 48 hours before you take it”), but rather a test of “how you think.”  It’s written — and has evolved and improved over time — to test problem-solving, efficiency, logical decision making, and other qualities that business schools and businesses value in managers.  GMAC officials will even admit that “we’re primarily concerned with testing higher-order thinking”, and that questions that simply test knowledge of facts, rules, or formulas do not serve their ultimate purpose.  GMAC performs regular validity studies to ensure that its results are statistically significant; GMAC polls its constituent business schools and solicits feedback on improvements to better serve its purpose.  Standardized tests by nature exist to provide a cost-effective, not-altogether-labor-intensive scoreboard by which to gauge examinee ability, achievement, and potential, and because of its 80-question, 3.5-hour snapshot reality the GMAT admittedly cannot be a perfect assessment of each candidate.  But the GMAT is well-written to its aims; it tests thought-process over quick-recall; it regularly audits its results; in short, the GMAT takes all possible precautions to avoid its becoming a “race to nowhere.”

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