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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Standardized Tests Under Fire

For the past generation, millions of high school and college students have taken college or graduate school admissions tests prepared and scored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey. They were to be tested for their “scholastic aptitude” and, by and large, they passively accepted the results even to the point, parents have noted, of viewing their scores as a measure of their self-worth.
So towering has the influence of ETS been that other test producers felt courageous just to imitate it. As one ETS official joked: “[ETS has] tests for everything except admission to Heaven.” The schools have both reflected and reinforced the kind of subject matter tested. Often a closed loop developed with the tests helping to shape the curriculum and the curriculum helping to shape and prepare for the tests.

At last the bloom is coming off ETS. There is mounting student and faculty criticism reaching beyond the tests themselves to the very structure of this giant definer of human intelligence and determiner of so many careers. The criticism began with assertions of a cultural bias against women, blacks, chicanos and native Americans that pervades the questions on the tests. Close analysis also showed how imaginative or creative student responses could be tripped up by questions whose answers were based on ambiguous assump­tions. Now moving toward center stage is the very issue of ETS accountability as a rapidly expanding private, unregulated educational corporation administering 5 million tests a year. Such a gatekeeper can become a tyrant even with the best of intentions by virtue of its monopolistic position.

Getting underway in Washington is a student-supported Project on Educational Testing. With only a meager budget, the Project’s director, James Ghee and a small staff, working out of an old gray building in Washington, D. C., has produced a concise 25-page description of its research plan. “Highly regarded educators and psychometricians have questioned the utility of standardized objective tests from their inception,” the statement reads, but “the critics have had noticeably little impact on the practices within the field.” Describing itself as a “research, educational and advocacy group,” the Project wants to establish a clearinghouse and serve as an advocate for consumers (the students) of standardized tests and the users of test results.

Critics of these tests assert that they do not reveal the creativity and imagination of the student and cannot measure the important factors of determination and dedication. They maintain that there is a gross over-reliance on these tests by colleges, law schools, and professional licensing boards. As the Project notes: “Most admissions and placement officers have used standardized tests as infallible predictive measures of academic competence. The result is that standardized tests emerge as the sole ‘objective’ measurement in admissions and advancement procedures.”

What is worse is how the administrative apparatus of the schools takes these test scores and “rubs them in.” Students entering college have been counseled that the best they could do is “C” or “B” or “A” work. Some students take this as an inflexible deter­mination of their potential. They lose their self-confidence and resign themselves to mediocrity. Other students scoring higher often become complacent, too self-assured that they “have it made” and make certain that they don’t reach their potential. Either way the psychological impact is destructive of student development, diversity and self‑discovery.

Standardized tests mesh logically with a standardized curriculum starved of student involvement in real-life problem study and solving but replete with rote memorization of principles and formulas.

At a small but growing number of colleges, faculty and administrators, sensitive to the need education has to break out of its rigid molds, are rejecting these tests as prerequisites for admission. ETS is aware of these spreading currents of discontent and has established advisory committees and sponsored conferences to discuss suggestions and criticisms. The company’s leaders say if there is a better way to test students, theywant to know about it. However, they seem to be willing to hear but not listen. There are ways to improve these narrowly gauged tests but the more fundamental change is to redesign the educational system within and beyond the school walls for greater development of student talents, assets and value systems which ETS does not begin to measure.

Only then will the tests extruded by ETS shrink to a proper modest level. Students will have to shoulder a major burden for generating such changes.