Test prep unstandardizes the standardized test

The SAT for 2005 is being overhauled. The Verbal section is gone, with analogies eliminated, and it will now be known as the Critical Reading section. There is a new Writing section, and the quantitative comparison section in Math has been removed. Yes sir, this is not your parents’ (or even your) SAT.

So why are the changes needed? The College Board is, quite simply, trying to keep their standardized test standardized. The last decade or so has seen an explosion in the number of students utilizing prep courses to prepare for standardized tests. The changes are meant to try and remove some of the more “coachable” aspects of the exam and get it back to the truly standardized test that it once was. But is it really that major an issue? So, you need a little help getting ready for the big test. No big deal, right?

Wrong. It’s time to re-evaluate the concept of the standardized test. Most Yale professors can remember the days when they walked in to take the GRE exam without having cracked a single book in preparation. I myself, along with many others, can say I did the same for the SAT. This seemingly archaic form of test-taking is, in fact, the form for which these exams were designed. Standardized tests are meant to level the playing field, testing every person on his ability to perform logically under the same test conditions. They are not designed to test how much knowledge one was able to cram into her skull over the three months preceding the exam. The “performance under pressure” adage is integral to most contemporary professional careers. For example, ER physicians, who are regularly confronted with challenges they have never seen before, do not have the option of reviewing in advance of treatment the tens of thousands of various injuries that could pour in after a ten-car pileup. The challenge of the job is being able to confront unexpected situations as soon as they arise.

For standardized tests, there is the even greater danger that test preps pose to the equalization that these tests are aiming for. Entrance exams are meant to be accessible and fair to everyone, and this primarily refers to those of different financial status. The fact of the matter is, if everyone were taking prep courses, there would be little cause for concern. The playing field would still be level. The tests would still be standardized. But many people don’t take these courses, not because they don’t believe in them, but because a $1000 to $2000 price tag is simply too steep for those already relying heavily on financial aid for their tuition. And Kaplan and Princeton Review are not about to begin offering pro bono courses.

And it may even be a negative for those taking the courses.

It would be instructive to compare medical board exam (or bar exam) scores between individuals who took MCAT or LSAT prep courses and those who did not (assuming that the pool of all individuals had similar scores on these entrance tests, and that their preparation for the boards or bar exams was the same). I would be very surprised if the prepped students performed better on these licensing exams than those who were un-prepped.

One might ask how other tests (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) should address the problem. They already have tried in many ways. These tests are updated every few years or so with little changes, but for concrete knowledge-based exams such as the MCAT, it is essentially impossible to escape the lure of test prep. The only thing that could be done to fully escape the test prep industry would be to completely change the format of the tests every year, and we can all assume that the likelihood of that is quite slim. For now, testing organizations can only hope that the little changes put a little standardization back in.

In any case, the world of the standardized testing moves on, and so with it moves the world of standardized test prep. The next few years will undoubtedly see the makers of standardized tests constantly tweaking their exams to try and maintain fairness, and the prep industry will be right behind to un-standardize them all over again. We may never again walk into a test without having cracked a book in preparation.



Jarod McAteer is a junior in Morse College.

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