Thoughts on Standardized Tests

I read that MIT is reinstituting standardized testing for admissions.  I didn’t think much on standardized tests – the ACT and SAT specifically – when I was in high school.  I did well, racked up some high scores, and went on my way.  I made no attempt to understand what it was like for the guy with a low score.

Three people that crossed my path made me stop and examine what it is like – none of them failures in life, but each put in a bind by accomplishing more with a high work ethic than high test scores.  One was a student who laboriously tried to memorize the order of operations to use his calculator to solve problems.  He had done well before he wound up in my class – where he encountered the dreaded “story problems.” 

The second was a nice lady whom I met but once – as we sat alongside each other, taking the GRE.  I had missed sleeping the night before as a new puppy’s discomforts and whines murdered sleep.  Exhausted, I asked her to wake me if I fell asleep in the GRE.  She awakened me 4 times, and explained that she was taking the test for the third time – she had to score at the 25th percentile to be admitted to a graduate program in which she had successfully completed all of the required coursework. 

The third was the valedictorian from a rural South Dakota school who had scored right at the 25th percentile on her ACT and was having a terrible time at the land grant university.  As I looked at her academic record and test scores, she explained with anger – “The professors here just don’t understand that I’m smart.” 

There may be flaws in the ACT and SAT – but I suspect it was valedictorians like this one that sent MIT running back to the college placement tests.  Good personality, good work ethic, and she really was the valedictorian.  Unfortunately, the ACT has become a near-universal test, and memory tells me that an IQ of 90 is mighty close to the 25% mark. That isn’t MIT material.  Heck, it wasn’t land grant material – there was a reason her professors at State didn’t understand that she was smart.

My student at TSJC was attending a junior college – we had open admission for anyone with a high school diploma or GED.  I doubt that his class standing would have been enough to get him into MIT even at a time when they weren’t using ACT or SAT – but he reminds me that, in today’s world, we lack places for our slowest.  The nice lady, struggling to score at the 25% level on the GRE reminds me that the level for our slowest is moving up.  There was once a place for the “low normals”.  Those career paths are becoming more crowded.

As a school board member, I am a bit more concerned with test results.  I’d like to see Trego as its own Lake Woebegone – where all of our students are above average.  What bothers me is the difference a half-century makes – there are fewer and fewer jobs where a strong back and a solid work ethic can make a living for a lifetime.

That is a problem – but another problem exists when we collectively make a decision that placement tests are flawed because they do not produce politically correct results. 

I copied this illustration on SAT scores and outcomes from

It’s particularly interesting to an academic – the correlation of 700 scores with doctorates is well over 30%, while the correlation with tenure was down below 5%. 

One of de Boer’s comments is “ I’m not super beat up about losing gifted and talented programs, as the students in them are going to be fine no matter what. They are, after all, gifted and talented.”  The SAT and ACT basically test IQ first and academic preparation second.  It isn’t surprising that the smartest kids are likely to do better in school.

Still, college is an industry.  It has reached a point where at least part of the product is the “college experience”.  If more students means more dollars, the way to increase the number of students is to become less selective, and recruit further left on the bell curve.

In reality, my Ph.D. actually says “He is trainable.  He did acceptable research once.”  If we look at juris doctorates, 50% of JDs graduated in the bottom half of their classes.  That’s why they have the bar exams – to further trim them out after law school.  And being at the bottom of your class isn’t that great a handicap – Custer was at the bottom of his class, and look at what he accomplished.  Come to think of it, wasn’t Biden was pretty close to the bottom of his class?

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