We face standardized tests throughout much of our lives, from K-12, college admissions, graduate admissions, and employment settings.  But why are they used so extensively?  Do they really matter?

I had the opportunity to talk with Nathan Kuncel of the University of Minnesota who has published a paper in Science illustrating the effectiveness of standardized tests in predicting success in various domains and recently gave a TED talk on this topic.  Standardized testing seems to generate a lot of discussion and debate, so I thought it would be important to get the perspective of a researcher with expertise on the topic.  After reading Nathan's thoughts and watching his talk, please share your thoughts in the comments.

JON: Why do standardized tests matter?

NATHAN: Tests matter because they give us information about where people stand on critical skills. These skills affect many different facets of life to a greater degree than most psychological characteristics.  This information is useful for many purposes including vocational guidance, admissions decisions, and informing public educational policy (as I mention at the end of the talk).

Why do some people not like standardized tests?

I would point at two major reasons.  First, I think discomfort mainly occurs when they are used to make decisions about who is the most accomplished or qualified.  We see this both in admissions decisions and evaluations of teacher effectiveness. Part of the discomfort is that other characteristics matter.  I had teachers who were important to me for reasons other than the gains I made in math and reading skills.  I also have had PhD students whose drive, more than their brains, brought them considerable professional success. This is an argument for improving our ability to evaluate multiple success factors including several I point to at the start of my talk.

The second reason is that tests shine a harsh light on the inequality of educational outcomes in the U.S.  Because they are not the only factor that matters in success, it is easy to dismiss tests and look away from that unpleasant scene. But the reality is that they measure something important and decisions must be made with the best available information. Fixing the educational inequalities is best addressed earlier in life.  I am encouraged by some of the work I read that indicates we can make some progress on that front.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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