Tuesday, June 07, 2005

CC defends standardized tests.

A response to Perigrinato

First off, an admission. I teach GRE test preparation classes as a side job sometimes. I am certified my test prep company to teach SAT, but I don’t like high school kids. I have the scores to be certified to teach LSAT, but LSAT students are notorious for being difficult and arguing every point. Why bother?

I am the reason the standardized tests are biased. Kids who can afford my classes do better. I teach them polynomials, the six types of analogy questions and to come to the testing center dressed in layers and with an energy bar in their pocket for the break. That my classes cost a lot of money is unfortunate, though there are scholarships available. That my classes take a lot of time I don’t apologize for. Hard work in preparation for what you perceive as a pointless hurdle is as good a preparation for some parts of academia as I can think of.

Perigrinato’s statement “The test favors those who have had time or money to prepare for the exam.” can be slightly altered to the universal truth “Everything favors those who have had time or money to prepare.”

But there is a bias that makes me a far more natural defender of standardized tests than my financial motive.

I’m one hell of a lousy student. My LSATs say I should be going to Princeton Law. My grades suggest Fame School of Nail Design. No, as I have explained to parents, teachers and friends for nearly two decades, I don’t know why I’m so awful. Why I procrastinate, why I forget everything the day of the test, why I write searing critiques of books that turn out to be written by the professor, why I ran my college newspaper, starred in a play and was president of my dorm all at the same time, but kept forgetting to go to class. Medicate me, write my schedule, punish me, change my diet, do whatever. Nothing fixes the mess that is CC’s academic life, and nothing is going to persuade anyone who has ever tried to have me in a classroom that I’m good at standardized tests because my learning style is so very normal.

I didn’t take a prep class. I didn’t even study for the GRE. But I did score in the 97th percentile.

My graduate school grades were a few A’s and mostly B’s. I didn’t finish because I was miserable and had figured out that it wasn’t preparing me for anything I wanted to do, my fault not my program’s.

Of course undergraduate grades are a better predictor of graduate grades in aggregate. Wouldn’t it be weird if that weren’t the case? But all schools are not the same, and grades do not always tell the full story. . (Of course, minorities tend to get worse grades, and women, too, if we’re talking about math or science.) Will straight A’s and flawless recommendations from Dixie Cup Community College get one in to Harvard law? With a 179 LSAT accompanying them, they will at least be looked at. Without it? Don’t bother.

One of CC’s high school English teachers grew up in New Haven and he said as a kid a fun time of the year was the end of the fall semester, when large bunches of furniture would appear in a certain spot as every year a few dozen Freshmen from hick towns who had come to Yale with straight A’s found that their schools hasn’t prepared them when they flunked out. (Is this true? It’s a convenient story for a high school English teacher to tell, I’ll admit. But the image has stayed with me. And SAT’s might have caught the problem in advance.)

Test scores are useful other ways. It’s logical to assume that students who get low math grades/test scores are poor math students. But it isn’t always the case. If a student has gotten a low math score, but a high analytical score, that usually indicates the math ability is there.

And the tests are not designed my accident. My favorite example is on the GMAT (which is for business school.) One type of question asks you to look at a problem, look at some information pertaining to the problem, and figure out if you have enough information to solve the problem. Are you suited to be an MBA who comes into the company, figures out how to fix things and then hires the guys to carry out the solutions? In a very brief moment, the GMAT can measure the skills at the heart of what people who hire MBAs want them to do.



Anonymous said...

First a response, then a plea.

What you've said argues well if "all things are equal" -- which they're not. The tests aren't genuine indicators of aptitude for graduate study, only for success at taking standardized tests! (Okay, I'm speaking more about the GRE here. I don't want to defame other tests.) I realize what they're intended for, but the reality is they aren't forward-measuring as much as retro-measuring (I'm making up words. let me!) if what they really measure is how much you could prepare for them. What happens with the people (like me) who are good students, get good grades, have been known to write good papers, and then suck kitty litter on standardized tests? Those grades hurt us, while the kid whose overall academic performance is less than stellar but aced the GREs gets a merit-grant.

Now with my response (i.e., disagreement) out of the way, expect to hear from me when I need a tutor for the quantitative part of the test :) (I'm dead serious here.) We can disagree all we want, you won't change my mind, but I still have to take the test!

Anonymous said...

Is it possible your poor performance in school is a bit of "fear of success" left over from your traumatic childhood?

Anonymous said...

CC - first of all, kudos for your great scores. I'm glad, on a personal level, that they give you more options than you otherwise might've had. But that just proves the point most detractors of standardized testing make - that they are not good predictors of success in the program they supposedly test for. You are a prime example - someone who is quite smart and thus can score gangbusters on the GRE without even trying, but who probably won't do as well in grad school based on all of the reasons you gave in your post. There are many, many students who are also smart, and who work hard to make good grades, but who aren't naturally good at standardized tests. And yet those are the folks who will excel in grad programs, the ones who will make it through Ph.D. programs. Yes, you need to be bright to get a Ph.D. But you also need to be motivated, deeply curious about your chosen field, excited about learning, organized, focused, a little stubborn, and able to overcome the temptations of procrastination. The GRE does not, nor does it claim to, measure these things. If I do well on the GMAT questions you laud, that means that I am good at those questions and at that type of thinking. However, I might also have lousy business acumen and crummy study habits, and thus may never make it through b-school or succeed in the business world. Past academic performance is still the best predictor of future academic success.

Anonymous said...

Princeton doesn't have a law school.

Anonymous said...

Princeton doesn't have a law school. Brush up on your research skills. :)