Say the word “testing” into a group of students and it’s like yelling “fire!” in a movie theater. For one, “testing” is not the same as “test.” They know tests. They understand tests. Tests are a fact of life, an educational ritual, an unpleasant (for most) rite of passage in the journey towards adulthood. Adults don’t really have to do tests, for the most part. It’s one of the rewards of being a grown up. No more tests! Yay!
TestING — which every student knows to mean “standardized testing” — is a different beast altogether.
“Testing” conjures up feelings less resigned and more intense: fear, anxiety, dread, panic. Even the students with perfect SAT scores — and I worked with more than one as a college counselor — worried about whether that would be enough to get them into the college of their dreams. Perfect scores.
Both as a parent and as a person, I am not a fan of testing. I used to take a photo of our students after they finished the SAT in our cavernous gym, filling table after table, heads down, exhausted. I showed this photo in our annual parent college admissions presentation to remind my peers that testing is not fun. There is nothing enjoyable about sitting for over three hours on a hard chair with nothing save a small clear baggie of trail mix (only to be eaten during the ten-minute break) and plowing through timed reading passages, vocabulary, word problems, and the like. Not to mention the analogies. When in adult life will one ever need to know that oak is like a tree as sedentary is like a couch? (That’s not even a correct analogy … fortunately my own imperfect mastery of analogies did not ruin my future).
I have seen students break down sobbing over a test score that was “only” in the 98% percentile. I have seen those who obsessed over what they thought they needed to master in the whatever subsection of the whatever subscore just to come up one point on the ACT — and they had already tested three or four times. One of my former students had twenty separate standardized testing sittings, including multiple retakes of the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests. She tested every single month of the school year for over two years. I have seen parents start test preparation for their children years ahead of when they learned the material in school because they believed it would remove test anxiety rather than create it — and then ask me for advice on how to reduce their child’s test anxiety. I could go on.
And all the worry came from the right place: the belief that with “good” test scores, admission to college will be, if not assured, then a lot easier. This is, in fact, true. Higher test scores will make admission easier at many schools. It is demonstrated clearly by the fact that colleges widely publish their mid-50% test ranges. Admissions offices contribute to the problem. While more colleges are going test-optional these days, the majority still require standardized testing. Why, when it is the source of not only a multi-billion-dollar test prep industry, but also so much anxiety among their future students?
It’s a simple answer, really. Schools require testing because it’s the only standard measurement available to compare applicants from a wide range of educational backgrounds. At the secondary school level, it takes on another degree of usefulness because the number of years of grades we have to consider is much shorter (only two years, in most cases), and the range of middle school grades is much narrower (there are far more A’s given in middle school than in high school, on average). Standardized testing, then, levels the transcript field.
And yet, as everyone knows, standardized test results are not an infallible data source. Students from highly resourced schools and families who can afford test prep score higher on the tests than students without those advantages. Students who can take the time to learn how to take these tests and fit in regular practice score higher as well. And let’s be honest — the teenage brain is a complicated one. As one mother remarked to me recently, “I wish I could just put an asterisk next to my son’s score that indicates his girlfriend broke up with him the night before.” Sigh. I’ve been there, sister. Amen.
So how can we use standardized testing in a way that gives us the educational context we are looking for? How do we find the information we need to find out about an applicant’s academic readiness for our school? The only way is to use testing as one data point to inform an overall picture of an applicant rather than to singularly determine the outcome. In selective admissions, students are not admitted because they have great testing. They are admitted because of a combination of reasons, some of which are evident through testing, and some of which have nothing to do with the applicant’s testing at all. Admissions offices look at a lot of different things. You can be a poor tester but be a great student whose teachers say everything about you and your approach to learning that the test does not. You can be a great community member, friend, school citizen whom we want to have at our school even with test scores that aren’t that great. You can have had a life experience that has shaped you in ways that we think will add significantly and that you can use to maximize your experience at Loomis. You can be someone whom we believe will contribute in significant ways to our school outside of the box of a standardized test score.
We adults probably all know people who did really well on standardized testing and are not particularly happy people. (Which might be why they are still telling us their SAT scores decades later.) The characteristics that determine success in life are not measurable by a standardized test. We know this; we need to keep telling our kids this. We need to remind them to trust that the professionals know a lot about these tests and how to interpret them correctly. And we need to remind them that Character Skills Snapshot aside, there’s no standardized test for character, which is the quality that will take them much farther than any score on any test.
If I had an asterisk on my SAT scores from 1986, it would read, “smarter and spunkier than this score attests.” As a tester with far less than perfect scores myself, the irony that I work in admissions is not lost on me. Fortunately, there’s no test in adulthood that includes analogies.
Amy Thompson is the dean of enrollment at The Loomis Chaffee School, a 9-12/PG boarding school in Windsor, Conn. Prior to her current role, Amy served as director of college guidance at Loomis Chaffee, director of admission at McDonogh School (MD), and assistant director of admission at Georgetown University.