America has a passionate attachment to standardized multiple-choice tests. Schoolchildren learn to take machine-graded uniform tests in kindergarten and first grade. They are taught to select right answers rather than deduce them; to outwit test writers, who attempt to mislead them with seductive but wrong alternatives that otherwise might never have occurred to anyone. Citing science, objectivity, and uniformity (celebrated as signs of fairness) in our desire to measure intellectual quality and attainment, we have lost touch with common sense. Instead of asking students to show what they understand or do not know in a straightforward manner, by demanding that they fill the blank pages of a blue book, solve crucial problems, and answer direct questions, we have erected a tortuous maze of so-called psychometric testing. This maze extends all the way to graduate and prof essional school.
By the time a child reaches high school, the annual routine of national standardized tests, frequently named for states of the Union (Iowa, California), each with answer sheets covered with small rectangles waiting to be filled in and sealed test books, has become the decisive yardstick of the quality of curriculum, learning, and teaching in our schools.
If, however, schooling is supposed to be training for a productive and reflective life, ought we not be disturbed by the fact that the skills required to do well on standardized multiple-choice tests (unlike the ability to write an essay) become obsolete the very moment schooling is over?
SATs, national multiple-choice tests which purport to measure ``aptitude'' and predict future performance in college among competing aspirants for admission to our colleges and universities, are perhaps the most pernicious examples of our testing habits. SAT test scores play a crucial role in the college admissions process. Furthermore, the SAT and Achievement tests, designed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, have been, since the end of World War II, the most respected and widely used
of all multiple-choice standardized tests.
Presumably one cannot study for these tests. They are supposedly ``objective'' and reliable comparative measures of one's ability to do well in college. They claim (and falsely) not to be about the command of subject matter. It is not enough to know a subject or a text. In fact, knowing a subject better than the test writers (who are not first-rate national authorities in their fields) can be a disadvantage. None of the suggested answers may be right, and often more than one answer can be defended as pl ausible.
Not only are tricks played in the formulation of questions, but the very structure of set questions with four or five specific alternatives does violence to the content of many fields of study, including English and history. The tests trivialize the notions of truth and interpretation and the concept of a fact by reducing everything into puerile, brief formulations.
Nothing is learned from the SATs. Students do not, as a rule, get the tests back. They never understand why they got something right or wrong. Tests ought to be more than mechanisms of evaluation and selection. Important ones ought to be instruments of learning.
In the 1950s, one frustrated teacher sent a multiple-choice reading comprehension test which used selections from E. M. Forster's ``A Passage to India'' to Forster. The teacher received a cordial reply, inviting any examiner who might find himself in England to drop by. Forster was eager to find out what the right answers were.
The SATs reinforce a sensibility cultivated by years of adaptation to standardized multiple-choice testing in our schools. We foster the notion that the demonstration of talent and knowledge is an act of passivity. Using one's intellect becomes little more than the act of selecting from among several answers someone else has put forward.
Students are not active, thinking on their own, demonstrating understanding in their own words, presenting knowledge digested and remembered in a manner comprehensible to authorities who can judge the range of quality in answers and the sophistication in reasoning. The SATs and other timed multiple-choice tests reinforce the ludicrous belief that speed and facile recall are signs of intellectual superiority and talent.
Students become extremely anxious about the SATs. Individuals seem to remember their scores forever. Test takers either gain an inflated and premature sense of self-confidence or, more commonly, a lasting and inappropriate sense of inadequacy and inferiority. Good grades and work done in high school and the favorable opinions of teachers consistently fail to compensate for middling SAT scores.
Parents, in turn, are accustomed to hearing about raw scores and national percentiles and placing undue emphasis on test scores to the detriment of other indicators. After all, ``national'' tests measure Johnny and Susie against all other children ``objectively,'' as if the real-life context for intellectual achievement, originality, insight, and success were some educational analogue to the limited arena of the major leagues in baseball and a single ``World Series.''
From the point of view of colleges (for whose benefit the SATs are presumably intended), the most that can be said for the results is that those who do very well are probably not stupid and that those who do very poorly have a problem, often limited to the act of taking multiple-choice tests.
Amid periodic controversies about the SATs and their meaning, no one seems to have asked why many who score high on the verbal component still cannot write a decent essay in freshman English and worse, have little to write about after 12 years of schooling; why those who score in the top percentiles of the mathematics component may not know any mathematics and are often not the most gifted future scientists, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians.
Banesh Hofmann, certainly no flaky, wide-eyed liberal reformer, but rather a distinguished mathematician and biographer of Albert Einstein, wrote a convincing and scathing book attacking the multiple-choice tests and the SATs in 1964. Despite his thorough critique, the quasireligious faith in the SATs displayed by their designers, educators, and the public has, if anything, increased, even though the tests continue to fall short of a reasonable standard of intellectual excellence.
Leon Botstein is president of Bard College.