Posted by: Mark | May 18, 2009

My Beef with Stardardized Tests

I am not a big fan of standardized tests. I have not been for a while actually. I went to an AP World History conference last summer, and although “AP” carries with it the distinction of honor, I think it also limits the creativity and engagement of the teacher and students. I was told at the conference that there isn’t time to actually get kids to enjoy history or to develop research skills: all efforts had to be focused on the test. My two main thrusts in teaching history are to get kids to a) actually like learning stuff about the past, and b) learn how to be effective researchers, so I obviously thought that was a load of crap.

But, you cannot ignore the standardized world at large, and so I have acknowledged the existence of the SAT II in World History with a practice test in class. The students took the test, and today we’ve been reviewing it.

And, rather predictably, my dislike of standardized tests has increased.

I bought the CollegeBoard’s book of official prepping for the test. They give you a two page introduction to help you understand what may be covered on the test. The first points out that it is important to understand political, diplomatic, intellectual, cultural, social, and economic developments from the history of the world. In other words, they potentially include everything and anything. Then there is a little chart that shows percentages of how much of the test is actually on a specific geographic region as well as time period, but that honestly doesn’t help much. So for a teacher who may not like SAT subject tests, but will still want his kids to do decently well, there’s little to no guidance on what the test will be like.

The test is 95 multiple choice questions in an hour. Right, because I distinctly remember taking a ton of similar tests while I was in college and graduate school studying history. I mean come on. When a huge chunk of the questions are fact regurgitation, how much is that encouraging actual historical knowledge?

You are graded on what they call a “composite score.” In other words, you take the number of questions you got right “R,” and then subtract the number of questions you got wrong “W,” multipled by 0.25. aka…

R – (0.25 x W) = composite score

There’s a chart that links your projected SAT scre up to your composite score. The highest you can get on the test is an 800, like all standardized subject tests. The way that composite scores match up to SAT scores is equally beguiling. You can get as low as a 75 composite score and get a perfect 800 on the SAT II. In other words, if I got 75 questions right, and left the other 20 blank, on a regular test in school, I’d have a C+ 78% and probably not be to siked about things. If I did the same thing on the SATII, I’d be sitting on a perfect score. Let’s say I got half right, and half wrong. 43 – (42 x 0.25) = 33.5, which would round up to a 34. A failing 50% on a school test is a solid 550 on the SATII. What the hell kind of expectations are they setting?

And my last beef is how ridiculously hard some of these questions are. They publish the percentage of students that get the question right, and in our test today we went through an 8-question streak in which every question was answered correctly by less than 35%. That’s absurd! The hardest question, with only 15% getting it right, was…

Which of the following groups spearheaded new nationalist movements in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century?
a) Junior army officers
b) Writers
c) religious leaders
d) women’s rights activists
e) industrialists.

So 10th grade kids, after taking one year of world history (spanning the entire history of the planet) have that on their test. If you guessed A, you’re one of the 15% who got it right.

So to summarize this test. It…

-asks kids to process history in a way that doesn’t accurately mirror historical scholarship in the real world, universities, etc
-tests kids on test-taking skills, not necessarily content
-is incredibly over-specific
-is vague in defining expectations
-is scored in a skewed way that doesn’t mirror real expectations in any setting: school, work, etc (I wouldn’t be loved by my boss in any job, and getting a perfect review, if I was only getting things right 78% of the time)
-just flat out sucks.

Don’t even get me started on the fact that it’s $70 to take it in the first place, and if you wanna buy a practice test that’s just more, and so it isn’t even necessarily equitable in access to students.

Why do colleges still put any emphasis on these tests? I think with the admission processes getting savvy enough, officers know what different types of schools are like. Get to learn the students who are applying, not how well they do on contrived exams like these.

For me, clearly I’m gonna stick to teaching history how I think it should be, by having some fun digging up info about the past.



  1. I’m pretty sure I slept through the majority of my SATs….lucky I test well. I fully agree that it’s a pretty solid waste of time and money. Hopefully someone suggests a better alternative soon.

  2. I agree, Mr. Lukach, SATs are a *huge* waste of time and money. As I high schooler, I’ve realized that much of the stuff which is given to me simply wastes my time. Supposedly, SATs are intended for the “academic betterment” of American children, but it really is meant as a time waster. I guess many institutions believe in creating busy work for kids in order to keep them out of trouble, when that is an overt generalization. They fail to realize that some kids would much rather spend their free time programming or doing math rather than breaking the law. I truly wish for once I could crack open a book that I want to read. If only time would permit….

  3. According to the author’s tone and point of view, the most appropriate title for this blog entry could be…

    A) Your mom goes to college
    B) Suck it ETS
    C) The future of schooling will not involve thinking
    D) Anything to compete with the Chinese (Seriously did you SEE the opening ceremony of the Bejing Olympics?)
    E) None of the Above

  4. Hello,

    While I agree that the SAT Subject Test for World History could be rather egregious (having taken a year of AP World History myself, we focused on topics that were much more practical) due to its emphasis on trivial facts, it definitely does not cost $70…my test cost me $29, including a $20 for SAT registration and an additional $9 per subject test.

    So perhaps you are referring to the AP WH exam that costs $70? (It’s now $78 or $86 depending on the school.)

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