October 28th, 2020

Real Life

Standardized tests have value

Christine M. Flowers

By Christine M. Flowers

Published August 11, 2014

Standardized tests have value
I always felt like a little bit of an imposter in college.

It wasn’t that I was straight and a significant percentage of the Bryn Mawr population loved both Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson (take whatever inference you want from that …)

It wasn’t that I was pro-life and most of my sister students were busy protecting their ovaries from my rosaries.

It wasn’t that I loved football, and the only Eagles they were interested in were the ones on the endangered species list.

The real reason I felt as if I didn’t truly belong was the suspicion that I wasn’t as smart as the budding Madame Curies I sat next to in class. This stems from a conversation I had freshman year with a guidance counselor who blithely told me that Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, had admitted me “despite” my SAT scores.

Seeing the distressed look on my freshman-10 padded face, she immediately added “we liked that you took hard courses, that you participated in activities, that you exceeded beyond your natural abilities.”

That last bit didn’t exactly raise my spirits. Here was an official representative of my dream school, my first choice, saying that my abysmal 1240 SATs indicated a kinship with Pebbles Flintstone but did not blind them to my other qualities. I felt a bit like Tarzan must have felt when they took him from the jungle, taught him a few prepositions and said “we can work with this!”

Curiously, none of this made me resent the importance of standardized testing, or wish that it didn’t exist. What it did do was put steel in my spine and make me determined to match, accomplishment for accomplishment, my better-pedigreed classmates. Competition is good, and finding out I’d been chosen “despite” my less-than-impressive test scores made me grateful for the opportunity to shine. This Tarzan was not going to be limited to vine swinging.

My reaction was, apparently, unique. A lot of people oppose standardized tests because of some general (and vague) sense of unfairness. I’ve been told that the SATs are essentially useless relics of an elitist past, one that rewards affluence and cultural homogeneity, not to mention the ability to memorize facts and numbers.

And now, sadly, my exalted alma mater has decided to agree with them. Effective immediately, Bryn Mawr will no longer consider SATs in admission decisions.

Miss 1240 thinks this is a big mistake. While I’ve heard the old canards about standardized tests being prepared by people who don’t “get” the realities of underprivileged or minority kids, that doesn’t wash with me for two important reasons.

First, a brain is race neutral and bank-account blind. Sure, some kids have the benefit of a better education than others because of money or the lack thereof, but standardized tests are designed to see our aptitude for learning, not what we’ve already been taught. I was a teacher for five consequential years in three affluent private schools, and the quality of the brains I taught varied, but never because Sloane had more money than Susie or Grayson lived in Merion and Jerome came from Mantua.

Second, and more importantly, telling a student that objective standards don’t matter is tantamount to telling them they have nothing to prove and that we’re going all Billy Joel on them, as in, we love you just the way you are.

The problem is, we don’t. Or at least, we shouldn’t. This is the classic “give everyone a trophy” mentality, the idea that you deserve an award just for showing up.

While it’s good to encourage kids to diversify and appreciate their special, native skills, there is something extremely important in holding them to specific standards of performance (hence the “standardized” in “standardized test”).

It was good that the academic counselor at Bryn Mawr recognized I was not the sum total of my numerical scores (and thank God she didn’t see my LSAT scores a few years later). I very much appreciated hearing that I was one small fish in a pond with some swimmers who were more naturally gifted than I was. The message was: you have to earn this, Christine.

Of course, you might say that the message I should have gotten was the exact opposite, namely, that I was more important than some standardized label and that the Bryn Mawrtyrs (cute, eh?) were right to look beyond the objective metrics and accept me for my more unique attributes.

But the fact is that colleges will always look at those attributes because they only have a limited number of spaces and you have to somehow decide between blonde lacrosse player with perfect SATs and brunette debating society president with perfect SATs. There is always room for the things that make us as exceptional and irreplaceable as individual snowflakes in an otherwise monolithic drift.

But measuring up to someone else’s standards has some value in a world where trophies are ubiquitous. Because there’s a reason Billy Joel was a great songwriter and not an admissions director.

Comment by clicking here.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.