Nearly two years ago, I had discussed in these columns how Indian families had become addicted to testing. I had lamented that Indian students are by far the most-tested human beings on the planet. Students, already heavily tested in their schools, were increasingly signing up for external assessment tests — such as those by Macmillan and Duke TIP. Did this make sense?
By the time Indian STEM students get to the 11th grade, they’re furiously preparing for the big one — the IIT JEE Main, and for the lucky few who get selected, the IIT JEE Advanced. And there are standardised CET tests conducted by each State for engineering admissions, and more tests for entrance to medical schools, such as the AIIMS MBBS. Specialised engineering colleges have their own tests, such as the BITSAT.
The US, which spearheaded standardised testing through its world-class assessments at the 12th grade level (SAT, ACT) and at the higher education level (GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT), is going the other way, with many institutions declaring that they are test-optional.
Marks, the only yardstick
According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) — which says that standardised testing is flawed — over 1,000 four-year colleges in the United States do not require students to submit their SAT/ACT scores to be considered for admission. The latest to join this list is the most prestigious of them all, the University of Chicago, home to such eminent academics as Dr Raghuram Rajan, a former RBI governor.
Universities in the UK, Germany, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland have, for decades, mostly not required any standardised testing of scholastic aptitude, relying only on school grades, marks cards and perhaps a short statement of purpose. But America has always had this extra rigour of testing to distil the really good students from the not-so-good. So, why is America moving to become test-optional?
A big reason is that, nearly 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and various reforms aimed at helping minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans), the US continues to struggle under problems of racial inequity. There’s a collective sense of guilt in the hallways of the most elite colleges and universities. In this narrative, whites and Asian Americans have a leg-up in college admissions because students from these demographic groups post disproportionately high scores on standardised tests.
Free prep avenues
The theory is that the performance of these students can be traced to income superiority and social mobility. These privileged families can afford to send children to test preparation centres, where students can be crafted and moulded into outstanding test takers. Minority children, this theory holds, are at a nascent disadvantage because they don’t have the means to afford such test preparation support. There are far better measures to evaluate incoming student quality — such as subjective assessments of family background, grades in school, extracurricular and leadership activities, and teacher recommendations — which level the playing field for minorities.
Taken even as recently as a decade ago, this concern would probably have been legitimate. But modern technology today provides numerous test preparation avenues to help students willing to do well. For example, the College Board has designated Khan Academy — a brilliant site which contains video material, practice questions and test preparation kits — as its official partner. The site is free and available to anyone with an internet connection. (Khan Academy also has an extensive suite of JEE test prep material, also free). The ACT Academy is a free site offering similar help to ACT test takers.
School districts, NGOs and charities have helped narrow the gap as well. If a minority student without the means were to only express willingness to take these tests, numerous resources are available. Most do not have to even pay a test fee. Books are available for free from school libraries.
Volunteer tutors are available in most cities to help. One school district in North Texas helped send 125 students to a professional testing academy for a student cost of $50. The retail rate of the programme was over $1,800. The training was exhaustive — nearly two-and-a-half months of regular test practice, over several days a week.
Measure of speed and focus
Blaming the difference in test scores only on financial inequalities misses a larger point. These are tests which don’t just measure knowledge and skills. They measure speed, focus, determination and discipline. It is not easy to answer 160 multiple choice questions across comprehension, science and math in 45-50 seconds each. Some of these tests require students to be in the testing centre for four hours.
But the politically correct view in the United States is to argue that if minorities face any bottlenecks at all — especially those created by systems and processes — the best course of action is to remove the bottlenecks altogether.
The first test to fall victim to this kind of thinking was the timed essay. For years, students taking the SAT were required to write an essay by taking a position on a presented issue. The essay was timed to 25 minutes. In 2016, the fully revamped SAT dropped the SAT Essay component altogether, making it optional. The ACT always had the essay as an optional element of its test.
The collective belief is that by eliminating a 25-minute timed essay, the process of evaluating all students has become fairer. That this could lower incoming student quality appears to matter little.
To be sure, a majority of US colleges continue to use standardised tests as one factor in a set of parameters. But the trend is becoming clearer by the day, as college after college, proudly announces that it is joining the test-optional set.