I’ve ranted on standardized tests quite a bit as of late for three reasons, bad design, bad evaluation, and missing or marginal stats. There is a fourth rant on deck, and thats misapplication. However, before rolling into that domain, I first want to state they are not always evil.

A Way of Life

Standardized tests are a way of life for many occupations, it could be board exams in nursing, the patent bar, software certification, or even assessments given to folks wanting to join heavy equipment apprenticeship programs. The idea of such tests, is not to show that those who pass them are gurus by any means, but more so, to demonstrate some level of subject mastery. In a lot of cases, such tests merely open the doors for a novice to start down a career path where in they will learn much more than they ever could in the classroom. Passing an exam is a way of showing a level of commitment, a certain level of mastery, a willingness and ability to learn, which will hopefully lead to a better employee down the road.

Gaming

However, standardized tests can be gamed, and end up being more a function of a applicants short term memory, than an indication of subject mastery, much less commitment or ability to learn. Case in point, the fellow who can memorize like all tomorrow, and passes all of the Microsoft exams with flying colors, but has little hands on experience is likely not someone you want working on your network. Similar issues exist with any number of standardized test prep courses, no matter how well they are spun, ie SAT, ACT. GRE, GMAT, patent bar, etc. Case in point, look at score dilution over time.

Test Anxiety

In addition, some people cave under the stress of exams, and while they may have substantial subject mastery and experience, they end up receiving sub par scores, or may even fail.

Extraneous Factors

Another factor to consider is the issue of extraneous factors. Ie stressors outside of the educational environment often play significant roles, even amongst the best students. A death in ones family, or that of a friend can cause scores to crash and burn. Even the ending of a teen relationship can throw a wrench into the mix. Such issues however are more a problem with rigidized testing processes and procedures than with the test itself.

That being said, if the issues of gaming and test anxiety can be dealt with, a properly designed, assessed, and applied standardized test can provide substantial value, albeit not without unintended consequences.

Canada HS Graduation Standards

What brought this to light, was a blog post by a teacher / exam grader in Canada. Apparently unlike the US, standards in Canada are much higher as far as assessment goes. Beyond that, the standardized tests discussed are used for purposes of granting, or not granting a HS diploma. Apart from the aspects of gaming/test anxiety, such serves to prevent diploma dilution, likely minimizes the associated headaches of remedial education post high school, and probably gives some level of confidence to employers as well. Ie nothing is more frustrating then to hire a new employee, only to find out they can’t pass the most basic of safety training exams, as they the lack basic skills to do so.

Unintended Consequences

Of course, tieing diplomas to an exam while solving one problem, opens up a couple others. Ie social promotion is fairly common… and the societal impact of not passing the exam has huge negative connotations. Likewise, needing extra time to prepare and/or even retake such exams is often looked down upon.

That being said, exams are a way of life, irrespective of the problems involved with them. Even the old codger hiring a youngster to help out is silently assessing them to see if they want to bring them on full time. Standardized tests are an attempt to take some of the subjectivity out of the decisions process. They may be imperfect, but they do serve a purpose.