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Standardized testing as a gateway to higher education was first established in the United States with the development of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900. This board created a test designed to standardize admissions to elite universities in the northeastern United States and to encourage the development of a common curriculum among elite boarding schools (Chandler 1999; Lemann 1999). The original test consisted of essays and was not designed for mass testing. The College Board, however, created a broader test of IQ in 1926, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, commonly known today as the SAT I. This test was intended to help elite schools identify high-achieving students in nonelite high schools. In the early years, it also distinguished between white-collar students who were suitable for college and blue-collar students presumed to be ill prepared for such an education (Blau et al. 2003). By the mid-1950s, the demand for college education soared, spawning the development of the American College Testing Program (currently known as the ACT) in 1959. This test is the main alternative to the SAT. The origins of the SAT and ACT clarify their differing approaches. The SAT test was originally based on Army IQ tests as a measure of intelligence, whereas the ACT was historically designed to measure achievement rather than intelligence or aptitude.
Despite these differences in intent, the tests are similar in structure. The SAT I (also known as the SAT Reasoning Test) is designed to measure students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The test consists of three sections. The critical-reading section includes questions on analytical reading, reading comprehension, and sentence completion. The writing section evaluates students’ ability to write clearly, concisely, and competently. It also assesses students’ ability to critically assess sentence and paragraph structure, as well as grammar. Finally, the mathematics section includes questions covering algebra, geometry, statistics, and advanced data analysis.
The ACT is similar to the SAT, but it has four broad sections. The English section evaluates writing and rhetorical skills. The mathematics section includes questions on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The reading section measures reading comprehension. The science section tests scientific skills including reasoning, analysis, and problem solving. Finally, the writing section tests writing skills.
The SAT and ACT are widely utilized among students and colleges. In 2006 about 1.5 million high school seniors took the SAT and approximately 1.2 million students took the ACT. Most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT for admissions since standards for comparing these scores are easily accessible.
The importance to higher education of standardized testing persists into graduate school, but testing tools are more diverse for graduate admissions than for undergraduate admissions. Professional schools require standardized tests that emphasize skills required by their specific disciplines. These include the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). A more general and widely used standardized testing tool is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). In 2005 nearly 500,000 persons took the GRE, accounting for 35 percent of persons with bachelor’s degrees (National Center for Education Statistics 2006). The GRE has three sections. The verbal-reasoning section tests the respondent’s ability to recognize concepts and to analyze information and relationships among parts of sentences. The quantitative-reasoning section tests algebra, geometry, data analysis, and quantitative reasoning. Finally, the analytical-writing section assesses the respondent’s ability to write clearly, effectively, logically, coherently, and competently.
Key criticisms of standardized testing that have generated widespread sociological interest are: (1) the neglect of environmental differences among students, particularly those associated with cultural and racial differences; and (2) testing bias and validity. Criticisms of cultural and racial bias abound within the literature. One notable example is Tukufu Zuberi’s Thicker than Blood (2001). Zuberi contends that the IQ test, the predecessor of modern standardized testing, developed out of the eugenics movement. This movement was committed to identifying biological differences between the races and classes. Proponents posited that racial inequalities in society were biologically determined because whites were perceived to be genetically superior. According to Zuberi, IQ tests provided statistical support for eugenics because white students scored higher on these tests than black and immigrant students.
During this period, many scholars argued that IQ tests, which measured math and verbal skills, accurately reflected biological differences in intelligence. Scholars influenced by this tradition purport that differences in test scores between blacks and whites reflect inherent biological differences between the races (Herrnstein and Murray 1994). However, sufficient data have not been provided to support this hypothesis. Today, most scholars acknowledge that standardized testing is biased and reflects more than biological differences between students.
Christopher Jencks, an influential scholar in this debate, has identified multiple biases in standardized testing. First, he argues that standardized tests neglect environmental differences between students, which creates bias. Comparisons of scores among racial groups are problematic because the IQ test was originally designed to compare the mental ability of students who were raised in comparable environments with similar levels of educational opportunity. Yet mass testing neglects environmental differences between students. This proposition has received widespread empirical support. William Rodgers and William Spriggs (1996) offer one of the most methodologically sophisticated assessments of environmental background factors by showing that a consideration of family and educational background reduces racial differences in test scores. However, they also find that the impact of the environment on test scores varies by race. Furthermore, racial biases exist in the measurement of standardized tests because components of these tests have different long-term effects on individuals’ wages, depending on race and gender. Thus, Rodgers and Spriggs argue that standardized tests are racially biased because they measure different factors for different races.
Standardized tests are also biased in content (Jencks 1998). This is obvious when considering the language of the test. For students whose primary language is not English, standardized testing measures both English proficiency and scholastic achievement. As a result, these tests do not accurately reflect the achievement or readiness for college of language-minority students (LaCelle-Peterson 2000). Less-obvious content biases are prevalent in vocabulary words and essay topics.
Standardized tests are also biased methodologically if they claim (or are assumed) to measure ability because groups historically subjugated in society, including blacks, women, and the poor, are disadvantaged in this situation (Jencks 1998). Indeed, researchers have found that these tests create anxiety among African Americans and students of low socioeconomic status, who underperform on tests perceived to measure intellectual ability (Croizet and Dutrevis 2004; Steele and Aronson 1998). Additionally, women underperform when gender stereotypes are made salient (Benbow 1988).
Judith Blau and colleagues argue that blacks and whites place different significance on achievement tests. Whites believe that these tests measure ability, while blacks perceive unfair discrimination in testing practices. Thus, they conclude that black students and their parents place less weight on standardized test scores when considering postsecondary educational goals. Blau finds that test scores are a better predictor of educational attainment for white students than for black students. Furthermore, low-scoring black students are more likely than low-scoring white students to pursue postsecondary education. Thus, low scores are more likely to discourage white students, suggesting cultural differences in the value placed on tests (Blau et al. 2003). Further research is needed to determine how Blau’s theory applies to gender and class issues. Preliminary research suggests that females place less value on mathematical portions of standardized test scores due to stereotype threats (Lesko and Corpus 2006).
Differences in the ability of standardized tests to predict future outcomes highlight an additional criticism of standardized testing: The tests are not valid because they are not accurate predictors of students’ success in college or graduate school (Jencks 1998). Indeed, many scholars have found that standardized test scores do not predict grade point average in college (Gandara and Lopez 1998; Fleming 2000, 2002) or in graduate school (Oldfield 1994, 1996), and they do not predict success in the labor market (Blackburn 2004; Rodgers and Spriggs 1996).
The effect of the debates on standardized testing is evident. The title of the SAT has changed multiple times from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a test of ability) to the Scholastic Assessment Test (this more general term suggests that the test measures more than ability) and finally to simply the SAT. In addition, the College Board has altered testing questions on the SAT to reduce cultural bias introduced from disparate knowledge and interests between groups in society. Furthermore, it has cut sections of the test to reduce reliance on vocabulary and increase reliance on verbal problem-solving skills. Even with these changes, however, racial and gender disparities persist. In 2004 the average SAT verbal score was 508 for college-bound high school seniors, ranging from 430 for black seniors to 451 and 528 for Mexican American and white seniors, respectively. Similarly, mathematics scores ranged from an average of 427 for black students to 531 for white students. ACT scores also vary by race. Average English ACT scores were 20.4 in 2004, ranging from 17.2 for black students to 18.3 for Mexican-American students and 22.5 for white students (Freeman and Fox 2005).
The persistence of the race gap is attributable to differences in family background and educational opportunity. Black students are generally raised in families with fewer resources than white students. Indeed, according to Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro (1995), 63 percent of black households have zero or negative financial assets, meaning that their debt outweighs their assets. Only 28 percent of white families have negative financial assets. Furthermore, white median net worth (defined as the sum of all assets minus debt) is nearly twelve times black median net worth. This has important implications for test scores because students raised in families with greater wealth have the financial resources to prepare for standardized testing and attend college. Indeed, parental wealth and education are the two most important predictors of college attendance (Conley 1999).
The racial gap in test scores also persists because black students have fewer opportunities to prepare for the test. Schooling in the United States is highly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. Roslyn Mickelson (2006) found that predominantly black schools offer fewer SAT prep courses than integrated or predominantly white schools. Furthermore, even when black and white students study in the same schools (i.e., in integrated schools), they are offered different educational opportunities because they are grouped into classes by ability. Black students are more likely to be assigned to “lower-ability” classes than white students with the same grades and test scores. These classes are often taught by less-experienced teachers, and the courses offer a more general education rather than a college-preparatory education. Thus socioeconomic resources and educational opportunities explain the existing gap in standardized test scores by race.
As for gender, the standardized test score disparity is not uniform. Historically, boys and girls had equivalent verbal scores, but boys scored higher in math (Benbow 1988). The math score gap has diminished over time, in part because girls’ educational opportunities have expanded, and they are taking more advanced math courses in high school. In 2004 boys and girls scored 538 and 504, respectively, on the math section of the SAT. Much of this remaining gender gap in test scores develops during high school because women continue to study in less rigorous math courses, and they are less likely than boys to participate in mathematically oriented extracurricular activities (Leahey and Guo 2001; Pallas and Alexander 1983; Vogt Yuan 2005).
It is important to understand what standardized tests measure because standardized testing has gained national recognition with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. This policy initiative requires standardized testing for students in the third through eighth grades and at least once during high school. The primary goal of the legislation is to reduce achievement gaps between students, particularly by race, poverty status, disability, ethnicity, and English proficiency. This act magnifies the significance of standardized testing. By neglecting the impacts of the environmental differences, testing biases, and validity issues discussed here, standardized testing will be of limited use to educators and policymakers as they seek to close achievement gaps.
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