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October 9, 2011


The Never Ending Calendar of Standardized Tests

by Anne Paddock
My daughter is a sophomore in high school and to date has taken the following three standardized tests:
  1. SSAT
  2. AP Exam French Language and Culture
  3. National French Exam
Next month, she is scheduled to take the following two standardized tests:
  1. SAT Subject Test in French Listening
  2. SAT Subject Test in French
And, over the next year and a half, my daughter “needs” to take the following 11 tests:
  1. AP Exam Spanish Language
  2. AP Exam Spanish Literature
  3. National Spanish Exam
  4. PSAT
  5. SAT Subject Test in Spanish
  6. SAT Subject Test in Spanish Listening
  7. SAT
  8. ACT
  9. AP Exam English Language
  10. AP Exam English Literature
  11. SAT Subject Test in Literature
When all is said and done, my daughter will take at least 16 standardized tests – college advisors recommend that some exams be taken more than once so it’s conceivable that by the time my daughter starts applying to colleges in two years, she will have taken 20 standardized tests to secure a freshman slot in college.  Am I the only one that finds this absurd?

My daughter is a relatively normal teen who finds languages and writing a passion. She took one AP course her freshman year, is taking one AP course her sophomore year and will probably take one AP course junior year and maybe two her senior year – all in the humanities. My daughter is not a math and science genius who will carry three or four AP courses a year. That said, she is taking a “normal” trajectory in math: algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and statistics – not because she wants to but because she is required to.

In reviewing a “4-Year Plan” for high school, I asked the curriculum director why my daughter needs to take a fourth year of math (because only three years are required to graduate) and the answer was “because all our students take four years of math and because all the good colleges require four years of math.” Wow, nothing like following the herd.  I expected an answer with more depth. But that answer goes a long way to explain what is going on in college admissions.

A parent has to stop, pause and ask: Why are so many standardized exams required of high school students? When I was in high school in the late 1970’s, there were two exams: the SAT and the ACT- that’s it. Over the past 30 years, the world has gotten more complicated and colleges want more than one standardized exam by which to rate and rank candidates. Admission officers must believe the more quantifiable variables they have, the better able they are to make admission decisions.

To a certain extent, I can understand the need for a standardized test because the quality of high schools varies so much and admission officers need to have a single measurement by which all applicants can be compared. But, how many standardized tests are really neededDoes a student of the French language really need to take four separate French exams: AP Exam French Language and Culture, National French Exam, SAT Subject Test French, SAT Subject Test in French Listening –  to prove she knows the material? I don’t think so but try to convince a college guidance officer this and you will walk away feeling like you’re on the verge of child neglect. I would argue that if a student scored a 5 on an AP exam, that the national or subject test is not necessary.

Are the students that score the highest on standardized tests really the best candidates for admission?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Standardized tests can measure aptitude and many majors do require a high degree of aptitude but standardized tests don’t measure many other variables that can make or break careers: ambition, emotional stability, communication skills, leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, ability to work with other people, integrity, and character.  These are all traits that will hopefully be visible in other areas: school clubs, extracurricular activities, community service, and excellence in sports, music, and art. But these traits only reveal themselves through living and so college admissions officers concern themselves more with what can be easily measured or visible.

Right now I’m a reluctant but willing participant in the standardized test marathon and although I long to quit, I can’t bail because there are differences in the quality of education at colleges and I want my daughter to go to the best school that she can get into – a college that has the resources to allow her to pursue her passions and learn. The process is set in place and as much as I want to change it, I’m limited to speaking out because the penalty for not playing by the rules will be my daughter’s education. But, I also know that whatever school she ultimately attends will not be a determinant factor in her life. After college and her first job, she will move on. What she does with her life will have more to do with who she is and following her dream than how many exams she took, what her standardized test scores were, or where she went to college.
  1. Jun 12 2012

    Thanks so much for your comment. Your courage to rebel against the pressures to test, test, test are admirable. Your intuition hasn’t steered you wrong in guiding his education.

  2. Kathy
    Jun 12 2012

    My son, who is a high performing student, attended a Catholic school where he was given 18 tests in the first five weeks of 5th grade. Needless to say, we moved him to another school. We are now preparing to enter Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches high school which is firmly against the mainstream approach you speak of in your column.They offer project- based learning with master teachers and a minimal number of AP courses. Going off the beaten path so that depth not breadth of learning can occur is a little scary. An AP course is like traveling in an air boat on the surface of the water at a very high speed. It relies on teaching to the test and rote memorization of a high volume of material for the short term. No thanks. I want my child’s zeal for learning to be intact when his formal education is completed. Thank you for this excellent piece.

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