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Why Standardized Tests Fail Us (And How You Can Beat Them)

Test writers should be challenged to address the fact that circumstances beyond your control influence how well you do a standardized test, says Shawn O’Connor. But you are not your score – and you have the power to improve your outcome. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The statistics are quite clear, says Shawn O’Connor, founder of Stratus Prep: test performance is impacted by the test-taker’s background – “by where you grew up and what type of elementary and middle school that you were able to attend.”

Test writers should be challenged to address the fact that circumstances beyond your control influence how well you do a standardized test.

But, you are not your score — which means you have the power to improve your outcome. 

Thanks to advances in psychology and cognitive science, we’ve known since the 1970’s that it is impossible for a standardized test — an SAT, a GMAT, an IQ test — to represent a full picture of what we’re talking about when we talk about intelligence. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, for instance, points out that some people learn and express themselves kinesthetically, through acting, others by seeing or hearing or conversing: the bottom line is, there is more than one way to be a genius. Few of them can be bubbled in on a scantron. 

A 2000 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychiatry found that “high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT [two standardized tests] were more likely… among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning,” characterized by the study’s authors as those who copy down answers, than an “actively engaged approach,” meaning asking questions and making connections to other readings. 

What standardized tests are very good at it is giving college admissions boards a benchmark with which to “compare students who are from different parts of the country who’ve studied different majors but who all want to pursue the same degree.” The trick for educators, colleges, and individuals is to remembering that test scores are merely one (imperfect) indicator of how you stack up against the crowd, not an assessment of any your future potential. And that’s where the research gets really interesting. 

What’s the Significance?

Scientists have looked to chess masters as control subjects to understand the nature of expertise. Can genius be learned? Or are some people just born smarter than others? A 1973 study found that “chess grand masters [do not] differ from lesser players in reasoning out the consequences of possible moves.” In fact, knowing more facts leads to slower reaction time. So why are experts in a field able to perform so rapidly? Pattern recognition.

What makes a chess master different from a novice is that chess masters reason only “about good moves. The experimenters deduced that the secret of the chess experts’ performance was that they knew from memory tens of thousands of patterns in which chess pieces might be arranged” (Carl Bereiter, Marlene Scardamalia).

So experts are made, not born. They’re people who have practiced enough that they can recognize repeating patterns – on the chessboard, on the football field, throughout a test – and solve problems without even thinking about it.

We’ve all had the experience where everything comes together in a “long fine flash,” to borrow the words of Hunter S. Thompson–when you make the game-winning play or find a creative solution seemingly effortlessly. And we all know that it takes hours of deliberate practice to get to that moment. The good thing is that everyone, regardless of his or her background, is capable of that moment. Our brains are pattern-learning machines.

“Your potential is malleable,” says O’Connor. “I’ve seen students from all different backgrounds, people who started at all different levels who have ended up in the top one percent on both the LSAT and the GMAT, so you can do it, but you have to put in the time and you have to recognize that for different people it takes a different amount of time.  And that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get to the same result.  It just may mean that you have to take a slightly different path to get there.”


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