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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.