A Student Says No to Standardized Testing

Contemporary America is constantly working toward diversity. We have become an accepting group that recognizes difference in politics, race, religion, and love. But there is one frontier that remains unexplored by the pioneers of diversity, one facet of American life that can’t seem to escape the plague of standardization: education.

College seniors find themselves facing yet another standardized test, the recently created Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+). First, there were the tests in middle school and high school, one of the many ugly faces of No Child Left Behind. Students and teachers lost hours of class time in an attempt to receive funds. When I was a junior in high school, I took a standardized test that devoted an entire section to earthquake knowledge. I lived in New Hampshire, where the earth remains stationary and earthquake magnitudes are not part of the curriculum. I cringe to think how much money my high school lost as result of the blank pages each student handed in.

Then there were the SATs, which hung over us like lead X-ray smocks, constricting safety blankets keeping us inside the small realm of accepted educational paths. Until recently, students were hard-pressed to enter decent four-year colleges without SAT scores. Although many colleges are now rendering the SAT optional, this was not the case when I applied for college. Instead of focusing on my grades or narrowing down my list of prospective colleges, I signed up for private SAT courses and learned (if you could call it that) how to write the five-paragraph essay.

For many students, standardized testing ends after the SAT. Not for me. As a college senior, I find myself staring down the barrel of the GRE, asking myself: “Do I really want to do this?”

I resent the GRE in all of its standardized glory. Why must I take a standardized test to study creative writing? Will memorizing the quadratic formula help me prove my ability to craft narrative? Doesn’t taking a standardized test undermine an integral component of the field, the “creative” side of writing? How often do you hear of creativity blossoming in a standardized, uniform environment? Creativity means breaking away from such monotonous practices.

Fortunately, many strong M.F.A. programs in creative writing—such as those at the University of Iowa, the New School, and Hunter College—share that sentiment and do not require the GRE. I was happy to learn this, and interpreted it as a departure from archaic standardized testing. Society, at least in the arts, is finally making progress, I thought.

Apparently I was wrong. Here comes the CLA+, hoping to test exiting seniors to gauge their ability to “access, structure, and use information.” On its Web site, the Council for Aid to Education states: “Over 700 institutions—both in the United States and internationally—have used the Collegiate Learning Assessment to benchmark value-added growth in student learning at their college or university compared to other institutions.”

Let’s look at the word “benchmark.” Does it belong in the discourse of education? Learning and teaching is a give-and-take process, a dialogue between teacher and student. How could this possibly be measured by a standardized test? Do we, as students, want our educational experiences defined in terms of “benchmarks,” statistics, quantitative information?

The Council for Aid to Education continues in its description of the CLA+’s benefits: “Graduating seniors can also use their verified scores to provide potential employers with evidence of their work-readiness skills.” What happened to communication, to intuition? If employees conducting interviews are truly unable to use basic communication skills to distinguish qualified candidates, the hiring company has a bigger problem on its hands.

I am terrified that the world is becoming a place where people rely on statistics rather than genuine human connection. Imagine if kindergartens said: “You must be able to color in the lines before entering the first grade.” I would still be in kindergarten.

We need to recognize the validity of educational diversity. People learn in all different ways. It is a teacher’s job to connect with students in an attempt to discover the most effective way of teaching. I know that many of our teachers and professors are doing this. Office hours, e-mails, and class discussions foster a sound education. However, that does not necessarily mean the outcome will be the same for each student.

For example, when I read a book in a literature class, I am pleased to see my peers interacting with different messages. That is why I love studying literature; there are so many threads to be pulled, so many different narratives that make sense in a single work.

In the same way, my college degree will mean something different than my friends’ degrees. Certain distinctive areas will have taken center stage for me while different concepts will have resonated for others. What will this look like on a standardized test? It will be inaccurate, it will be reductive, and it will be unjust.

In the words of Ralph Ellison’s character Invisible Man, “Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states.” Just as we must recognize racial diversity, we must pay due respect to the multifarious qualities that lie on the vast educational spectrum. Say no to standardized testing.

Taylor Lannamann is a senior at Lewis and Clark College, in Oregon.

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