Universities of California (UC), Berkeley and Santa Cruz are the latest universities to consider dropping SAT and ACT standardized testing requirements for admission.
Chancellors and academic officers alike have discovered mounting evidence that “scores on nationally normed tests like the SAT and ACT are most affected by the socioeconomic background of the student.” In fact, the use of standardized testing confirms what behavioral scientists such as Dr. Kim Berens have claimed all along: they’re a barrier to the admission of disadvantaged students by perpetuating the fallacy that these tests accurately measure a student’s intelligence.
“Psychometrics was first used as a means to quantify the ‘unmeasurable’ aspects of human beings, which is what IQ testing purports to do,” Berens, the founder of Fit Learning, tells Parentology. “But IQ testing is just a measure of skills. The only thing we have evidence of with an IQ test is behavior on the IQ test. The interpretations people infer about that performance is problematic.”
UC Chairman John A. Pérez agrees. “The highest predictive value of an SAT isn’t how well a student will do in school, but how well they were able to avail themselves of prep material,” he recently told the Los Angeles Times. “And access to that prep material is still disproportionately tied to family income. So if you have material available but no pathway to avail yourself of it, that’s not particularly meaningful.”
The inherent problem with standardized testing lies not in what we want them to produce, but in what we think they already tell us. IQ tests are used as actual measures of inherent characteristics that human beings possess, which isn’t what they’re supposed to measure at all. “IQ tests are supposed to measure skills as a function of training and a learning history,” Berens says. “But sadly, they’re misinterpreted as evidence of educability, aptitude, intelligence and all kinds of inherent aspects of human beings.”
IQ testing was originally practiced during the early 1900’s in the military to determine a soldier’s capacity to serve effectively. By 1920, those same practices were applied to schools — one of the largest misuses of so-called “science” in education on record, according to Berens. “Social Darwinism was rampant, disadvantaged groups were, predictably, doing poorly. And then those poor test performances were being attributed to genetics, inferiority of an ethnic or racial group and inferiority related to class.”
Testing was, and continues to be, used as a means of excusing subversive practices by attributing poor test scores to genetics, race and socioeconomics, further excusing socioeconomic status by suggesting those learners incapable. Arguably, nothing has changed in the last century.
“When a large group of people test poorly, their poor performance in school is then attributed to these inherent characteristics rather than the reality, which is usually social inequity, instructional failure, poverty and a host of other factors,” Berens says.
Students who perform poorly on SATs aren’t granted access to institutes of higher learning, despite being victims of their educational history. They’re additionally disadvantaged because they’re not ready for higher education due to that same educational history. Students are set up to fail at every turn, and test scores are often used to classify and marginalize them.
“I understand schools want some kind of measure to determine if a student can perform well in their institution,” Berens says. “But these kids can’t even enter the institution because they’ve been failed since kindergarten. Yet the results are framed as personal attributes of the learner, rather than reflecting on what our education system is producing and how we can make it better. It should be an evaluation of their schooling.”
Berens continues, “The reason more and more universities and colleges are discarding standardized testing is because students can’t perform on them. And they can’t perform because our educational system is systemically not working.”
If the UC system, which represents 10 campuses, and the Cal State system, which represents 23 campuses, decide to drop SAT and ACT, they would join more than 1,000 other colleges that have gone ‘testing-optional,’ with 47 more schools joining in the last 12 months, according to FairTest.
“From the perspective of behavioral science, learning is best described as the change of behavior over time,” Berens says. “Does a child read more words per minute? Does he solve more math problems than he did last year?”
Berens adds, “Standardized tests are a measure of performance that people have mistaken for learning. Learning can only happen through repetition over time, behavior which is followed by reinforcing consequences over time. That process occurs whether you’re black, white, Asian, male, female, poor, rich, etc.”
Indeed, there are characteristics that predict future success that can’t be measured by a number on a page. “Tests don’t measure empathy perspective-taking, higher-level problem-solving skills or social awareness,” Berens emphasizes. “There are so many measures missed that are actually higher predictors of success. There are kids in Harvard right now who can’t navigate a human relationship.”
According to UC Berkeley’s website, the indisputable correlation between race and test scores reflects the growing segregation of Latino and black students in California’s poorest and lowest-performing schools. “Statistically, race has become as important as either family income or parents’ education in accounting for test-score differences among UC applicants,” the site says.
“High scores on those tests absolutely predict high levels of achievement later on, there’s no doubt,” Berens says. “But that’s not to say kids who don’t perform as well lack aptitude or intelligence. The misapplication of test data is a huge problem, and has been so since the dawn of IQ testing. At some level we need objective measures of academic achievement. Otherwise, there’s no means for us to properly evaluate student outcomes.”
UPDATE: Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director for FairTest, has advised Parentology of the following: “Though some members of the University of California Board of Regents have stated their support of test-optional policies, the full body is not likely to vote on how to change admissions testing requirements until next spring, after a review committee submits its recommendations. At present, individual UC campuses do not have the discretion to change the rules.”