The Return Of Standardized Testing

The alphabet soup of standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, SSAT, SHSAT, ISEE and others have been an irritant to liberals for many years. 

Believing standardized tests to be elitist and discriminatory tools that crush the tender minds of our nation’s youth (while simultaneously highlighting the embarrassing shortcoming of our public schools and student outcomes), teacher unions and parents have for many years allied to demonize them. Colleges have been happy to hop on this bandwagon for reasons that are both political and economic, wanting to seem enlightened and cool while ensuring students—and the income they bring—are occupying every available seat in their lecture halls.

Although standardized testing has made a bit of a comeback in recent years as higher education has had to deal with the many problems resulting from a deluge of egregiously unprepared students, there is a new front in the war on meritocracy—and it is shaking academia to its very core.

ChatGPT and other Artificial Intelligence software systems are now being commonly used to complete school work for students at the primary and secondary levels, which is putting schools in an increasingly difficult position as they attempt to fight a war they cannot win in two ultimately unproductive ways.

First, if you have a child in primary or secondary school now, particularly an academically-competitive one, you may have already noticed the move to more in-class writing assignments. 

These short assignments completed during class time and immediately turned in for a grade unfortunately mean that long form writing such as research and argumentative essays are increasingly being abandoned in favor of quick one-off tasks that will not prepare students for the complex writing assignments they will encounter when they land on a college campus. “Dump and run” writing is useless for inculcating a commitment to the revision process, which must be practiced and mastered in order to improve as a writer. The fifty minute wonders being handed in before the bell rings are likely to splash on the page with little thought or development—which is precisely what we do not want to encourage students to do.

The second tool now being employed by teachers to win the AI war is to craft esoteric—and often pointless—assignments that software cannot easily complete. Although it might be entertaining to have a student write about the non-existent relationship between Taylor Swift lyrics and dialogue from Macbeth or compose a free verse poem about the history of Canada (both actual assignments I have recently encountered), crafting increasingly bizarre writing tasks is of dubious educational value and a losing strategy in the long term. These kind of assignments do not teach critical thinking skills; they instead turn learning into a farce.

As AI programs become increasingly sophisticated, inexpensive, and harder to detect in the years ahead, educators are going to find it more difficult to grade in any meaningful way unless they resort to interviewing every student in detail about each writing assignment they complete, which is an enormous commitment that will cut into critical instructional time and will likely result in a great deal of ill will and stress for teachers, students, and parents. 

One can easily imagine the contentious school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences that will result, and these inquisitions are likely to be an unreliable method for consistently identifying cheaters. Moreover, given that public schools are allergic to failing students because they want to keep their graduation rates suspiciously high, I expect few will go down this path.

However, colleges and employers will still need to know who can write and who cannot. Perhaps it will be the case that the robots will eventually rule over us, but the harsh fact is that we will still need good writers and thinkers for the foreseeable future—particularly as these two skills are inextricably linked.

Therefore, I believe—as much as many will hate to hear this—that old school standardized testing is preparing to make a stupendous comeback. In order to assess actual thinking and writing skills for both college admissions and employment, proctored and timed standardized tests are likely to be increasingly used to evaluate candidates because high school transcripts, which are already of dubious value due to grade inflation and social promotions, will become virtually useless.

This may drive those who believe these tests to be unfair absolutely crazy, but is it any more fair to reward those who are expert cheaters and liars?

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