Take the Low Road #1: high stakes testing keep us stuck in the past



We hear a lot about "high stakes testing". These are the examinations that are used to determine "high stakes" decisions, like who gets into higher education (SAT, ACT), graduate schools (GRE) or professional schools (LSAT, MCAT, GMAT). There are similar national level tests used at the end of training programs to ‘decide' if candidates should be granted a license to practice as professionals (NBME, ABIM). In all these cases performance on the exam is used a proxy for the knowledge, skills and abilities that have been identified somehow as essential to performance in the situation to be predicted: success in university, in graduate school, in professional schools or in professional practice.

The testing companies are all big for-profit businesses with very comfortable profit margins. The situation encourages monopoly control for those testing companies and spawns an array of examination preparation programs at every point, again for significant coin. The anxiety for test takers is significant. All this is justified by the argument that only the qualified should be allowed into the next stage, whatever that is; further training or professional practice. Is there evidence to support the argument? No. The evidence indicates that the tests are very poor predictors of performance. The examinations do not correlate with either school performance or work performance after training.

Is this because the items in the tests have little to do with what is actually required to succeed? Yes, try as they do, the mechanisms of examination production makes all test specifications out of date, always focused on what was pertinent some years ago. They also lack both internal coherence (aptitude and competence is more than the sum of component parts) and specificity (quality performance has a contextual fit element, some of that is social maturity; some is cultural sensitivity; none of which is assessed in a standardized examination).
The high stakes testing practice continues because the tests act as a ‘badge' or a ‘token' that admissions offices or regulatory agencies or employers can use to bypass more in depth personal exploration of aptitude, fit or situational competence. It is a convenience that may seem efficient but does great disservice both to candidates and to the public at large by preserving the status quo and a very narrow definition of professional.

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