Are standardised tests a good measure of progress or ability ?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live  its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

French psychologist Alfred Binet developed an intelligence test about 1905. Frederick J. Kelly of the  University of Kansas designed a multiple-choice test in 1914. Scanning machines followed. Many Americans accepted these tests as efficient tools to help build a society based on merit, not birth or race or  wealth. Since then, standardised tests have been adored, criticised and debated on their efficacy and relevance to modern society.

Ability and Progress

Ability : Standardised tests are used to measure how well a person has learnt his/her course and   ability to apply  knowledge or skills that a person has already acquired. If the sole purpose of  the test is to check factual knowledge, analytical and mathematical intelligence of a person, it can be a fairly good measure of ability.

These days, standardised tests which have multiple choice questions check the presence of mind of a person. By using distractors among the options provided , the examiner tests whether a person is confident. Distractors are false statements that seem to be plausible. The sole purpose of using them is to confuse the test taker.

Hence, standardised tests can check the confidence , ability to remember and apply knowledge. It also checks whether a person can identify false knowledge that can challenge the validity of the knowledge he/she possess.

Progress : However, it cannot be a good measure of progress if there is no baseline information. Progress can be evaluated only if the previous record of the student is available to the testing entity for comparison. Hence multiple standardized tests over a period of time can be used  as a metric to measure progress in a particular areas.


Pitfalls of having too much faith in standardised tests

Standardised tests have many advantages. Everyone is provided the same / similar questions and the evaluation metrics are also the same. This makes it an efficient method to eliminate the persons who do not  possess the requisite skills to study a particular course or take up a particular job. It can also  help a person to understand the current level of understanding regarding a given subject. Standardised  tests can also be used to test teaching outcomes of schools across a country if the syllabus taught is the same.

However, one of the main disadvantage of standardised test is that they can be gamed. It could lead to  the proliferation of coaching factories as it has already happened in India. There is a coaching factory for every possible competitive exam these days. In such factories, a person is continually trained to acquire  skills and tricks to crack a particular test. Sometimes they can also be learnt by rote methods. The impact of this method of testing is , it dissuades students from learning a subject in depth. Instead the focus is on picking up selective knowledge that can help a person to sail through the test.

The output of such systems is no longer a unique well rounded individual or student who can take on  academia or the challenges of the world , but a regular mechanical mind with limited tools to solve  a particular type of problems. This is quite evident from data. India’s inability to produce high  quality research and nobel laureates from it education system can be attributed partly to the  standardised competitive testing system that has prepared students who are capable of passing tests in classroom environments, but not tedious and challenging problems in real life. If standardised tests  are considered as the sole measure of merit in the name of efficiency and simplicity, the end result can be counterproductive.

Sometimes, the student might also get an answer right by sheer luck in a multiple choice question format. The window of luck depends on the number of options provided and the ability of the student to eliminate wrong options. Even if the student marks an option blindly , he may be right one out of x times if the number of options given are x. If there are four options for each question, he/she may be right one out of four cases. In this case, the student might appear smart on the outset. But he/she may not possess any detailed information or skill regarding the question asked.

An improved version of standardized tests that came into the picture recently is the computer adaptive test. These tests throw questions from a question bank in which questions are grouped based on the difficulty level. The test taker is given questions from a particular level of difficulty based on his success in answering questions of a lower difficulty level.  This makes sure that it is difficult to game the system. However it is expensive and tests the same skills that the regular stardardised test looks for.

Probably, this is one of the reasons for American universities including recommendation letters and  statement of purpose as an integral part of their college admission process. They can afford to do so as the population of the country is comparatively lesser than India or China. Along with student’s grade / standardised test scores , a human’s assessment factor is also taken into account for assessing a a student’s ability. Similarly, interviews and essays can be used to reinforce the results of  standardised tests.


By the end of the day, the if the design of a standardised tests suits the neccessity of the examiner or an organisation, we should be satisfied. If the sole  purpose of the test is to make the system efficient , transparent and eliminate aspirants in a fair  manner, then it is a good tool. If the purpose of the test is to check mathematical and analytical  skills , it is again a good tool. However, standardised tests can’t test higher learning abilities and in depth knowledge of a person. In Einstein’s words, the standardised tests check whether a person is able to climb a tree or not. The test taker can only decide the difficulty of the climb .

One can conclude that standardised tests can test factual knowledge, mathematical and analytical skills up to a certain limit.  They can check the progress of a students’ improvement over a period of time provided the difficulty and subject matter of periodic tests given are the same. They can always be supplemented with personal interviews or other methods to suit more complex demands.


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