Standardized testing put to the test

Emily Warren racked up quite the bill trying to increase her SAT score.  The rising senior at Frank W. Cox High School took a prep course that cost more than $350, bought $325 worth of study guides, and used a tutor who charged $45 an hour.  Total expenses: $1,935.

As standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT become more about memorization and less about learning, good scores are more likely to hinge on whether the student can decipher the tricks put in place by the test makers.  At preparatory classes, for example, students are told that possible test answers that start with the word “being” are wrong 80 percent of the time, so they shouldn’t choose it.

"Most of what I learned through my tutor and prep courses was about strategy," Warren said.  "The focus was not so much on reading and math as it was on learning how to test."

Some educators are working to change this.  Their goals include lessening the number of mandatory standardized tests, changing the curriculum, and eliminating strategy-based tests to promote more accurate measures of learning.

Trenace Riggs, the president of the Virginia Beach Education Association, is an advocate of teaching students to love education.  She has already seen how testing, especially the state’s Standards of Learning exam, has degraded learning in the classroom and is working to change the curriculum.  Riggs has voiced her concerns to both the General Assembly and her school board.

"The VBEA is always working to lessen the focus on standardized testing.  We just had a rally this past April and are fighting to reform SOLs,” she said.

Catalina Perez, a rising senior at Frank W. Cox High School, has seen what can happen when the SOL becomes the focus in a class. At times, teachers have had to stop themselves from teaching what they believe to be an important concept, purely because it was not found in the SOL curriculum, she said.

The cost of preparatory courses for college entrance exams raises another concern.  Some classes can cost $1000.  Students who cannot afford them miss out on valuable information that could harm their scores and limit their choices for college, potentially widening the education gap between the rich and poor.

With a new year comes a new SAT: one that’s been reworked to better fit the abilities of all students.  David Coleman, the president of the College Board, a not-for-profit organization that administers the exam, told the New York Times that the current SAT did not correlate properly with high school curricula, a blunder he soon wishes to correct.

Many educators hope the work of Coleman, Riggs and others like them will lessen the emphasis on standardized tests and make students the true focus.