Standardized testing sub-standard?

Faced with an intimidating array of standardized tests, graduate school applicants are feeling the -ATs crunch

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Illustration by Tyler Ball

If an academic career can be thought of as a winding road, with all its proverbial twists, turns and forks, it seems many students are about to hit a speed bump. After all, for those with visions of gavels and stethoscopes dancing in their heads, ’tis almost the season, not for mistletoe and merrymaking, but for studying, sweating and losing sleep, all in the name of graduate school admission. The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, took its earliest incarnation in the 1920’s, as the Moss Test, which was created in response to high dropout rates among medical students. The test was designed to test applicants’ abilities in several areas, especially memorization. The MCAT recently underwent a drastic makeover as the traditionally pencil-and-paper test became a computer-based series of problems in 2007.

The Graduate Record Examination and Law School Admission Test began in the late ’40s, also with the democratization of the graduate school application process in mind, although each charges a hefty test taking fee.

Even for students not writing the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT or any other equally frightening AT, this winter, the heat is on.

Although standardized testing has been around for a while, the general sentiment among the concerned adults I know—namely my parents, who have seen my harried brother write his LSATs twice already—is that in “their day” it was never this competitive. In the cut-throat world of graduate and professional school admissions, standardized tests are a reality for those among us hoping for careers in law, medicine, business and even dentistry.

Between the registration process and the prep courses, the complicated scoring schemes and the re-writes, the LSAT, the MCAT, the GRE and other standardized tests can be quite the daunting maze to navigate. Preparing for these tests can seem like a full-time job, which, when combined with a regular course load, is where a lot of students get into trouble. But there are some who find the testing process to be a valuable—even enjoyable—experience.

Thurarshen Jeyalingam, ArtSci ’10, wrote the MCAT earlier this year. He told the Journal in an e-mail that despite the work, the exam was a positive experience.

“Although cramming in the weeks leading up to it was a somewhat unpleasant experience, I found the MCAT itself to be fun,” he said. “More like a series of computer-based puzzles than a traditional exam.”

In light of the associated stress, cost and potential loss of sanity, how valuable is standardized testing to one’s education? It depends on who you ask, but most people who have survived the tests admit (at times begrudgingly) that the testing process does have its merits.

Ronald Holden, a Queen’s psychology professor, said standardized tests such as the LSAT and the GRE have been proven to be valuable indicators of the kinds of skills that are useful in graduate studies. “What they are evaluating is your ability to acquire new knowledge,” he said. “There are extensive studies done on the validity of these tests for predicting performance in professional and graduate school. [These tests] have added value above and beyond undergraduate grade point average.”

Given that test-takers’ experiences vary so widely, it would make sense that some students would be naturally better at these kinds of high pressure situations than others. Holden said although there is no “testing gene” per se, some people are better test-takers than others.

“Given all that stress, I would think some people would be better than others … individuals who can handle time-pressured stressful circumstances and people who have prepared themselves,” he said. Indeed, as anti-climactic as it may seem, the best tool for surviving the admissions test experience seems to be common sense.

“Given this is about high-pressure, timed performance, it’s important to be cool, calm and collected—you will have a better chance at success if you practice,” Holden said.

Aatifa Ibrahim, ArtSci ’08, wrote the LSAT in July 2007. She said her LSAT experience was less than enjoyable. “I spent months studying,” she said. “Although I have trouble calling it studying as it’s more preparing your mind to think a different way—and writing the test itself was really nerve-racking.” Ibrahim is currently completing her law degree at Queen Mary University of London in London, England, where the LSAT isn’t required as part of the admissions process. Ibrahim said thus far she hasn’t found any practical application for her test-taking experience.

“Although I’m only six weeks into my degree, I can so far with certainty say that my preparation for the LSAT hasn’t been used once since I’ve started studying law. I can’t say this is the case with all law degrees since I’m doing mine abroad, but I haven’t yet had to use any of the ‘skills’ I gained in those months of gruelling preparation.” Although she does not hold fond memories of her test preparation, Ibrahim does see the merit in her old friend the LSAT. “I do appreciate the principle behind a standardized testing scheme for entry into law school. … I think it puts all applicants on a level playing field.”

Jeyalingam agreed, and further defended the MCAT’s importance as an indicator of the trajectory of his future profession. “By assessing problem solving ability rather than knowledge of dry facts, I think the MCAT really drives home the point that the medical education of tomorrow should focus less on rote memorization and more on applying concepts to unfamiliar situations.”

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