Striving for consistency in standardized testing

As students, we know how important standardized testing is for our academic careers. Whether it’s an Advanced Placement (AP) exam or the American College Testing (ACT), all test takers expect to find tests with consistent question difficulty and scoring scale. However, this expectation of standardization might just be a false hope.

For the August 2019 Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the College Board caused an uproar with its “difficult” Math section curve. The section deducted 70 points for three incorrect answers, while other tests such as the April 2019 SAT deducted only 30 points for three incorrect answers, according to The College Panda. Ironically, the Evidence Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) sections had moderate deductions, with an average of 10 points and 20 points off per incorrect answer, respectively. 

This new development only comes in the light of other controversial tests, most recently the June 2018 SAT. According to Inside Higher Ed, the Math Section’s curve was also steep that year, with a score of 770 for 1 incorrect answer and 720 for 3. This unprecedented gap in scores was unheard of in recent times. Test takers sent wide appeals over social media asking for an opportunity to make up the test.

Such inconsistent curves almost seem to discourage the system of meritocracy that the test was built on. According to the College Board Educator Guide, the SAT is “designed to be a challenging, appropriate and fair assessment of what students know and can do and to provide a comprehensive picture of student readiness.” Indeed, the mission of the test is to measure a student’s hard work and progress. We study for the SAT in expensive courses. We spend hours cramming formulas, rules and facts into our memories. But instead of promoting reliable, balanced measures of progress, the College Board scores the SAT based on inaccurate conversions. One person can get 80 more points lower than another just because of the same number of incorrect answers.

The curves not only discourage hard work but also squanders time and money. For instance, new test takers who have enrolled for eight weeks in a summer program can experience a huge score drops by just missing one question. Parents feel obligated to pay for more schooling and tests, unsure if their students will improve on the next test because of the unpredictable scoring system. The College Board proudly demonstrates its not-for-profit status, yet reaps the benefits from those failing their tests.

Most of all, the College Board’s curves can create inequality. According to the College Board,  the organization “is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education.” However, with the SAT as a major determinant of a student’s academic success, such steep score differences between equal raw scores can decide how admissions officers view an individual application. 

On the other hand, it is understandable why the College Board has to use a scaling system; after all, it tests hundreds of thousands each month. Despite its promises of a “standardized test,” it needs a system that can match up to the varying difficulty of each test. For instance, students are expected to score higher on easier tests so a steep curve is applied.

Yes, the curve scores some tests to the test taker’s advantage. For instance, May 2017 only deducted 10 points off for 4 incorrect questions on the Writing Section, which the College Board determined to be an especially hard section. But the way that it handles some tests seem objectionable. The aforementioned example of the June 2018 is one instance among many “hard” curves.

In order to solve this problem we should not remove the curve entirely but create reasonable boundaries for it. Rather than relying on its current conversion method, it can base its scaling off of test taker’s real time feedback by addressing widespread complaints. Rather than exercising complete authority over student’s results, the organization can offer opportunities for them to speak out about certain unreasonable curves before new ones are created. 

Through this form of feedback, we might be able to avoid the increasingly tense environment over the SAT. And maybe, just maybe, students can eliminate a source of imbalance in our education system.


By Landon Park, News editor
Editorial cartoon by Justine Constantino