A test designer at Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. -- perhaps the most prestigious testing organization in the world -- had devised a nifty little gimmick. He insisted that ETS' basic-skills tests be scored on a scale from 100 to 200. "Why's that?" he was asked. "Because," he said, "if anyone confuses them with IQ, everyone will appear to be smart."
Andrew Strenio would probably like that story. His book is filled with similar tales of how standardized tests are malign, irrlevant or just plain silly.
A glance at the table of contents -- "You may be the next victim of 'Scientific' Testing"; "Branding Children"; "A Frankenstien Story"; and "Beating the System" -- gives you an idea where Strenio is coming from and where he is going. This book is a manifesto -- a jaccuse -- against the myths and fallacies of standardized testing and the testing department.
And Strenio doesn't apologize for his bias. Rather, he quotes Walter Lipmann's famous essays on intelligence testing that appeared in the New Republic 60 years ago:
"Finally, a word about . . . [the] notion that I have an 'emotional complex" about this business. Well, I have. I admit it. I hate the impudence of a claim that in fifty minutes you can judge and classify a human being's predestined fitness in life. I hate the pretentiousness of that claim. I hate the abuse of the scientific method which it involves. I hate the sense of superiority which it creates and the sense of inferiority which it imposes."
Good stuff, that.
Though Strenio's writing lacks the style and intensity of Lippmann's, he does an absolutely first-rate job of marshalling his facts and anecdotes into compelling arguments. His anaylsis is clean, his sources extensive and there is just the right spice of outrage added to get you worked up.
That's good news.
The bad news is that there's really nothing new; you've seen or heard this all before. You know that many schools and businesses misuse and abuse standardized tests. You know that there are real questions as to whether these tests measure what they purport to measure as well as their creators claim. In many repects, this book only continues the tradition of such works as Banesh Hoffman's 1962 book, "The Tyranny of Testing," and last year's Ralph Nader report on Educational Testing Service -- rather than adding to it.
And yet, this book does such a good job of consolidating and interpreting all the differnt chunks of information that you can't help admiring it.
Strenio does a particularly good job of capturing the peculiar and controversial history of the open-testing law in New York state. The law, designed to make the testing industry more accountable to the public, met with surprisingly intensive efforts by the testers to kill the bill in the state assembly. Under the law that was passed, a test taker has the right to request a copy of the graded test and the correct answers. Such laws made possible the two recent, widely publicized cases of students who discovered mistakes in standardized test answers and led to Thursday's decision by the College Board to send graded tests and correct answers to all students taking the test.
Strenio also shines in his lucid and comprehensible descriptions of the statistical basis for standardized testing.
Not surprisingly, his conclusion is that we need to reevaluate the role of testing in our society. He calls for different kinds of tests and less emphasis on the go-by-the-numbers tests (the SAT's, the GREs, and so forth) that the bulk of us currently take.
The loudest call is for a greater openness from the testing community: Strenio carefully documents occasions when the testers have obscured, obstructed or altered the facts. Like the Nader report, Strenio's book calls for a consumerist approach to the testing marketplace. Quote upon quote is lined up in support of this position. Perhaps because Strenio is a lawyer, his remedies for the testing trap read like a brief.
If you are pro-testing and back-to-basics education, this book may trouble your conscience; if you're an anti-testing sort, "The Testing Trap" is yet another grenade to lob at the opposition.
Which, perhaps, is as it should be. This book is well-timed. People are taking the role of education less and less for granted. Maybe the time has come for school systems to evaluate carefully the importance of standardized testing in their programs. Maybe the time has come for parents to learn more about the role of testing in their children's lives.
"The Testing Trap" is a good a starting point as any, and it merits attention. It may not tell you anything you didn't know, but it reminds you of things you should still care about.