Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Horrible Person!

A while ago I joined a message board through "" which is supposedly a group of people that wants to reform standardized testing. Someone put up this (
Assessment-Test.htm) article about the test they give to Floridian children for assessment, and I read it and left a comment about how I think it's largely not worth it to spend time trying to "reinvent" ourselves through standardized testing. Read the last lines or so of the article, and you might be left scowling a bit too. Here's an exerpt from my comment, the thing that started all of this:

"I realize he points out the time constraints of such a task, but he doesn't mention how expensive it is! I've blown nearly $400 on the GREs, and did worse on the retakes after months of studying. I simply can't afford to take the test anymore! At this point I'm forced to give up and hope that I'm able to convince graduate programs that I really DO love science, in spite of some shoddy test scores that do little to indicate aptitude anyway."

Some guy named Art responds [exerpt]:

"Convincing graduate programs that you love science is one thing, convincing them that you are good at it is another. If your GREs aren't so hot, show them other evidence of your abilities."

Okay, I don't think these people quite understand that what I'm TRYING to say is that GRE scores DO NOT give good evidence of your abilities. But I let that slide and responded with:

"I always knew I'd have to show evidence of other abilities, simply because the kind of "problem-solving" tested on the GREs [and other standardized tests] is just about the worst kind to encourage in terms of science research. Quickly pounding out the fastest, easiest way to get an answer [what you MUST do on the GREs to have time to answer all the questions] is NOT the way any respectable scientist should go about addressing research problems. I've always been encouraged to really think about issues, and perhaps even come up with multiple ways to address them! Apparently, "really thinking" about questions on the GRE is a handicap."

Uh-oh. Here it comes. Read THIS:

"I disagree that speed is irrelevant. Take a look at *Apollo 13* the movie. Would you have wanted to be in that space capsule with someone who was slow with the slide rule as they "thought about" options. Speed and the ability to interpret and judge are not mutually exclusive. The GRE tests speed, perhaps. But other parts of the application process test other things. For example, faculty recommendations can speak to judgment and wisdom. So, I just think it is a silly response to the GRE or any test to say, well, it doesn't test X, so its use is fatally flawed.

Different people take different amounts of time to answer questions. It is a legitimate sign of knowledge, if two people have the same information, and one person can produce an acceptable answer faster, that is a sign of something relevant for scholarly work. No serious scholar would maintain that it is the only thing relevant for scholarly work. However, as any social statistician will tell you, if there is no variance on the other factors (e.g., grades, recommendations), then the decision
will be reduced to the factor that has variance (test scores). Any why might these other factors be of little variance. Well, hmm, I don't know, maybe *grade inflation* that has made an A almost an expectation on the part of undergrads? And, hmm, I don't know, maybe a litigious society that makes people write formulaic incompletely true reference letters?

As a person who has and continues to criticize testing when it is abused (which is often) and poorly devised (also often), I am troubled when people attack the very idea of testing. Graduate admissions in particular would be far more positively affected if these other signals (grades, recommendations) were somehow improved. The biggest problem isn't with the tests, it is with the other legs of the stoll; all the weight may be resting on the GRE, but that is primarily because the other legs no longer have the wherewithal to carry any weight at all.

Finally, frankly, if someone is old enough to apply to grad school, and they find the GRE an assault on their ego--well, they're probably going to have a tough timein grad school and beyond. I want scientists who can stand up to the pressure inherent in any high-stakes field, because the pressure only builds from there--pressure to knuckle under and give industry what it wants, pressure to give politicians answers they want, and, sometimes, pressure to get an answer fast (e.g., how to plug the levees in New Orleans as it flooded.) There is a time for speed, and a time for slow deliberation. We can have scientists and scholars who can do both. And testing can be part of the process of obtaining such scientists.

Gotta run.


WOAH. Respectfully? What horrible thing crawled up your pee-hole and DIED there, Sam?! I didn't think I was slamming the whole process of TESTING, just that GREs aren't the best indicators of valuable skills that [I think] a research scientist should possess! Anyway, this was my response:

"Well, gee. I didn't realize I would catch such personal flak for objecting to the GREs on a message board I found through!

I wasn't trying to criticize testing as a whole, because of course it's a necessary admissions component. Perhaps you can understand my frustration as one who has very recently had to suffer through the rigors of staring at a computer screen for hours upon end and being made to feel that, IN SPITE of years of hard work and success in my coursework [and not due to grade inflation], I will be judged based on something I feel has little relevence in how I will succeed in graduate school. This feeling was seeping into my mind in Real Time as well, as it was made obvious to me when I got a question wrong directly after answering it, courtesy of Computer Adaptive Testing. When did you last take the GRE? I'm just curious, because I always did better on the practice paper versions than I did on the computerized ones.

I never said I wanted to go to space [and things always seem a lot more "high-stakes" in the movies, don't they?], and I am not trying for a position in the ER. Not all science [thank goodness.] is done for politicians and industry. In fact, although it seems we tend to forget, academic research still exists and is important. Pumping out answers without really understanding implications is so incredibly harmful to research, especially when these things enter such "high-stakes" arenas as the pharmaceutical companies. Vioxx, anyone? Do you suppose if they'd taken the time to do a few extra tests that the end result might have been better? Unfortunately, your wish for scientists of both ilks ["fast" and "slow" alike] seems rather hard to obtain, as there is only one test required for graduate school. Those who are gifted in other [and probably more valuable] aspects of science, like creativity for example, will end up looking poorly qualified based on the GRE and consequently not get a chance to enter the field. I don't think that's right, and that's pretty much all I was trying to get at in my original statement.

I know I will do very well in graduate school, in spite of the GRE's and my apparently very fragile ego. It's just a frustrating thing. That's all. But I suppose it's not good for scientists to get frustrated, either."

And that's the last time I dabble in Education reform! JEEZ!


Mackenzie said...

And to put it far less articulately, what a fucking douche. Apollo 13? Is this guy for real? He probably works for the Princeton Review or The College Board and you're shattering his view of his place in the world. Puh-lease. Speaking as an individual who actually has gotten into grad school in spite of her shitty GRE scores, I'm under the impression that colleges are well aware of the flawed system.

jamie p said...

yeah. what a douche.

Accidentally Disastrous said...

I cant believe that you, Lena Webb, are soley responsible for Apollo 13 and New Orleans because of your shitty GRE scores. For shame Lena, for shame...