Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why I hate standardized tests

Image by Peggy Monahan. Thanks Peggy!

One time my friend Bev asked me to help her with the GRE. I told her that I hate standardized tests and assured her that she didn't really want my help. She insisted that I was the only person she knew with math skills so I went over to help.

First question: If one car mechanic can fix a problem in 2 hours and another one can do it in 3 hours how long if the work together?

My head practically exploded at the absurdity of this question. First of all, if two car mechanics try to work together they'll end up drinking, smoking, and bull-shitting and nothing will get done. In the unlikely event that they actually tried to work on the same car at the same time it wouldn't get done faster because car repair is probably one of the least parallelizable tasks imaginable. I mean, what are they going to do -- both pull on a wrench at the same time and extract a nut twice as fast?

Of all the tasks in the world they could have chosen -- painting a wall, canvassing a neighborhood, etc -- they pick a nearly worst-case example. That said, understanding serializable vs. parallelizable tasks is extremely valuable knowledge so I spent 20 minutes explaining pipelining and caching strategies and then Bev understandably fired me exactly as predicted.

Here's another example from a Wonderlic sample test:

I simply abhore this questions and "puzzles" like this one -- it's completely subjective. I can make a case for all 5 of these being unique. 1 is the only one who's longest diagonal is equal to sqrt(2) of its sides. 2 is the only one that can be created by moving a single vertex from a rectangle. 3 is the only one with an anspect ratio greater than two. 4 is the only one that has regular angles greater than 90 and is also the only one with 6 sides. 5 is the only one with 2 acute angles. How is it that number of sides is somehow more important than the other features?

Questions like the two above make me feel that the author is a moron and that fact immediately makes me angry: Where does this moron get off judging me? And that gets me to why I hate standardized testing. It's a game about guessing what the author wants you to say using rules of thumb and pre-described algorithms versus demonstrating that you are capable of independent thought. And in a world full of computers that will slavishly follow endless and complicated pre-describred tasks, we don't need humans to do the same.

I don't merely reject standardized testing as a means of judging people's abilities, I reject the premise that standardized testing demonstrate anything positive -- society does not need more people who excel at slavishly following rules of thumb and formulas as those people's jobs are soon to be replaced by computers if they haven't been already. We need people who understand, who create, who invent now more than ever and this simply is not tested by standardized tests. While it is certainly the case that there are people who do well on standardized tests who are also creative, it is even more so the case that there are people who are very creative who nevertheless fail at standardized tests and unfortunately the tests tell those people "you suck" instead of "you're awesome".


Person said...

Well i see your point, and though the questions are vague, standardized tests seem to be the best solution. The need to place those who are smart and those who are less is essential for separating the students into appropriate classes for there level.

Ron said...

Well, I'm going to totally disagree with Person on all counts. Nice essay Zack. I'll be revisiting. By the way it was the first image that brought me here.

Anonymous said...

"The need to place those who are smart and those who are less is essential for separating the students into appropriate classes for there level". I DISAGREE on all accounts with this as well. I have a GPA of 3.90 and a grad GPA of 3.68. So basically if I do badly on the GRE is because I'm stupid and not "smart" like those who do well? Pardon my language but that is total BS. I am just as GOOD. My undergraduate grades prove this! I just happen to be a bad test taker on standardized exams which IMO cannot possibly measure a persons intelligence or how well they'll perform in graduate school.