Some Reflections on the Value of Test Prep

In today’s New York Times, a feature story announced that the private school association in New York City intends to remove the ERB (similar to the SSAT or ISEE) as an entrance requirement.

The move away from testing as part of the application process is not necessarily new — various critics have suggested that one such test does not contribute much to the admission of younger children, and stressed more the feedback from teachers and the personal interviews.  Because these measures are incredibly subjective, and can be used to keep certain students out of a private school, the move to eliminate some test component has never caught fire.

Perhaps until now.  Although for a very strange — and wrong — reason:  the New York association said they made their decision because test prep has rendered the test meaningless.

First, that is factually untrue.  If test prep had skewed the results of the test, the local or national reported means should have shifted upward significantly over the last ten years. However, the means have remained essentially the same, moving less than those of the SAT and the ACT.

Second, the premise that test prep is harmful or games the system defies common sense. If a student chooses to study very hard to do well on a test at school, whether in AP Biology or Introduction to Business, and as a result of that hard work the student gets an A, should we consider that cheating or gaming the system?  Should we devalue the grade?  What if the student sought help in studying, whether from the teacher, a fellow student or a professional tutor?  Obviously, in each of these situations, we applaud the student for the additional effort and the determination to succeed.

So, if we expect a student to study for exams at school, why should we not expect a student to prepare for a major standardized test that determines whether he or she gets into a private school or a particular college?  The only logical conclusion one can draw from advocating that only those who can score well without prep reflects a misguided view of entrance exams.  These tests are not indicators of genetic, native intelligence.  As the critics admit, prep affects the outcome, at least in some cases.  So, the tests are not measures of native intelligence — if such a concept actually exists — but measures of what a student has learned in terms of discrete and quantifiable skills.

Some students have “natural” skills — at test taking, at sports, at art.  But some students have “earned” skills — skills that through hard work and dedication match up with the natural kids, and one day could surpass them.  Which type would we rather have as an applicant?  Much could be said for the person who puts in the effort, who already knows the value of hard work to reach a goal.

The bottom line is that test prep does not skew scores or cheat the system.  To the contrary, it allows people of all range of talents to even the playing field, to show that despite their socioeconomic status, skin color, religion or country of origin, they deserve a seat in a selective class on merit, based on the characteristics that make this nation great, including our belief in upward mobility through hard work and dedication.

Tests have a variety of limitations, mostly by their own design.  We have yet to craft the perfect admission test at any level.  But they do offer an objective measure of performance to consider with a variety of other factors.  Rather than condemn the test or the preparation for the test, begin a discussion about how to make a better objective measure of future success and an honest discussion about the degree to which subjective factors continue to play in the process.