I met some new people the other day, and when I explained to them what it was that I did, one of the guys asked me whether you could actually prepare for tests like the LSAT (or GMAT, GRE, SAT, etc). I get that question enough that it doesn't bother me, and in fact, I always find it an interesting conversation (whether they find it an interesting conversation is a different matter though!). While it is near gospel that almost any endeavor that requires skill—such as playing an instrument, pole-vaulting, learning to cook, or even wine tasting—also requires significant preparation or practice time, when it comes to standardized testing the belief is often that you can't prepare, and you really can only rely on your basic abilities to succeed. Why is that belief so prevalent, and why is it incorrect?
The myth that you can't prepare for standardized tests comes from a few sources. The first traces back to the historical origins of the first standardized tests in the US. When the first large-scale tests were implemented—IQ tests given to Army recruits during World War I, later the Army's Alpha tests, and eventually the SAT—the people making and administering the tests believed they were indicative of native ability. As Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, says, the original test creators “clearly believed in the basic theory that intelligence is an innate and sort of biological quality and that it's the most important human quality.” In other words, they thought they were giving tests built to measure you exactly as you were, and which could reveal your inherent capacities. Since the test creators also believed you cannot change your inherent abilities, the message they sent to the world was these tests, by their very nature, disallowed preparation. Consequently, this belief became one of the founding axioms of admissions-related tests. This belief was also completely false, but that wasn't known until well after the myth was entrenched.
The longevity of this belief is also tied to more than just what the test makers wanted people to believe. If you think about it for a moment, there's an inherent attractiveness to the idea that a test measures who you are, and that you can't game the system to improve your standing. If the test simply measures your pure biologically-given ability, then whatever results are returned will be fair. If you perform poorly, then it’s not really your fault—it’s just how it is. It also means that if someone performs well, they didn’t have any advantage over you other than their natural brainpower. It appeals to a sense of fairness to think that everyone has an equal chance and that we all start from the same point, and it’s also comforting to think that a test is based solely on factors beyond your control and is at the same time incorruptible in terms of what it measures. While those things may be attractive or comforting, they aren’t true.
Of course, there are other sources of the myth that these tests can’t be prepared for, and these days one source is the test makers themselves. Test makers such as LSAC (the LSAT), GMAC (the GMAT), ETS (GRE), and the College Board (SAT) find themselves in a difficult position at times. On the one hand their tests are vitally linked to the admission chances of millions of applicants yearly, and on the other hand these tests are criticized by watchdog groups as unfair and biased. There's also an ongoing controversy over economic considerations and how wealth and race is related to test scores (because, for example, results typically show that students from wealthier families score better on these tests). If you are a test maker, you don't really want to open yourself up to the idea that affluent students have an advantage over poor students, and so there's an active interest in conveying the idea that standardized test scores aren't a product of preparation, and are instead based on natural ability. A scan of many test agency websites shows that the typical test maker places effort into indicating that their test is fair and a valid predictor. For example, the makers of the GRE say that the “questions do not unfairly contribute to group differences” and “the test predicts success." Think about that last one: if the test predicts success, it’s saying it can tell you whether you have what it takes or not. This is one area where test makers haven’t been entirely clear—there’s a lot of corporate-speak on these websites—but they have self-preservation reasons for the lack of clarity. The bottom line, however, is that there is a benefit to them to not clearly state that these tests are not tests of inherent ability.
Last, some students accidentally or unknowingly perpetuate the idea that these tests are preparation resistant. Sometimes it's because that's just what they've heard, and other times it's because it's easier to say that because then they don't have to work as hard to prepare, or, it can be a convenient way to explain a less-than-hoped-for score. It’s one of those things that people have heard and then repeat, without really thinking about it too much because it seems possible. And it sounds reasonable on the surface, so you can see how it would get passed around.
So, we can see a few big reasons why the idea that you can't prepare for a standardized test is still floating around. If it was a truthful claim, it wouldn’t matter why it was floating around. But it’s not true, and in my next blog we'll examine why it is untrue.
Have a question or comment? Please post it below!
Image: "Box of matches" courtesy of Markus Grossalber.