In my last post, I talked about the myth that you can't prepare for standardized tests, how that myth was created, and why it has been perpetuated. In this post, we'll look at some explanations for why those beliefs are false.
Let’s begin by looking at the original broad-based tests that started the whole thing: the Army Alpha tests, which were meant to reveal native ability. For example, they intended to “Supply a mental rating for each soldier” and “Assist in discovering men of superior mental ability,” among other goals, which would then allow the Army to place soldiers into the best possible job for their skills. Did the test do that? In a word, no. Here are three sample questions from those original Army Alpha tests, with answers immediately following:
Directions: First unscramble the words to form a sentence, and then indicate if the sentence is true or false.
- happy is man sick always a
Directions: Complete the following sentences with the best answer.
- The Wyandotte is a kind of:
Horse Fowl Cattle Granite
- Why is beef better than cabbage? Because
- It tastes better
- It is more nourishing
- It is harder to obtain
While much could be made of the content of these questions—especially #3!—that’s not the focus of this discussion. Still, to the modern eye these examples appear ridiculous and certainly wouldn’t appear in this form on a current exam (at least I hope not). But back in the early days, these were considered normal questions and fully indicative of intelligence. The problem is that there are numerous biases present as well as faulty test-making. For example, a significant number of test takers were recent immigrants whose knowledge of English was developing or rudimentary at best. They automatically scored lower, and were classified into jobs that had less responsibility and authority. Likewise, if you’ve never encountered a Wyandotte before in your education (and be honest—have you?), you wouldn’t have any idea that it’s a type of chicken. Many Army recruits from the south and from lower-income areas (who were often black), at that time had limited exposure to formal education, and thus this “intelligence“ test failed to properly classify their abilities; instead, it simply catalogued things they had and had not been exposed to. That’s a test bias issue. Ultimately, these “IQ” tests were used to assess and categorize hundreds of thousands of recruits, all of whom walked out the door thinking their intelligence had just been rated. And that belief became rooted in society, and thus perpetuated thereafter.
So we can see how the original tests created the mistaken belief that standardized tests measured intelligence. What about today’s tests? Fortunately, things have changed. As a PBS Frontline special on the SAT revealed, “According to the College Board, the SAT now does not measure any innate ability. Wayne Camara, Director of the Office of research at the College Board told FRONTLINE that the SAT measures "developed reasoning," which he described as the skills that students develop not only in school but also outside of school.” So, whereas these tests began with a certain intent, now it’s all about how, in their words, your reasoning is “developed” and it’s no longer about innate ability. Well, if it’s not innate, then it’s learned. Learning can be developed, and anything that can be developed is something that you can prepare for. So, as much as companies such as the College Board (SAT) may not want it publicized, they’ve already stated publicly that their test is one that is made for preparation.
We also know from the earlier discussion that modern test-making companies walk a fine-line where public perception is concerned, because no test maker wants the public to believe that their test is subject to significant manipulation or coaching. But the reality is very different. For example, the College Board, makers of the SAT, operate the most popular SAT test preparation course in the world via their Official SAT Online CourseTM and have the best-selling SAT prep book (The Official SAT Study Guide). In other words, the company that has said, “Cramming and short-term prep can’t substitute for hard work in school” also operates a major test preparation course and sells books designed to help you prepare for the test. Thus, while countenancing the idea that you can’t prepare in the short-term for the SAT, they also make a huge amount of money on products designed to help you prepare in the short-term for their test. The other test makers do pretty much the same thing, and the bottom line is while their words often say one thing, their actions (and the money) tell you that you can most definitely prepare for these tests. As GMAC says about their best-selling GMAT book, “The Official Guide is the primary source to jumpstart your GMAT preparation. Featuring test-taking strategies to help you polish your test-taking skills, the Official Guide is an essential addition to your prep plan” (italics added for emphasis). All of these test making companies know that you can prepare for their tests and offer products to help you do so. They just don’t trumpet the fact that anyone else can help you prepare for the test because, in my opinion, it doesn't serve their public-image interests.
Finally, logic itself suggests that tests of this nature are not native ability tests, and that they can indeed be prepared for. For example, the LSAT states that it “is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school” including “acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills” (italics added for emphasis). A skill is “the ability, coming from one's knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well." Thus, when these exams measure skills—and they all do—they are measuring something that you can acquire over time with practice and preparation. For example, if you are historically challenged by math questions, working on math will help you improve your SAT, GMAT, or GRE score. If you’ve never been exposed to advanced logical reasoning structures like conditional reasoning, learning how those ideas work will help you perform better on tests like the LSAT or GMAT.
Our studies and work with students also prove that these tests can be learned. Students frequently send us comments about their score improvements, many of which far exceed the “expected” score increases from taking the LSAT a second time. Why does that occur? Because these test are all learnable, and if you put in time preparing, you will understand the test better and typically improve, often significantly. In the words of one of our students, “I didn’t think I could learn this stuff, but after spending a while studying, it’s a fact it can be learned. And if I can learn it, anyone can.”
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits a “10,000-Hour Rule” that states that practicing just about anything for 10,000 hours can turn you into an expert. You don’t need to be an expert to do well on these tests, and you certainly don’t need to practice 10,000 hours for them! But the point is that you can prepare for these exams, and a little practice will actually go quite a long way.
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Image: "Summer Steps in Scarborough" courtesy of Thomas Tolkien.