I distinctly remember taking the ACT my junior year of high school. I had signed up late, so my dad and I had to drive to a school nearly an hour away because it was the only available testing site left. I was exhausted from all the ordinary stresses of junior year, and I was sick with a head cold that made everything seem fuzzy. It was a recipe for disaster if I ever heard one. However, once I made it to the right classroom—a challenge despite the signs posted everywhere—I really wasn’t nervous. Could this test help determine whether I was accepted or rejected by colleges I applied to? Sure. But I was more concerned that my nose had started to run, and I hadn’t thought to bring tissues.

The issue of whether standardized testing benefits or unduly stresses students is fraught with politics, and emotions on either side of the question tend to run high. Standardized tests do have a significant impact on students’ futures, after all, and scores can also affect the perception of a teacher’s success by a school’s administration. Some argue that the solution to the problem is not to minimize or eliminate testing, but to expand the range of skills that are tested. John D. Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), suggests that to decrease the stress induced by the big standardized tests students face as they complete high school, more tests should be offered. He believes test results are a valuable way to learn more about a person’s strengths, and that by developing tests designed to measure specific skill sets, we as a community of learners could begin to measure types of abilities that are not covered by the current range of standardized tests.

Parents also seem to be in favor of standardized testing as a whole. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press–National Opinion Research Center (AP—NORC) Center for Public Affairs Research, 61 percent of parents believe their children take the appropriate number of standardized tests, while 26 percent think they take too many. Within this context, Mayer’s suggestion of more diverse tests might require some reworking of the expectations placed upon students going into standardized tests. For instance, while a prospective engineer would definitely want to excel at a spatial reasoning test, she might not need to worry as much about preparing for a test designed to measure, say, linguistic pattern recognition. Such a situation might actually reduce the stress on students because there would be less emphasis on scoring well in every subject.

Finally, there is the possibility that with more tests to choose from, we might gain a better idea of the state of education nationally. Not only could students’ scores on the same tests be compared, as they are now, but information could be gathered on how many students are attempting certain types of tests. This could prove to be a valuable metric for tracking interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, for example, or in studying what academic grounding leads to success in particular post–secondary careers or fields of study. At University of Nebraska—Lincoln (UNL), my alma mater, there was a growing population of premed English majors who had discovered that medical schools wanted students who were as familiar with critical reasoning and practiced for literary analysis as they were with biology and chemistry. In this case, more diversified testing could help to identify students’ talents in a variety of fields beyond the traditional math–versus–English binary.

For students like I was, having options for what to focus on in college entrance exams and even in the standardized testing made more common throughout grade school might lend more direction to high school and college choices. I thought I wanted to be a geneticist until halfway through college, and then I switched to English. For me, it wasn’t a matter of ability; I was capable of both subjects. It was more that I hadn’t had the opportunity to study either in depth—which I might have done had I been shown the results of a test determining where my strongest interests lay. While I’m sure the debate will continue, more tests for more types of skills is certainly an interesting proposition, and worth considering in light of the greater pressure on students to know what their future plans are earlier in their academic careers.

Did You Know?

There are about 3,000 four–year colleges and universities in the United States. Of these, more than 800 allow students to opt out of the SAT or ACT. These “test-optional” schools base their admissions processes on a variety of other factors, like GPA, class rank or other standardized tests such as AP and IB tests.