Discover the limitations of standardized tests and explore alternative measures of assessing student performance in this captivating article by Nitin Natrajan. The author shares his personal journey, highlighting the flaws and challenges associated with standardized testing in college applications. Through inspiring examples of students who excel beyond the classroom, the article emphasizes the importance of a well-rounded education that equips students with practical skills and prepares them for post-graduation success.

Let’s get something straight off the bat; I absolutely abhor standardised tests. My intense dislike for testing comes from poor experiences when applying for my undergraduate and PhD programs. Admittedly, I did not score well on my undergraduate ACT and the GRE for my PhD application. Despite the poor scoring, I was, thankfully, successful in those applications. I attribute the success of my applications more towards my experience, extracurriculars, and grades rather than my test scores. Testing has long been an important metric when assessing students who apply to numerous institutions for future studies, and it’s not hard to see why. They test on Math and English, two facets that are part of American university core requirements, whether we like it or not. It is tricky to ignore this aspect of a college education. 

However, the primary way to ace these tests is not just purely understanding the content but more by navigating the test, as there are specific tactics. Being able to dedicate time to study for tests and to consult test prep centres is a challenge. Generally, it is people who are in privileged circumstances that can study effectively for these tests. Furthermore, we see that standardised tests are not strictly knowledge tests, and there is no room for creativity (Kohn 2000, Armstrong 2013). These tests are in set subject areas, which may not necessarily be the subjects the student is strong in and as such, their passion is overlooked by a number on this test (Kohn 2000, Armstrong 2013). When the pandemic hit, being able to effectively study for these tests and take them proved to be a more significant challenge. It ultimately led to almost every major US academic institution, such as the Ivy League schools and premier institutions such as William and Mary and the University of Michigan, adopting a test-optional policy (Nietzel 2023). It provided prospective applicants with avenues to excel in other areas, as university admissions needed to base students on these other measures of performance. This is where I feel, more often than not, students have a real chance to shine. 

Colleges in the United States take a holistic approach when assessing candidates; this is nothing new. However, there is a tendency to examine activities beyond the classroom in greater detail. In many circumstances, incoming university students are equipped with more skills and experiences than my contemporaries had at that age. They are gaining skills from experiences beyond the classroom that ultimately serve them not just in university but also in a post-graduation setting. These experiences arguably make students feel more “life-ready”. Students have a chance to shine and arguably level the playing field a bit. Examples of students shining outside the classroom include some of my current mentees at Ascend Now. While advising them in navigating the minefield that is American university applications, I was amazed by the work they were doing beyond the classroom. 

Some were doing excellent volunteer work with projects aiming to help with housing in the African continent. They were able to design and implement whole projects with the project lead. They are now developing project management skills, an asset valued not just in undergraduate studies but also when entering the job world. Another was running a full-on side gig reselling sneakers, and they prided themselves on the entrepreneurial skills they had developed. Regarding these skills and external experiences, I can speak to my own life. I developed intensive research skills and networked heavily when working at the university. I attribute these aspects about myself to helping me get admitted into a doctoral program. 

However, while there are some merits to adopting a test-optional approach, some students still rely on testing to stand out when applying to programs. So, I invite readers to think about the merits of testing and if students should still be judged on a number from a test when other factors can, and perhaps should, be assessed. The notion of testing is a meaningful discussion, and prospective students to universities simply want to do well and make the most of the opportunities given. Ultimately, there is a need for critical thinkers who can succeed not only in university but wherever life takes them afterwards. Not to utilise a cliché but with passion and a drive, the world is truly your oyster. Testing is not the be all and end all for the measure of a student, there are other means to measure the performance of a student, not mere numbers from a simple test.  

Main takeaway:

Standardised testing may not be the only option to guage a student’s preparedness to college one must be open to including skills gained through personal experiences