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Hi there,

When was the last time you took a test?

The real kind: filling in multiple choice questions, extra pencils lined up, legs bouncing with jitters. Tests can be some of our worst memories of our educational journeys – and we’re often grateful when they’re behind us. 

But around the world, millions of students are at the whim of standardized tests. As of 2015, American students took an average of 112 standardized tests by the time they graduated high school. In India, test scores become social status for both students and their families. And if Japanese students fail certain tests, they aren’t even permitted to enter high school. 

From Mexico, to the UK, to South Africa, standardized tests have significant impacts on the lives and well-being of test-takers and teachers alike: anxiety, dysfunctional sleep patterns, identity crises, and existential dread.

But the same way the pandemic changed WFH policies in the workplace, its aftershocks are changing standardized testing in schools. More than 80% of U.S. colleges didn’t require SAT or ACT results for admissions this year. And some Canadian provinces have drastically reduced their quantity of tests (though others have increased them).

But while testing is on the decline in some places, others are doubling down. Today, we’re looking at the controversy of standardized testing through the lens of behavioral science. What do tests get wrong? And what are we really measuring?

Until next time,
Sarah and the nervous test-takers @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀

📊 DEEP DIVE: The Biased Nature of Testing

🎓 FIELD NOTES: Closing the Educational Diversity Gap

📐 VIEWPOINTS: What are we really measuring?

📊 The Biased Nature of Testing

Standardized tests are homogenous by design, making them ripe ground for inequitable outcomes. Whether experiencing family hardship or taking an afternoon test, circumstance wildly varies scoring outcomes. 

+ Gender-based risk-taking. Test format alone accounts for 25% of the gender difference in reading and math performance. Researchers hypothesize this gap is caused by differing levels of risk aversion – not everyone feels comfortable guessing. Female students fare worse on multiple-choice questions, but better on open-ended questions.

+ Stereotype threat. This occurs when individuals feel at risk for confirming negative beliefs about their social group. Students under stereotype threat – like Black students, women in STEM, and older adults testing for memory recall – fare worse on tests. It’s hypothesized they use cognitive resources on tasks like emotional regulation, instead of the task at hand.

+ Early bird gets the worm. This occurs when individuals feel at risk for confirming negative beliefs about their social group. Students under stereotype threat – like Black students, women in STEM, and older adults testing for memory recall – fare worse on tests. It’s hypothesized they use cognitive resources on tasks like emotional regulation, instead of the task at hand. 

+ Hardship at home. During weeks with high-stakes tests, student cortisol levels (a measure for stress) increase by an average 15%, equivalent to an 80-point drop in SAT scores. For students experiencing hardships like family instability, poverty, or neighborhood violence, cortisol spikes up to 35%.
🎓 FIELD NOTES: Closing the Educational Diversity Gap

More than half of kindergarteners through highschoolers in the U.S. are students of color – but only 20% of American teachers identify as non-white and non-Hispanic. This lack of representation can negatively impact students academically, socially, and emotionally.

TDL partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to figure out why enrollment in high-quality teacher preparation programs was so low for Black, Latinx, and low-income candidates – and what could be done to create a more diverse workforce.

Our work documenting the teacher prep pipeline was the first of its kind. You can read more about our insights here

A classroom of students facing their teacher.
📐 What are we really measuring?

Standardized tests measure plenty – but not necessarily academic ability. What do tests measure, and how useful are these metrics?

+ Wealth. SAT and ACT scores are better indicators of affluence than academic ability. A 2016 analysis found that the “tests are good proxies for the amount of wealth students are born into.”

+ Stress. The global standard in standardized testing is the OECD’s International Student Assessment (PISA). But 6 of the top 10 countries in reading scores have below-average levels of student well-being. Some of PISA’s top performers – like Korea, Singapore, China, and Hong Kong – have the only reported cases of exam-induced suicide.

+ STEM skills. A study from Google on the skills of their top employees found that STEM expertise ranked dead last. How do you thrive at Google then? Through communicating, listening, empathizing, and valuing others’ points of view. However, these soft skills aren’t incentivized in testing culture.

+ Test-taking. Students don’t need to be strong test-takers to thrive. A study of 33 U.S. colleges that introduced test-optional admissions policies found clear benefits. The chance to prove their merit through grades meant admitted students were more likely to be first-generation, low-income, racial minorities, women, or have learning differences. 

Graph depicting decreasing test scores from 9am to 1pm. Test scores decrease over the day, but increase after breaks.

The later students take a test, the worse they fare. Visual data from Harvard Business School.

The Pygmalion Effect

Why do we perform better when someone has high expectations of us?

In 1968, behavioral scientist Robert Rosenthal administered a test to students, then informed teachers which children were expected to become intellectually gifted. The trick? Rosenthal picked the ‘gifted’ students at random.

But at the end of the school year, those randomly selected students performed better on IQ tests than their peers. The teachers’ belief in certain students was enough to enhance their academic ability.

Read more about the Pygmalion Effect here, including its 4 causes – climate, input, output, and feedback – and how you can use it to your advantage.

What's new at TDL?

Do you have behavioral insights from your field to share? We’re looking for guest writers

Whether it’s a one-off op-ed, or you want to be a regular contributor, check out our updated content submission guidelines for articles and pitches.

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 

  • • Associate Project Leader
Find out more by visiting our careers portal.

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.

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