Ode to the No. 2 Pencil by Robin Wieskus (All rights reserved. Not for reuse)
O ne of the earliest examples of standardized testing can be traced to China, around 600 AD. To secure civil service jobs, along with higher social status, applicants had to pass rigorous exams that included writing essays and memorizing texts. This system lasted for hundreds of years. Today, China’s most important test is the gaokao (“big test” in Mandarin), which determines university placement. Last year, more than 9.1 million students took the exam, vying for 6.85 million spots at Chinese universities. Top scores give students access to top schools, but they don’t ensure job prospects.
- In 2011, more than 1.6 million U.S. students took the ACT, a college entrance exam. (A perfect ACT score is 36.) That year, in a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Stanford University and the University of Chicago urged admissions officers to ignore the reading and science portions of the ACT, saying they aren’t useful predictors of college success. More high school students in the class of 2012 took the ACT than the SAT.
- U.S. students can receive spelling assistance on some standardized tests. The Oregon Department of Education allows test takers to spell-check their work before submitting state writing exams. Spell-check is also permitted on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the “nation’s report card.”
- To compare education systems across countries, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluates reading, math, and science skills among 15-year-olds worldwide every three years. On the 2009 test (the most recent data available), Shanghai, China; South Korea; and Finland represented the highest scores in reading. In Shanghai, 92 percent of students reported that they read for enjoyment every day. In Finland, that figure was 67 percent. In all participating countries, girls outperformed boys in the reading category; the average gender gap was 39 points. They were also more likely to read for fun: 73 percent of girls said they enjoyed reading, compared with 54 percent of boys.
- Out of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranked 14th for PISA reading scores. In an effort to improve its education system, the nation passed a law in 2002 that requires annual testing in reading and math for all public school students from grades three through eight. A backlash against the increased use of standardized tests has emerged in the country.
- In the United States, it takes about one hour for a person to grade 30 standardized-test essays. A computerized system called e-Rater can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds, but it has its flaws. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor deliberately wrote an essay filled with more than a dozen nonsensical sentences. The system gave his writing sample the highest possible score.