What is the purpose of a standardized test?

(And why should anybody care?)

If you’re planning to take a standardized test, you’ve probably devoted some thought to how you’ll prepare. But there’s one fundamental question that a lot of people never seem to ask about the whole testing process:

Why do standardized tests exist in the first place?

I think this question is worth exploring a little bit, because the answers will help you raise your score a lot more easily; they’ll also help you understand the overall admissions process better, which will improve your chances of being accepted at your top choice schools.

The original purpose of standardized testing

Standardized tests exist because test scores are considered the only numerical component of an application that is common to every applicant. Test scores are basically a common yardstick by which all applicants can be measured consistently.

The only other number that can be found in all applications is the GPA, but the GPA isn’t really very reliable, since different students have access to different teachers for different subjects in different years.

So the role of the test is to provide some kind of meaningful numerical indicator that can help the admissions committee begin to make reliable comparisons among applicants.

A law-school admissions officer knows that a 147 on an LSAT from this year can be compared to a 151 from three years ago, and that helps him decide whom to admit. A college knows that a 35 on an ACT from 2009 is a better score than a 32 on an ACT from 2010 (or from 2006, or 2014, or whatever). And so on.

Test scores also provide schools with data they can track, so they can see if the scores correlate with the performance levels of admitted students over time.

So testing originally had a role in the admissions process because it was the only consistent indicator common to all applicants.

Keep that in mind. It’s pretty important.

In order for standardized tests to fulfill their role, they have to do three things:

1) They must measure the same skill-set every time, which means using questions that are designed according to certain standards, patterns, and rules.

2) They must include questions with correct answers that are beyond dispute, and they must be able to apply exactly the same grading standards to a potentially infinite number of test-takers.

3) They must make use of “norm-referenced” scoring algorithms (we don’t care too much about this one from a strategy standpoint, so don’t worry about it).

The secondary purpose of standardized testing

When you’re applying to schools, it’s important to realize that the school you’re applying to is constantly worried about how other people are ranking it. So just like you want to impress the school, the school wants to impress the people at US News and World Report.

And the school tries to impress people by letting in really good applicants.

And one of the major indicators of the quality of the admissions pool is . . . (wait for it) . . .

Test scores.

The various organizations that rank schools use the test scores of the student body as an indicator of a school’s quality.

And every school is under tremendous pressure to climb in the rankings as much as it possibly can.

So every school is under pressure to recruit a stronger class with each new year, which means schools want your scores to be higher so that their own rankings can be higher.

(By the way, it’s worth remembering that the schools are under pressure to recruit the best possible class as you’re going through the applications process. You should always be looking for ways to present your strengths so that they line up with the school’s needs. But that’s a matter for another day.)

* * * * * *

Why Do You Care?

So all of this should ultimately affect your approach to standardized testing in particular and to the application process in general.

It lets us begin to understand why standardized test scores are so important: For one thing, they’re literally the only objective indicator that’s common to all applicants; for another, they signicantly impact the school’s ability to climb the rankings.

It also shows us that test scores are more important to the admissions process than schools would like to admit. If you’re thinking that a competitive school will look past your scores in the 50th percentile because your intangibles are strong, you might want to reconsider. While it does happen that people sometimes get into to tough schools with only average scores, it’s very rare. On top of that, every sub-standard score that gets in means more high scores are necessary to bring up the average.

Finally, we can see now that a standardized test can only do its job if it manages to test the same underlying concepts in the same underlying ways every single time. Otherwise, a score in the 95th percentile from one testing date couldn’t be compared to a score in the 80th percentile on another testing date, and the whole enterprise would collapse.

So if you want to get better at your test, or if you’ve been working at it for weeks or months without seeing much improvement (or even for years, God forbid), you might want to abandon the idea of taking the test at face value and start looking for the underlying similarities. Figure out what remains constant from one test date to another, and focus on it. You’ll find that your standardized test becomes a lot easier.

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