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From the archives: On standardized testing

July 18, 2011

While I’m on vacation, I’ve decided to repost some of my older posts from my early days in blogging, in the hopes that they might get a bit more discussion than before.

This video gives me more hope than anything I’ve seen recently.

Take a moment, and put yourself int he shoes of any college admissions officer. From my days as a college counselor, I can say, that unless this kid has some secret axe-murdering past, she is a sure fire slam dunk for admission nearly anywhere. “You changed the curriculum for drivers ed for a whole state? You are awesome. Welcome to our university.”

This also really got me thinking about standardized testing, of which, I’ve never been a fan. But in physics, I’ve always said something like “It’s possible to do really well on the SAT II, if you get a book, study the material we aren’t going to cover, practice the multiple choice questions, and really prepare. I’m happy to help you.” And I always have a few kids (9th graders) take me up on this.

But this video really thinks I’m really doing my kids a disservice here. We all know that the SAT II physics no more tells a college whether you have an aptitude for or interest in being a physics major any more than scoring 100,000 points on angry birds means you have some future in ornithology.

Seriously, what is this question testing?

If the addition of 2000 joules of heat to 10 kilograms of a substance raises its temperature 2°, the specific heat of the substance is:

You can do this question without the slightest understanding of what heat is, or how it is different from temperature.

No, these questions aren’t the devil, and they aren’t as bad as they used to be, but good physics questions they aren’t, and I’m tired to telling my students to waste valuable hours from their young lives preparing for them. Form now on, here’s what I will say:

I think it will take between 20-40 hours to adequately prepare for the SAT II in physics, in addition to $40 to buy a book to practice (the book will be riddled with errors, no doubt). If, instead of practicing to master a test that rewards quick, strategic guessing with limited information, you were actually invest this time in studying physics—perhaps even doing a scientific project on your own, you would draw rewards both intangible (learning what a scientist really does) and tangible (possibly doing original scientific work) that will demonstrate a vastly greater understanding of, and interest in the subject of science than any SAT II score can do. If you want to do this, then I’ll do all I can to help.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 1:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing this video of this brilliant young person.

    The SATs are a measure of the ability to memorize and regurgitate and, yes, those who have access to resources to practice have a better chance to bump up the scores. It may also be an indicator of who is willing to put their nose to the grindstone to succeed… at least for however long it takes to get into college. But, these tests are not a measure of who will continue to be motivated or who will actually come up with creative idea or, like this young woman, who can identify a problem, find and implement a viable solution. Great test taking skills will not help universities find individuals who will solve the world’s problems… even though they will end up with a few keepers just by chance. Universities who really too heavily on test scores are at risk of losing out on potential talent by simply filling their corridors with good test takers. They are at risk especially when there are Universities whose administrators are industrious enough to do the leg work to look deeper into the quality in their applicants.

    I’ve worked in a corporation must of my adult life. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve hired someone who looked great on paper but were worthless when it came to actually producing an innovate idea or even implementing an ordinary one. One of the most industrious, inventive people I’ve encountered had no credentials at all to her name — most people would not have hired her because of this but I recommended her after the interview because she seemed to have a strong work ethic, seemed able to be able to master new systems when implemented, and seemed to display calm and wisdom during the interview. She has now been with us for 7 years and is one of the most productive, industrious, problem solvers on our team.


  1. The SAT II might be a roadblock for extraordinary accomplishment « Quantum Progress

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