Don’t hate APs, hate the SAT

Ah, standardized tests. What fun. Even if you enjoy a good challenge, or see them as an opportunity to show how much you have learned, and good for you if you do—who among us likes sitting at a desk for three-plus hours bubbling in answers that may ultimately have a pretty big impact on your future? It’s stressful. You worry about getting the right answers, you’re afraid about what will happen if you accidentally skip a row of bubbles, and you’re probably feeling hungry and dehumanized by the end.

But are all standardized tests equally awful? It turns out the answer is no, which you discover when you delve into the world of psychometrics, which according to Random House Dictionary is “the measurements of mental traits, abilities, and processes.” Yes, believe it or not, there are people who devote their professional lives to thinking about how to test and evaluate all of us. I’m certainly no expert, but I can clue you in to a few secrets of the trade.

Basically, there are two types of standardized tests. The first type is familiar to all Marlborough students because the ISEE and all of the college admissions tests (SAT, SAT subject tests, ACT) are in this category. Let’s call this group of tests “discrimination tests.” They distinguish between test takers, in order to essentially rank them, so that the institutions can use numbers to tell people apart. That’s right. It’s not exactly holistic or even humane, but putting a number on you is part of the admissions process.

How do discrimination tests do that? They use questions that about half of the test takers get right. A question that everyone answers correctly is useless for distinguishing one person from another, but lots of questions that are fairly hard can really spread out the distribution of scores and show differences between people. That’s why you’ll almost never see questions that cover basic concepts on SAT subject tests. For example, virtually every student who has taken a biology course will know that living things are made of cells. But a question about that won’t be useful, so it will never appear on the biology SAT subject test. Crazy, right?

The second type of test is designed to simply measure how much you have learned and what you can do. Let’s call this type of test an “achievement test.” Achievement tests are designed to determine if the takers have reached a certain level of knowledge and skill. AP exams are achievement tests. Psychometricians who develop these tests are fine with questions that everyone gets right as long as the questions are relevant.

Now that you’re armed with a little bit of knowledge about psychometrics, you can understand why I always say you should hate the SAT a lot more than you hate AP exams. It doesn’t get you out of taking those dreaded discrimination tests, but at least you’ll know why it feels so hard when you’re taking them. π

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