Column | Testing does not determine your destiny

Two days into his freshman year of high school, I overheard my son recounting a conversation about IQ scores to his younger brother.

“My friend said my IQ must be higher than I was told because he thinks I’m smarter than him.”

I couldn’t stop myself from telling him, “Forget that number and try never to think of it again.”

An unintended consequence of the preoccupation with standardized testing is that your scores stand in for who you are — they become your testiny.

Never mind asking someone “what’s your sign.” You want their test scores. Even from young ages, students internalize the lesson from educators and parents that a test result influences the chance to get into medical school or shapes which colleges might admit them.

Today’s test-takers assume that these scores predict their future and, unfortunately, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a college professor and adviser, I’ve had many conversations with students who think their abilities have been tested and accurately scored. They assume these numbers tell them what they are good at and what they are not.

They do not realize that the mountain of scores in their lives — IQ, PSSA, PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP, ASVAB, GRE, MCAT, LSAT — ultimately won’t amount to a hill of used bubble sheets when it comes to defining them as human beings. Unless they let it.

It isn’t that tests can’t be useful. No one wants board-optional certification for doctors or many other professions. Yet the wide variety of practitioners even in the most stringently tested professions shows that the test is really the entry point.

Students and admissions committees too often lose track of the crucial skills that these tests can’t measure — work ethic, character, imagination, creativity and the ability to plan and carry out projects.

These tests’ adherents lose track of the fact that a great many students who struggle with timed multiple-choice tests are quite brilliant at writing research essays or thinking divergently in class discussions. Tests such as the SAT leave so much out but manage to present themselves as authoritative. It reduces the taker to a score.

People, in the end, are not numbers. In elementary school I tested so low on the second-grade mathematics placement test that I spent a year in remedial math. The next year I went back into the regular class, but I carried with me an assumption — backed up by a test score — that I was bad at math.

From third grade through the rest of my education, including graduate degrees, I couldn’t shake the test-proven “fact” that I was bad at math. To this day it frustrates me to think how poorly designed and executed that system was and that I allowed it to define my future of low expectations and a negative attitude.

As I begin a new academic year, I am well-aware that students, especially first-year college students, place great store on the results they receive on tests. A few bad tests in chemistry or calculus or history can reinforce existing insecurities and lead to momentous decisions that close off career paths.

Every year additional colleges and universities move to SAT-optional applications, as Hofstra did this summer. Hampshire College has taken this considerably further and removed the “optional.” They now refuse test scores in the application process.

Some testing will and must take place. What must not happen is for students to believe they are reduced to these numbers.

It took until I was an adult to come to understand the proper place and proper limits of assessments, and it came after it could do me any good.

All of us — parents, teachers, college faculty and administrators — are required to make sure students at all levels know that your score is not you.