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Standardized Tests "Narrow," Don't Assess Creative Skills, Sternberg Contends


Dr. Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell University and the Robert S. Morris Class of 1976 Visiting Fellow, began his lecture on standardized testing by noting, “since this talk is about testing, it only makes sense to start with a test!” Sternberg then administered a five-question test to the audience, consisting of questions like “whose face is on the U.S. $10 bill,” and “what town in New York State is Colgate located in?”

As Sternberg would go on to delineate, “besides all the answers to this test being ‘Hamilton,’ it isn’t all that different from many standardized tests” that dominate and determine much of college admission in the United States.

To illustrate this point, Sternberg then listed the three problems with standardized tests of intelligence. First, their content is “often trivial with little use outside an academic setting.” Second, “life never seems to present us with multiple choice or short answer responses to problems,” indicating a flaw in the response format. Finally, the issue of “equity,” as the tests “rely heavily on socialization in the middle to upper middle class” and “unfairly favor white and Asian students.” As Sternberg pointed out, this system creates an “illusion of knowledge” and “self-fulfilling prophecies.”

To illustrate this point, Sternberg asked the audience to imagine if college acceptance was based not on test scores and high school grades, but instead solely on height, “and you had to be 7’1 to get into Harvard.” If this were the case, only tall people would have access to education, “and in 30 years we’d all say the key to intelligence and success was being tall.”

This is one of the essential flaws of standardized testing, claimed Sternberg, who then explained his own personal experience with this system, recalling a particular test in second grade, “I knew it was an IQ test, and when [my teacher] said ‘go,’ I froze.” Sternberg, a graduate of Yale and Stanford, as well as an accomplished professor, researcher and administrator at universities across America, recalled thinking, “I was stupid, and my teachers thought I was stupid.” It wasn’t until fourth grade, when he had a teacher who “thought there was more to a kid than an intelligence test” that the self-fulfilling prophecy created by standardized tests were broken for Sternberg, who remarked that unfortunately, “most kids don’t get that opportunity.”

Sternberg has focused his career on evaluating and creating new standardized tests. “These tests aren’t awful,” he claims, but rather they are “narrow.” Specifically, they ignore three important facets of what Sternberg calls, “successful intelligence.” While these tests do account for analytical skills, they do not assess “creative skills, practical skills, or wisdom-based ethical skills.”

My beef, said Sternberg, is that the tests “don’t find the people who are going to change the world.” Beginning with his first job, in the admissions office of Yale, Sternberg has sought to create a new test that is capable of assessing all of the skills essential to “successful intelligence,” and that better predicts success “in and beyond school.” To measure these abilities, Sternberg uses movies, based off practical problems college students have reported experiencing, and creative short stories in his tests. The value of these skills is often overlooked, though Sternberg asserts “college isn’t all about analytical skills and memorizing” and success is actually much more reliant on other skills, “like getting along with others and managing time and stress.”

Sternberg reflected that our current school system creates students devoid of creative skills, “because you don’t need them to be successful in school.” In fact, there is no incentive to be creative, “so kid’s won’t be, that’s the pipeline.” Convinced that “there are many kids who are not getting into college who should be,” Sternberg hopes his newest test, “HA*BIT,” will “basically give these kids a chance, because where you go to college really does matter” and many “kids have the ability to succeed,” but are never given the chance to because they get rejected for “bombing one test.” In his closing remarks, Sternberg noted that “the test has become more important than what it’s supposed to predict, that’s really backwards,” but that this is “something we can change. Lets give the kids a chance, and lets give them a chance to help society.”

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