View from

A Possible Solution to the Standardized Testing Debate

“The video games also adapted to my inputs and choices in real time, which meant they could capture my strengths and weaknesses, a fuller view of my aptitude than just a number from how many multiple choice questions I got right.”

To use standardized tests, or not to use standardized tests, that is the question. Some colleges dropped the requirement; others have reinstated it. Critics of standardized testing argue that it blocks a wider range of talented young people from applying to college. Its proponents point to how standardized testing scores correlate strongly with college performance and enable low-income students to demonstrate their preparedness and aptitude. The protracted nature of this debate reveals at least some incompatibility between today’s state of affairs and the decades-old tradition of standardized testing. Although the SAT underwent somewhat significant changes in 1995, many of the fundamentals of standardized testing—as well as the circumstances surrounding it, from test-day anxiety to vocabulary flash cards—have remained the same, even as American society has changed so much since the mid-1990s.

Today, the tests are facing an “opt out movement,” which gained popularity in 2015. Nearly 200,000 students in the state of New York “boycotted” standardized tests last spring. And we cannot blame them. Young people today have been brought up by smartphones, video games, and social media influencers, not just their parents. That is what is wrong with this new generation—a popular sentiment, yet nothing new. Perhaps every generation in human history has looked down on the next. Enough of that and of forcing the old on the new. And though it is common to critique standardized testing from the perspective of racial bias (though this is very much disputed), I would argue, today, the fundamental problem is actually with its structure and form. Standardized tests must change at their core, and their becoming video games may be ideal.

Video games are well suited for assessing aptitude because they can examine players for skills that colleges and employers value, often skills the games also already make players use. A 2022 study by Timothy Jordan and Mukesh Dhamala and published in Neuroimage: Reports found that video game players generally make quicker and more accurate decisions than non-players. Recent studies support that gaming can enhance attention, memory, and impulse control. Although there are academic drawbacks to spending hours per day playing video games, the reality is that games requiring certain cognitive skills probably can be reengineered to measure these skills.

I have already played video games made by employers to test my decision-making and problem-solving skills. They are like a lot of the games I played as a child, involving strategy, world-building, and unique characters. While I still had sweaty palms when playing to get the job interview, like when I would take standardized tests, the experience was still more fun, and it was much easier to focus. The video games also adapted to my inputs and choices in real time, which meant they could capture my strengths and weaknesses, a fuller view of my aptitude than just a number from how many multiple choice questions I got right.

Those games were also harder to prepare for since they were proprietary and not available anywhere else online. The current standardized tests tend to reward the ability to prepare perhaps more than ability itself. Practice tests and specialist tutors to help students outsmart the test are expensive and, thus, often inaccessible for low-income students. But the video game test tend to allow only allow limited practice on the platform itself. Then, innate ability and general cognitive skills can play a larger role in getting a good score. Those with video-game experience might receive an advantage, but most young people play video games designed for entertainment rather than ones specifically engineered to assess their thinking.

And since this game would capture more than one dimension of a student’s abilities, it could make college admissions fairer for students of all backgrounds, and those diamonds in the rough can sparkle all the more.

There was some experimentation in this direction already. In 2012, the Educational Testing Service—a large non-profit organization that makes all sorts of standardized tests—partnered with the gaming company Electronic Arts to form the non-profit GlassLab. It created educational games that could also test students by assessing how they solved challenges and puzzles. But some six years later the non-profit shut down. There has not been much effort in this area since, despite technological advancements and the continued progression of Artificial Intelligence (AI). A 2020 article in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications notes that few studies examine how video games can evaluate how well people think. And searching academic journals for such studies still brings few relevant results today.

The barriers to establishing video games as standardized tests are getting lower each year. Only 7% of 3 to 18 year olds in the United States lacked access to a computer in 2021; many are familiar with online learning and testing from the pandemic; teachers are increasingly using technology and AI in classrooms to enhance lessons. We are ready and open, but one of the major testing organizations (or a similar entity) needs to take a leap and continue what the GlassLab tried to do.

Ushering in a new paradigm for standardized testing will ease college admissions and alleviate some of the suffering that tests currently cause young people. As a young person myself, I have always thought standardized tests taught me discipline. But they only let us be smart in one way when, in reality, we are smart in multiple ways. It is time we had a tool that could capture that—and a society that could appreciate that more.

Aman Majmudar is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and a veteran of the Singapore Army.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.