The limits of standardised tests

Globally, applicants to MBA programmes take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Those applying to other sorts of graduate school often take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). If you want to enter a US college you usually need to take the SAT (originally called Scholastic Aptitude Test). These standardised tests are all American in origin. You may be aware that, except for the relatively few, leading universities, the US education system is not widely seen to be in good shape.

The second best school system in the world, at least up to secondary level, is that of Finland, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) run by the OECD. The USA comes 14th and the UK 20th but the differences among most of the richer countries are very small – the US scores 500, Germany 497, the UK 494. Finland scores 536 and South Korea comes top with 539. Finland also has very low variation among schools, whereas the US has enormous differences (as does the UK).

An article in the New York Review of Books argues that what makes Finland succeed is an emphasis on excellent teacher training and competitive selection, combined with a strong government policy focus on reducing poverty. There is no standardised testing in Finland and in particular it is not how schools are assessed. But in the US, the emphasis on such tests is increasing, with support from the Gates Foundation and President Obama. Test scores are increasingly used to grade teachers and to permit more of a competitive “market” in schools, bringing private business into the classroom.

Competition may help, particularly in raising expectations in the lower performing schools, but the evidence that further use of standardised tests will drive up standards is scant. It is not necessarily valid to try to import what works in Finland to very different countries like the US or UK. But Finland’s experience reinforces my sceptical view of standardised tests. Wikipedia references a study of the SAT by MIT which showed that the length of an essay was a fairly reliable guide to what grade it would get. I’m sure that the GMAT is a lot more sophisticated than that. But we intend to stick with using previous academic grades as our main entry criterion for the MFin.

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