The Standardizing Standard

You are at a desk, sweating. Your pencil is not as sharp as it should be, but you have no way to fix that now. You need to sneeze, scratch something, but any movement could make you look suspicious. The thousand dollars your parents spent—or you wish they would have spent—to prepare you for this moment weighs on your conscience. Why is the time frame so short? Why is the font so small? Why can’t you remember the meaning of “lachrymose”? Why does the kid half your age sitting next to you not seem to be having any of these problems?

The SAT is not an experience any of us want to return to. Yet, for many people working in finance, it is only the first such test of many: Series 7 to allow you to buy and sell securities, the Series 63 to do it in a specific state, the GMAT to get into business school, and so on. Every year, approximately three million people take the SAT and 250,000 take the GMAT. So however much standardized testing makes you sweat, you are not alone.

The fact seems to be that Americans—or at least American institutions—love standardized testing. And in theory, it is a fitting match. America is the land of democracy, and standardized tests are supposed to allow an individual’s merits to shine through no matter his/her socioeconomic situation. Indeed, according to College Board, the SAT was created to “democratize access to college for all students.”

The SAT is really how the standardized testing fervor began. It started out as an IQ test issued to the U.S. army during World War I, then was adapted by Carl Brigham in 1926 to be a college intelligence test. The test gained prestige in the 1930s when Harvard used it to evaluate scholarship candidates not from the usual Eastern feeder schools. In 1948, its current administrator, the English Testing Service was formed, and the SAT leapt toward college admissions fame.

In its younger days, the SAT wasn’t something that students fretted over as they do now. “When I was growing up in Louisiana, I was very vaguely aware of test prep, and nobody I knew took test prep,” Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, told PBS Frontline. However, as colleges became more competitive and more students began to apply, the SAT played an ever-weightier role—and soon-to-graduate high schoolers took notice. Lemann continues, “In the world I’m in now on the East Coast, test prep is one of the Stations of the Cross for the upper-middle class of America.”

The complaint is, of course, that not everyone can afford test prep for the SAT, and since those who can do so are more likely to do better on the test, it begins to look more like a tool of aristocracy than meritocracy. Additionally, test prep usually involves as much practice test taking as it does instruction on the material. And though these types of practice tests can be found all over the internet for free, this “practice makes perfect” paradigm makes it difficult to know whether a test-taker has actual knowledge or has just practiced test-taking skills.

Such arguments become mitigated where higher level tests are concerned. Those taking the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s tests (like the Series 7) already have a banking salary, so they should be able (or at least willing) to spring for the prep they need. But more importantly, higher-level tests simply require higher-level thinking. While the SATs, and to some extent the GREs, test basic knowledge like vocabulary and math, professional tests require specific skills and knowledge sets not easily learned from a prep book—such as how to advise on a stock given certain circumstances. Experience is required.

Though standardized testing may not be a perfect tool of meritocracy, there is a reason all of these tests remain in place—and more continue to be created. With increasingly more school and job applicants coming from increasingly more diverse places, it remains the most efficient tool for evaluating who has the right knowledge set and who does not.