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The standardized testing debate explored in Michael Arlen Davis’ new doc

The standardized testing debate has been argued for decades. Now, finally, with The Test and the Art of Thinking, we have a deep and honest exploration into whether standardized test are fair, accurate, and really, whether they even work.

Michael Arlen Davis has a message for high school students dreading the SAT, and other standardized tests used for college entrance in the U.S.

“You are not alone,” he says.

“If you think this test is strange, you are not alone. You are more right, maybe, than you know. And this test represents a very narrow set of skills, and they’re not life skills. It’s not determinative of what your life is going to be. I can almost guarantee you that you can’t imagine what your life is going to be right now. And it’s not determined by your skill set in taking this test.”

The SAT, the ACT, and standardized exams like these two, have been a part of the high school education system for over half a century. Yet these tests have come under scrutiny for their disconnect from the knowledge learned in class and the skills required in college.

The Test and the Art of Thinking

As Davis’s film, The Test and the Art of Thinking, explores, there are aspects of the tests which emphasize specific patterns of thought and approaches to questions. Priority is placed on these patterns, rather than general reasoning.

Tests like the SAT attempt to measure intelligence and predict a student’s future success in college, but the fact is that we cannot reliably predict future success with a simple test, nor evaluate something as complex as human intelligence.

Inevitably, the tests must measure something else – and that something else becomes worth measuring for its own sake.

What does the test, test?

What does the test really measure? Well, it measures test-taking.

Michael Arlen Davis did not set out to make an argument against the SAT and ACT tests with this film, but rather to shine a light on what goes on. He wanted to reveal aspects of the test that many people don’t know about or pay little attention to. He wanted to explore the standardized testing debate from every angle.

As Davis told Kulture Hub, “I don’t believe that the film in and of itself has an angle… I think that the point of the film is to reveal.”

And reveal it does. From the insight tutors give into how test prep works, to comments from those involved in creating the tests, the film shows that things aren’t as simple as they seem when it comes to entrance exams. Whether the documentary’s revelations will lead to a particular outlook on the tests is for the viewer to decide.

Michael Arlen Davis

Michael Arlen Davis became curious about the nature of the SAT/ACT tests when his children were going through high school. After his older daughter took the ACT, Davis started to wonder what it was that seemed off about the exams.

In trying to prepare his other children for the test himself (instead of looking for tutors or classes), Davis started taking practice ACTS himself. What he found was that the test did not connect to a process of learning. He found himself coming away from these practice tests thinking, “this is not education.”

As the film explores, this is a common feeling for high school students – the feeling that what it takes to succeed on standardized tests is disconnected from what it takes to really learn, or to succeed in class.

The testing-industrial complex

Despite this, when Davis started doing his research for the film, there was a surprising lack of independent research on testing. Most studies on the standardized tests came from either the College Board or the ACT, indicating a conflict of interest.

The problem, Davis suggests, is that “commercial interests have, in effect, taken over the tests.”

Kory McBride helps students with the college admissions process (Courtesy of Canobie Films Abramorama)

What the film shows about test tutoring backs this up. Tutors tell their students to always speed up, because the test requires speed. Of course, that works for some students, but many students will struggle under time pressure even if they do well in other situations.

From David’s observations, a large percentage, over half of students, come out of the test disappointed. That this appears true on such a large scale suggests some design flaw in a test that’s supposed to indicate someone’s “quality” as a student.

The art of thinking vs. the art of knowing

As the film explores, standardized testing in the U.S. is under a great deal of scrutiny right now. The standardized testing debate is robust, and not coming to an end soon. And when thinking about the future of testing, Davis is not optimistic.

“What I’m guessing is bubbling up? It’s not attractive to me.” While there is a growing test-optional movement, and schools including the most elite colleges in the country are joining in on test-optional admissions, there are concerns that this may not address the problems of standardized testing at all. Plus, what replaces the current tests may be even more concerning.

Michael Arlen Davis told Kulture Hub: “We follow the literature… and we’re seeing some assessment tools that are even less attractive. They appear to be on the surface benign, but they’re talking about doing assessments in 10 minutes of people’s ability.”

How do we fix the test?

There’s still the linking of intelligence to a sort of quick cleverness, mapping strategy, and seeing patterns – skills which are certainly part of human intelligence, but don’t represent “the art of thinking” as a whole.

So, then, what is the solution? As a film intended to reveal, The Test and the Art of Thinking has more to say about the nature of the problems than how to solve them. But, the way Davis has framed it, that’s the point – to spark a conversation that can eventually lead to solutions.

It’s clear – to the testing agencies as much as to high school students – that standardized tests don’t do what they claim to do, which is test a student’s intelligence and potential to succeed.

But with the scale of testing that happens in the U.S., it may seem tempting for boards of education to turn to other companies which will promise to test faster and better – maybe even with A.I. predictions to boot.

That’s the importance of this conversation – it will impact the lives of 80% of high school students.

The Test and the Art of Thinking is available on several major streaming platforms.