Science Leader Criticizes Tests

University Testing

Standardized multiple-choice tests are taking an immense toll on the U.S. science education system, teaching students to be good test-takers but not good thinkers, according to the president of the National Academy of Sciences. Addressing the academy's annual meeting this May, Bruce Alberts linked low U.S. performance on the TIMMS science and math exams to the College Board's SAT II: Biology test and other tests which focus strongly on "excruciatingly boring material" (see Examiner, Fall 1995).


Alberts has long opposed reliance on these tests, arguing that they emphasize memorization over conceptual knowledge, do a poor job of judging students' abilities, and drive away potential future scientists.


When Alberts was teaching biochemistry to medical students at the University of California at San Francisco more than a decade ago, he discovered that his students were learning far too little and that the culprit was multiple-choice tests. He and a colleague turned to essay questions and were able to boost students' interest in and understanding of biochemistry. Now, Alberts is using his prestigious position to pressure universities to place less reliance on standardized tests.


In 1995, Alberts described his frustration when trying to explain to ETS that its SAT II: Biology test was "destructive of the curriculum." Now, he has helped convince ETS to include fewer questions overall but more questions that ask students to interpret data on that test.


ETS statisticians had resisted such "dramatic" changes, arguing that they would no longer be able to say that a 600 score meant the same thing year after year. But why care if a 600 score always means the same thing if it does not measure anything important, Alberts asked.


Other prominent scientists have also expressed concerns about the harmful impact of reliance on multiple-choice university admissions science tests. Harvard University physicist Howard Georgi has characterized the GRE physics subject test as doing more harm than good, in part by helping to exclude students who might prove to be better scientists than those who ace the tests. Professor Georgi noted that many women who are good physicists did surprisingly poorly on the physics GRE.