Saturday, September 06, 2008

Testing Glitches

This Business Week article on the leaking of GMAT questions (a part of a series I have been following for some time) is reflective of the kind of bathwaterism that bedevils any large enterprise public or private. Instead of trying to go after the root cause of the problem, the solution is the punish the effect and everyone who was tainted by it. This is akin to covering chicken-pox with concealer instead of preventing it by inoculation.

The users of the service as several of the commentators point out did not necessarily know that it was illegal and to that extent going after them retro-actively does not really help plug the hole through which the questions are leaking. Would it not make sense to use much more sophisticated technology to select the questions for the test and also deliver a customized and adaptive version to each test taker based on the sum total of all their academic and non-academic credentials. Needless to say, the use of a wide pool of geographically and culturally varied resources to prepare the questions is equally if not more critical.

As long as the rules of engagement are transparent and the system has been independently vetted and verified for accuracy everyone should be comfortable and more importantly advance knowledge or preparation would not confer any significant advantage. In the end, a test for the best institutions of learning should be all about putting learned concepts to the most intelligent and innovative use without having "prepared" in advance. The focus of such testing needs to shift from measuring skill to measuring innate talent.

While any amount of help understanding concepts and theoretical underpinnings of the subjects being tested is perfectly legitimate, the test itself should be designed in such a way that it just cannot be a learned or taught skill. Just doing that will put all coaching, hot-housing and tutoring facilities out of business. The standardized test even with questions randomly culled from a massive database is a set up for failure, a disaster waiting to happen.

This is exactly how India has failed to maintain the strength and consistency of its IIT and IIM brands, and would be where the American system would fail as well once the ratio of the available slots to the number of aspirants to them falls low enough.

Returning to the Business Week story itself, as much as the actions and decisions of GMAC reek of bureaucratic short-sightedness, it may prove to be a strong deterrent against seeking any form of "help" in preparing for the GMAT - at least until someone comes up with a more creative way to game the system. I can't imagine this will be the last time something like Scoretop will make headlines. As long as testing status quo prevails, elite education will produce no more than "excellent sheep" as William Deresiewicz writes.

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