06/07/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Why Standardized Tests Are Fine With Me

The room was hot, the proctors were mean, and the questions were hard. On a humid Saturday morning at the tender age of 10, I was an anxious young girl in Jamaica, preparing to spend five consecutive hours in a windowless auditorium alongside hundreds of children seated neatly in rows of wooden desks, taking the Common Entrance Examination -- the high-stakes test that would decide my educational fate, profoundly affect my readiness for a university education, and ultimately seal my chances for attaining a middle-class life. Having done hours of homework each night for the preceding three years, and fresh from months of test-prep classes that had dashed my dreams of weekend sojourns to the beach, I was as ready as I would ever be.

Of approximately 45,000 students who took the examination that year, less than 10,000 would earn a spot at one of the island's college-preparatory high schools. The test results were published in the national newspaper for all on the island to see, listing only the names of students who passed the test. Thankfully, my name was listed among the chosen few, and thankfully, the test that once hung over my family like a cloud, was also the driving force that gave my parents the sense of urgency and focus that led to my academic success.

I have spent the better part of a decade baffled by the anti-testing whining that I hear from some parents and teachers in our country. The whining comes from teachers unwilling to be held accountable for their work; teachers who try to sell us the notion of certain students being defective products incapable of academic success, or teachers who tell silly anecdotes about erstwhile brilliant children failing a high-stakes test because they were distraught about breaking up with their boyfriend, or losing their beloved puppy the night before. Apparently, we're supposed to believe that such scenarios are commonplace enough to skew testing results and mask the reality of how much our children have actually learned. Parents whine about the ills of testing too, trying to convince me that assessing a child's academic achievement is somehow robbing him or her of a happy childhood. This leaves me confused, since I thought that one of the main purposes of parenting is to prepare a child for adulthood.

Given what we know about the structure of our society, the demands of the knowledge economy, and the need to pass tests in order to advance in many of the nation's best careers, how can we even entertain the idea that testing should be drastically scaled back, or worse yet, cease? Are we advocating for the wholesale abandonment of the SATs -- the test that most selective colleges in America still require? Do we want to get rid of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) that physicians must take? Are we suggesting that state bar examinations should be eliminated as one of the gatekeepers to the legal profession? Few voices are asking for the elimination of tests at the post-secondary level, yet this sentiment abounds in the K-12 arena.

It is irresponsible and hypocritical for adults to minimize the importance of testing when we know that testing success is a requirement to enter the country's most prestigious colleges and lucrative professions. In the same way that a driving test provides crucial information about driver preparedness and offers a level of protection from bedlam and carnage on our streets, the results of standardized tests gives parents, teachers, school systems, and our nation, a barometer to measure the extent to which our children have been effectively taught, so that steps can be taken to stem the tide of social decline that will surely result from an uneducated populace. I, for one, would hate to unleash my kids into the world without some inkling of how well they have been academically prepared by the schools I chose for them to attend.

There is clear evidence that if schools engage in the important, difficult work of aligning their curriculum to their state's academic standards, training teachers to effectively deliver this curriculum, empowering principals to properly support their teachers, and providing customized supports for students who struggle the most, academic success is inevitable. These levers should be our focus then, not the abolition of testing.