The difference between standardized test writing and real academic writing

Most students are planning to take an IELTS, TOEFL, SAT, ACT, GMAT, or GRE type exam and you have been told that this is the “important” thing.  You believe that if you have a certain score that you will have enough English ability and academic writing skills to pass your degree.  This is a LIE.  These tests are “proficiency” tests and are standardized.  That means that they use quantitative measures, in other words NUMBERS BASED ON AVERAGES to determine your English or other discrete abilities on certain tasks.  In order for them to get these numbers, they have to create “generic” tasks, so everyone answers the same questions. 

It is common knowledge amongst higher education professionals that IELTS, GRE, and SAT won’t help you pass your degree, publish papers, or do anything valuable. The Academic style of “reading into writing” is much more realistic and valuable to students. It will help you write professionally, use sources, write effective arguments and sophisticated reports, and publish papers. 

But to understand why standardized test writing is “inferior” and academic writing “superior”, you will need to know a little bit about statistics. 

This is good general knowledge that you need anyway, so let’s review two concepts “validity” and “reliability” and see how they connect to standardized tests: 

  • Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion or measurement is well-founded and likely corresponds accurately to the real world. … The validity of a measurement tool (for example, a test in education) is the degree to which the tool measures what it claims to measure
  • Reliability is the extent to which the measurements of a test remain consistent over repeated tests of the same subject under identical conditions. An experiment is reliable if it yields consistent results of the same measure. It is unreliable if repeated measurements give different results. It can also be interpreted as the lack of random error in measurement.

One example of the difference between reliability and validity of experiments is a common bathroom scale. If a person weighs 200 lbs. and steps on the scale 10 times, and it reads “200” each time, then the measurement is reliable and valid. If the scale consistently reads “150”, then it is not valid, but it is still reliable because the measurement is consistent over multiple attempts. If the scale varied considerably around 200 (188, 207, 191, 211, etc.), then it would be considered ‘valid’ but not ‘reliable.’

In Academic English, the TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE exams are all “reliable” but none of them are really “valid”. 

Let me explain with a story.  I had a student who wanted to go for an LL.M law degree. He had to pass a PTE exam.  He thought “If I take the test 15 times my score will improve.”  So he took the test 15 times within one week!  Here are his results: 47, 48, 51, 52, 50, 49, 48, 48, 53, 50, 51, 50, 49, 53, 52

After he took the tests he said “I want to quit! I am not improving. I will never succeed”  but the student mistakenly thought that he could improve his score merely by taking the test. 

If he was right, then the test would be useless.  Good thing for PTE he was wrong!  His scores show that the PTE is a “reliable” measurement of his skills, because he answered different questions each time but came up with a very similar score.  If he did some studying of English and then took the test one month later, his score would probably be higher.  But since he only took the test without learning more English, the answers are “consistent over time.”  

Or reliable.  

So these tests are reliable measures of your English and other proficiency in general. But none of the questions on the PTE, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, SAT, ACT, or GMAT will ever be seen on an actual degree program. 

Why, you may ask?  Why would they test us on questions that we will never see in our degree, if the whole purpose of the test is to see how good our English or general ability is for the university?!  

Because the word “standardized” means to make ‘standard’ for a broad population.  These tests are made for every degree, and therefore they cannot be specific to any degree.  They can be specific to certain skills like “reading comprehension of an academic level text” but the problem is that they 1) only provide general texts or content, so this is far away from reality of university where the content is in a specific genre 2) the content is “timed” so needs to be only an “extract” or short text whereas in university you are required to read whole chapters and dense articles, and 3) they test you in one short sitting whereas in university you are expected to take notes, organize your thoughts, and weeks or months later use the material to write up an essay, report, or create a presentation. If “validity” means that the test item “corresponds to the real world” then these standardized tests fail miserably. 

Summary: Don’t be fooled into thinking that an IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, SAT or ACT test will “prove” your ability to study at university.  In fact, it is the opposite – you might feel overconfident because of your good score and miss key details or fail to learn key academic skills necessary for you to complete university-level work.  

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