“Right Brain, Wrong Bias,” Mike Norris (2012) — Inquiry 3

“There is an inevitable rise in bureaucracy, with paper replacing people, and experience increasingly virtualized. In going all out for what we believe will be our own happiness, we exploit the world and see ourselves as alien to it, rather than seeing that our happiness depends on being part of it, and therefore on helping it to thrive. This is the world of the left hemisphere, ever keen on control” (Eger 1).  These are the words of renowned neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist in a commentary for The Wall Street Journal. In studies of lateralization of brain function, scientists have determined that people think in a right-brained creative manner, a left-brained analytical manner, or a combination of the two. Those individuals who think in a predominantly right-brained manner are the minority group. Although Miami University relies significantly on standardized tests for admissions purposes, the ACT and SAT tests show bias against right-brained thinkers through their educational impacts, crippling constraints, and future impacts; therefore, they should be made optional in college admissions.

Within today’s society, the educational regulations have caused standardized testing to evolve from routine examination of a student’s progress to the center of the curriculum. In the majority of high schools in America, administration is pressuring teachers to teaching to the tests. The classroom is becoming less about learning and more about test prep, which includes the following: practicing test taking strategies, taking timed practice tests, and asking hypothetical test questions. “In fact, 85% of teachers report that their school gives less attention to subjects that are not on the state test, and 79% acknowledge that they spend time instructing students in test-taking skills,” (Sadker 2).

With test taking as the main focus of schooling, teaching has been transformed into “scripted programs” where teacher conduct controlled down to the exact material, timing, and wording of the instruction (Sadker 6). Under this system all class material is stripped of all creativity. In a recent report, 85% of teachers express that their school gives less attention to subjects such as art, music, social studies, and foreign language that are not on the state test,” (Sadker 2). Those of us whose lateralization of brain function are dominated by the right hemisphere thrive on creative and engaging programs. Despite my position, I believe it is important to learn the subject matter that is tested, such as basic math, reading and English. However, by not giving attention to subject areas outside of those that are tested, it does not expose students to subject areas that they could potentially choose as a college major and future career.  In order to succeed, this minority of right-brained students requires the learning of course material to be supplemented by the culture, the arts, and other creative methods of learning. With the increase of classes being taught to the test, this supplementation is the first to go.

For example, teacher education at Miami University ranks among the top 10 programs for the number of majors (Spanish 1); and foreign language education constitutes a large portion of those students. Through cause and effect, with colleges centering admissions criteria on standardized testing, high schools are focusing more on the subjects covered in the tests and focusing less on other subjects such as foreign language. With less emphasis on foreign languages in high schools, we are snubbing the college preparedness of many people who will study foreign language education at Miami in the future. However, this does not just affect foreign language majors, it affects students studying all majors whose subject areas are not covered on the tests.

Moreover, the overarching focus on standardized testing in the admissions at Miami University also penalizes those students whose abilities do not lend them to doing well on standardized testing. Miami bases its merit-based scholarships on two criteria: high school grade point average, and ACT/SAT scores. With mounting evidence of the bias that standardized testing creates, most of the predominantly right-brained individuals, many of whom have impressively high GPAs, go without merit-based financial help. This is unfortunate because many these people have statistically lower starting salaries, to help pay back college costs, than those majors traditionally held by students who are predominately left-brained. Also, many of these students will prove essential to society with the increasing importance of innovation design in the professional world. “Most analysts studying the new global economy agree that the growing “creative and innovative” economy represents America’s salvation; indeed one could say, the whole human race,” (Eger 1). Using standardized testing for basis for college admissions is both dangerous for our educational system and our future economy.

Furthermore, the actual framework of the tests is geared toward a left-brained way of thinking. More specifically, the multiple-choice portions of the ACT and SAT tests prove to be more of a challenge for right-brained students than those students that think in a predominantly left-brained manner. This is because the right hemisphere of the brain thinks in connections rather than linear modes of thinking (Williams 5). When a student answers a multiple-choice question, he is unable to produce a response. All he is able to do is recognize one by selecting it from a set of four or five answers provided by someone else. He cannot even explain his reasoning for his selection of that answer (Gallagher 8). This is especially distracting and discouraging to a right-brained student because when one sees in connections and patterns rather than linear modes of thinking, a student could be second guessing themselves about previous questions, while simultaneously contriving connections between the questions on the test. Both of these, along with trying to answer the question he is currently looking at, makes for a brain overload. Also, these extra thought processes exhausts the small amount of allotted time the students have.

Although some sort of calculating, remembering, or thinking is required to figure out which answer is “most appropriate,” other sorts of mental operations, such as organizing information or constructing and argument, are ignored by the format (Gallagher 8). As right brain hemisphere processing includes integrating component parts and organizing them into a whole (Williams 26), organizing information and constructing an argument are integral methods of thinking for right-brained students. Some also believe that the mere format of the timed multiple-choice questions test teaches students to infer “’that a right or wrong answer is available for all questions and problems’ in life and that ‘someone else already knows the answer to [all these questions], so original interpretations are not expected; the task is to find or guess the right answer, rather than to engage in interpretive activity.’” Also, students may infer that “Because the tests are timed, students may be encouraged to see intelligence as a function of how quickly people can do things” (Gallagher 12).

Along with time and question format restraints, the fact that the tests are composed of “contrived exercises that measure how much students have to cram into short-term memory” (Gallagher 5), they tend to be geared towards left-brain thinkers. A right-brain person recognizes patterns rather than numbers (Williams 5), which make the memorization and application of the formulas and equations that are required for tests a challenging feat. That is not to say however, that right-brained thinkers are incapable of memorization or “bad” at math. Many right-brained thinkers excel in math by memorizing the patterns and steps one must take in order to complete a specific operation. This proves difficult on standardized tests because some questions are unfamiliar, unclear, and written in a format that requires one to first decipher what operations the question is asking him to make.

Additionally, the extensive future impacts of the single test also contribute to its bias. Miami University prides itself on its liberal approach to education. Miami’s program claims to “[complement] specialized studies in your major … [and] to help students understand and creatively transform human culture and society” (Liberal 1). A disparity exists between this mission statement and the university’s policies for determining merit-based scholarship and college entrance. It is hypocritical to have such a mission statement, while also heavily relying on biased test that condemns a person for thinking creatively. These standardized tests do not take into consideration the creative talents and abilities that might lend a student to excel toward a specific major. By using them to determine the stated policies, Miami contradicts their goal to complement a student’s studies in a major. Renowned educator Bill Ayer lists the many desirable attributes standardized tests cannot test for:

Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.  (Sadker 11)

While using a student’s high school grade point average shows the result of an accumulation of a student’s work over a span of four years, the ACT or SAT have serious limitations— like test anxiety. Considering the major implications of one’s test score, such as college admittance and scholarships, the onset of test anxiety happens relatively frequently. Researchers estimate that between 25% and 40% of all students experience test anxiety (Salend 2). Test anxiety can affect performance, while also exhausting precious time. Test results affect what college one is able to get into and the amount of scholarship money one receives for scholarship. These conditions affect what graduate school or programs one is admitted into, and ultimately the quality of job one obtains. Also, standardized tests are not always reliable either, a senior discovered an alternative answer to a math question while taking a Massachusetts high school graduation exam, and 449 of the students’ scores pushed them over the passing mark (Sadker 3). Certainly, such mistakes have been committed on ACT and SAT test questions.

Despite contrary belief, there are many feasible alternatives to standardized tests for universities to use to decide college admittance and merit based scholarships. Some good alternatives include extensive essays, extracurricular activities, portfolios, personal interviews, group interviews, letters of recommendation, and high school grade point averages. Although some skeptics believe that there are just too many college applicants to do away with standardized testing, but many schools have already recognized the bias and have made test scores optional or done away with them completely. For example, no such exams exist in Canada (Sadker 4). Also, Wake Forest University, a top 30 national university, made entrance examinations optional for students’ admittance. If the student believes that his score is not an adequate reflection of his academic abilities, they can choose to not show their score. The college considers “high school curriculum and classroom performance combined with the student’s writing ability, extracurricular activities and evidence of character and talent will remain the most important criteria for admission” (Wake 1). The positive implications of this policy should act as a positive example for other universities. By making test scores optional, Wake Forest University caters to the abilities to both right-brained and left-brained individuals. “While many top-tier universities are increasing their reliance on standardized testing in the admissions process, recent research suggests that standardized tests are not valuable predictors of college success,” stated Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler, the university’s chief academic officer. When considering admissions, her office strongly encourages personal interviews (Wake 1). Wake Forest stands as a good example of the possibilities of having a country with less-reliance on standardized testing.

In conclusion, the educational impacts, constraints on students, and future impacts in their lives after high school make standardized testing as it exists today biased against the right-brained thinker. Although the predominately right-brained are a minority in this country, they serve as integral members of society:

“Dr. Jordan Shlain, son of the well know brain surgeon and author Dr. Leonard Shlain, put it this way: ‘ In his first book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, (my father) posited that the right brain describes the world through the medium of art while the left brain describes the same world using science as its medium. Furthermore, the right brain is evolving slightly ahead of the left brain, such that major shifts in artistic movements precede corresponding discoveries in physics’”. (Eger 1)

As the quote states, the right brain describes the world using art and design. Our society faces many different problems everyday, such as global warming, fuel crisis, and water shortage, just to name a few. In order to start solving these problems humans are going to need to reach beyond what we know in science. We will need to start tapping into the right hemisphere of the brain to develop creative and innovative solutions, which then can be backed by science. The only way these changes can be made is if education starts encouraging creativity rather than denying it with standardized testing dependence in college admissions processes.

Works Cited

Eger, John M. “Right Brained People in a Left Brained World.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 Feb. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-m-eger/right-brained-people-in-a_1_b_822591.html>.

Gallagher, Tom. “The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising The Scores, Ruining the Schools (Book Review).” Progressive 65.8 (2001): 44. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2012

“Liberal Education at Miami.” Liberal Education. Web. 01 Apr. 2012. <http://www.miami.muohio.edu/liberal-ed/>.

Sadker, David, and Karen Zittleman. Test Anxiety: Are Students Failing Tests— Or Are Tests Failing Students?.” Phi Delta Kappan 85. 10 (2004): 740-744. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

Salend, Spencer J. “Addressing Test Anxiety.” Teaching Exceptional Children 44.2 (2011): 56-68. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 March 2012.

“Spanish Education.” Miami University. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.miami.muohio.edu/academics/majors-minors/majors/spanish-education.html>.

“Wake Forest Makes Standardized Tests Optional in Admissions.” Wake Forest University. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.wfu.edu/news/release/2008.05.27.s.php>.

Williams, Linda V. Teaching for the Two-sided Mind: A Guide to Right Brain, Left Brain Education. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Print.