November 20, 2014

PARANDEKAR | Standardized Testing Redefined?

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This past Monday, members of my class began taking the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. This test is run by the National Boards of Veterinary Medical Examiners so is also often called “boards.” We’re eligible to take it in our fourth year during which there are two testing periods — the first one is now and lasts around a month and the second one is for two weeks in April.

At its heart, the NAVLE is a standardized test. We pay money to take it, go to a Prometric testing center just like we did for the GREs, sit in front of a computer for roughly seven and a half hours, and then receive scores around a month after the end of the testing window. I think that by this point in our careers, most of us have become pretty good at the art of standardized testing. I learned pretty early (probably taking AP tests in high school) that a lot of the time doing well on standardized tests is unfortunately more about learning the test than learning the material. For example, I don’t think the math portion of the GRE tests your mathematical acuity as much as your ability to figure out the quickest shortcut you can use to solve a math problem, and once you’ve learned the kinds of problems the GRE asks then you know which shortcuts to use.

The NAVLE, however, is different. It tests our ability to interpret information, the methodology which we use to think about problems and our general knowledge on essentially every animal species. There’s a little bit of the “learning the test” component to it too — certain buzzwords that we learn to recognize and certain scenarios that become familiar to us, but the vast majority of the exam seems to legitimately test the things we have spent the past four years learning.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. The first is about studying. It was difficult for me to figure out how to study for a test that covers so much more material than any other standardized test I have ever taken. There are a couple of companies out there who produce review materials (with a hefty subscription fee, of course) that upperclassmen recommended, which is the way many of us have chosen to study, with additional supplementation from our own notes for clarification. It scares me a little to put so much faith into a for-profit organization, but it does seem like the best option. Also, scheduling studying while on clinics can be tricky — it’s recommended (by the testing companies…) that we start studying three months in advance but when you’re on rotations that run 14-hour days then coming home and studying at the end of the day often isn’t the most fruitful. In the end, though, it’s all part of the process I suppose — learning how to juggle life and school and studying and applying for internships/jobs all at the same time is part of the ritual involved in becoming a veterinarian.

My other thought is on the functionality of the NAVLE itself. I think that the premise of it is lovely — that we should know everything about everything so that we can be veterinarians who can treat any species. And it does make me feel good to realize how much I’ve learned. That being said, however, the knowledge in the field is increasing so much that the test may be becoming outdated. We develop individual species or specialty specific interests throughout vet school and generally we tend to know a lot more about certain areas than others. It’s why we have to study for boards at all — even if we feel like we have learned things during school and are competent, there are many topics that we need to reinforce before being tested on just because it hasn’t been possible for us to continue to expose ourselves to all of them. Also, even the increased degree of knowledge that we have about our areas of interest can end up being a hindrance on boards because the degree of detail we know makes it so that we can very easily over-interpret the questions.

So, if the NAVLE was to be tailored to producing exceptionally competent veterinarians, then the test would have to be split into sections that allowed students to focus on the nuances of their interests. It’s a hard dilemma to deal with because one of the awesome things about veterinary medicine is that you can be a horse vet and then find a great job in a mixed animal practice and then discover that you really enjoy working with cats and want to be a cat vet. For now, it’s probably fine that the NAVLE is structured in such a way that it tests out general knowledge on a broad variety of things, because we can continue to pursue our individual interests outside of the test. I wonder what will happen though if students continue to pigeonhole themselves into certain areas (I definitely see it happening now) — will we begin to second guess ourselves so much about our areas of interest that we would get those questions wrong, and then also not have a good enough knowledge base about areas that we weren’t interested in that we would fail the test more frequently? It’s food for thought if nothing else. Now I should probably stop procrastinating and get back to studying.