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Why the SAT needs to stay

Or, Debunking the arguments of the standardized testing haters.

When COVID-19 essentially derailed the 2020 school year, one of the casualties was SAT and ACT testing. Both tests were forced to cancel several exams, leaving students scrambling. Many colleges and universities reacted by making temporary changes to their admissions process: “test optional” became a buzzword across higher education.

As the country moves forward and schools return to some semblance of normalcy, many of those colleges and universities are keeping their admissions “test optional.” Critics of the SAT and ACT–and there are many, including a group that recently asked U.S. News to drop test scores from their college ranking profiles–have pounced on this opportunity, calling for the dismissal of the tests for college admissions completely. They argue that the SAT favors wealthy white students over disadvantaged groups. They say that success on the SAT has no correlation to a student’s eventual success in college. In our age of social media echo chambers and cursory interest in facts and reasoning, these arguments would seem to ring true. However, there are a number of flaws with the arguments against the SAT and ACT.

Does the SAT work against disadvantaged students?

One of the longest and most tired arguments against the SAT is that the test is racially biased and that using the test as a college admission tool favors white students.

When you see arguments attempting to prove that the test itself is somehow racially biased, the detractors often use specific question examples from SAT tests from decades past. College Board, for all their actual faults, have worked diligently to remove any potential biases from the test questions. The Great Global Conversation reading passage, for example, highlights a meaningful speech or other primary document from history, and most of the examples offered involve civil rights or gender equality. The analogy questions (car is to road as train is to rails, for example), long the target of critics, are long gone, taken away in the 2015-2016 redesign. The math questions specifically target mathematical principles, with word problems carefully constructed as to be as neutral as possible. While there may have been a valid argument at one time about the biases of the tests, those have been made moot by College Board’s efforts to combat them.

And while test itself is often the target of critics, its use by college and universities is often decried as racially biased. The argument states that, because wealthy students have the wherewithal to purchase expensive exam prep, those wealthy, primarily white students see a disproportionate number of high scores. This has been the mantra for SAT critics for many years now, and it’s been echoed by think tanks, politicians, and college admissions boards without much vetting as to the validity of the argument. In fact, there are several problems with this premise.

First, there is more free assistance to improve on the SAT or ACT than there ever has been. College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy has helped countless students prepare for and improve on the SAT. The ACT has also introduced free online help for those taking that test, and they’ve also partnered with Kaplan to help students find other potential resources. Determination and the desire to improve are not racially dependent qualities, and these free resources help to level the playing field for prep.

Next, critics don’t offer any sort of alternative to the SAT, other than for colleges to rely more on a student’s grade point average and personal essays. Unfortunately, GPAs can be subjective. If one student attends an academically rigorous high school and achieves a 3.8, while another student goes to a less intense program and earns a 4.0, should the 4.0 student be given preference? Even when it comes to Advanced Placement exams or other higher level classes, not all of them are taught the same. One teacher may run their class like a college program, requiring students to do college-level work. Another may run their AP course the way they’d run a normal class in that subject, making it less about the discipline and more about a mark on a report card. Across the country, states don’t have any sort of standardization of method or educational requirements. This means that, out of the thousands of applicants who report 4.0 GPAs to their colleges of choice, the students’ actual abilities and development are very likely vastly different.

So use the personal essay and the extracurriculars to evaluate a student, say the naysayers. Sadly, thousands of wealthy students–the same ones who would potentially have the resources to get expensive exam prep–pay essay coaches to either help them write or, more nefariously, to actually write their application essays. Because there are no established security measures to ensure that a student’s work is their own, relying on the personal essay can (and very likely would) favor advantaged students to a much larger degree than standardized tests do. In fact, in a Newsweek opinion piece on July 13, Helen Raleigh argues for the validity of standardized tests and how they actually help disadvantaged students by allowing them to compensate for other students’ family connections or intergenerational wealth. She addresses the idea that essays are a better tool for admissions departments by both citing a study that calls that premise into question and by making the claim that personal essays and similar tools favor privileged students to a much larger degree than any standardized test would.

Raleigh, as an immigrant herself, makes a compelling case for how standardized tests actually help disadvantaged students by levelling the playing field considerably. Responding to claims by the head of the American Federation of Teachers that standardized testing, like the SAT, has no educational value and encourages teachers to teach to the test, Raleigh makes a systematic and effective defense. She makes a compelling case for the value of a standardized measuring stick that can allow underrepresented groups to overcome a lack of family wealth or legacy.

Does the SAT give any indication of college success?

The short answer is that it seems to.

Raleigh addresses this in her piece, citing studies from Science and other journals to show how success on the SAT can be an indicator of future success. Why would this be true? One answer to this might be that, because success on the SAT can take hard work and dedication, success on the test might also be a good indicator of a student’s willingness to pursue that success.

Correlating with these findings was a survey conducted by the faculty of the University of California system. While critics railed against the supposed evils of the test, the university faculty urged the system to continue using the SAT, as the test gave one of the best indicators as to whether a student was ready for success in college, especially for underrepresented groups.

In fact, the report insists that test results actually help identify many talented Latino, black and low-income students who otherwise might be rejected because their high school grades alone were not high enough.

Gordon and Burke, EdSource (Feb. 4, 2020)

While there will always be those who naysay the SAT, the facts indicate that it has real value for both students and institutions of higher learning. Rather than eliminating such a valuable tool, more effort should directed at making this tool as useful as possible for as many students as possible.

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ACT Averages Dropped (Again)

2020 continues to be the year of chaos. From COVID-19 to the politicizing of masks to a hotly contested election, upheaval continues to be the norm. It’s no surprise then that the ACT national average has also experienced negativity. For the third year in a row, the national ACT averages dropped. It now stands at 20.6 (out of 36), the lowest national average in 10 years. The ACT’s national average generally hovers around 21, so the downward trend, while concerning, isn’t precipitous. So what does this mean for you and your student?

The more disturbing trend

The larger issue with the declining averages is what that decline truly indicates. The ACT averages have dropped; what does that actually mean? The ACT is, at its core, a college readiness test. The English section tests on the basics of editing, including punctuation, grammar, and structure, all handy skills for term paper and essay writing in high school and college. The math section ensures that a student has gotten the basic skills s/he needs to be successful, and it also tests–as does the rest of the test–a student’s critical thinking skills.

The reading section tests a student’s ability to read through unfamiliar information and quickly process through what’s important. And the science section evaluates a student’s ability to analyze graphical information quickly and find patterns.

Which leads to the bigger problem with the declining ACT scores–they represent a decline in students’ core skills. Students in today’s high schools have more opportunity to specialize and diversify their educations than ever. They can take dual credit courses at local colleges, dig deeper into specific areas of broader fields, and individualize their educational experiences. This is a good thing. But with that diversification has come an erosion of core skills.

GPA vs. ACT score

Many students who are looking to improve their ACT scores are high GPA students. “Why did my son/daughter get a 21? They get straight As!” is a comment I hear often. The answer is pretty simple: the student can have simple conversations in Mandarin or parrot back information from a study guide on the Gilded Age, but they haven’t mastered the core skills–including critical thinking–that success on the test demands.

Critics of the ACT and other standardized tests point blame at the test. It is demographically biased, they say. Or it tests on irrelevant information. These criticisms, however, come from a position of ignorance about the test. It’s not designed to test on everything a student knows. It’s goal is to test a student’s ability to do something with given information.

What do you need to succeed?

Many students’ reaction to the test after taking their first one is, “I didn’t understand the questions.” This is natural, given that students aren’t taught to think through and pay attention to questions in school. NOT and EXCEPT questions are good examples of this. The ACT will often ask ‘Which of the following is NOT…” or “All of the following are acceptable EXCEPT…” Students often struggle with these types of questions because they miss the NOT or EXCEPT–even though the test capitalizes those words!

On the English section of the test, students very often struggle with basic punctuation and grammar skills. This comes directly from the trend of English classes to only grade the content of a student’s work and to ignore the syntax. If you read most students’ essays or papers, you’ll find run-on sentences, fragments, and punctuation errors that tests (and college professors) expect students to know. Even using digital add-ons, like Grammarly, don’t ensure that a paper is correctly constructed. Over my years as an exam prep tutor, I’ve seen students ACT English scores increase 10 points or more once they learn the basics of grammar and punctuation.

How does exam prep fill the gap?

In sum, the fact that ACT averages dropped is troubling. But the concern should be directed less against the test and more about students’ need to build a foundational skill set. This puts the spotlight directly on exam prep and what it does to fill the gap in a student’s educational experience. While our short term goal is for a student to be successful on the ACT, the additional benefits of critical thinking expertise and a solidification of basic skills will stay with that student through college and beyond.

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Educational Benefits of ACT/SAT

In ten years teaching in the classroom and another nine helping students with exam preparation, I feel like I understand both worlds. Criticism of the tests abounds, particularly this year with the additional stress of COVID cancellations and online school. One complaint is that the ACT and SAT don’t test what a student has learned in school. This is at least partially correct, but it ignores a major premise of the exams. They aren’t designed to test what a student knows. But because this is an oft-argued point, I wanted to delve into the educational benefits of the ACT and SAT.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the ACT and SAT is that they’re designed to test knowledge. They are not. Does it help to have knowledge of punctuation and grammar, algebra, and the like? Of course. But the tests generally test on what students can do with their knowledge, not just the knowledge itself.

Why doesn’t 4.0 mean 1600?

In our grade-inflated academic world, many students take their first SAT or ACT thinking that their high GPA will translate into a high score. In a sliver of cases, this is true. But the vast majority of 4.0+ GPA students struggle on these tests. Why? In my experience, the reason is simple. While a straight-A student has learned to play the school game–they’ve turned in their work, used their teacher-provided study guides, participated in class, and, in some cases, taken advantage of second chance tests to improve their scores–they haven’t developed critical thinking skills centered around those concepts. A student may know how to factor a quadratic equation, for example. But s/he may not be comfortable enough with that process to recognize that it’s needed.

A critical thinking example

An example of this appeared on the March 2020 SAT.

In this problem, the student is presented with a fairly complex question, or so it appears. But the crux of the question really comes in the last sentence: put speed in terms of the other quantities. What the questions is actually asking is to use algebra to isolate the v (speed).

Many students who’ve gone through Algebra II have the skills needed to solve this correctly. But many of them are distracted by the details of the question and don’t break down what it actually wants. So, while the SAT is testing on the student’s algebra knowledge, it’s also requiring her/him to understand the question. And, sadly, critical thinking isn’t universally taught in schools, leaving students underprepared to deal with this sort of questioning.

Educational value of the SAT and ACT

And this brings me to why the ACT and SAT are educationally valuable, across the socioeconomic scale. In a recent article on the Fordham Institute website, Travis Koutsoubos-Miles dove into the reasons for the value of the tests to education. In his experience as an English teacher, Koutsoubos-Miles found that the ACT pushed his urban-centered students to improve their overall writing skills.

Both the ACT and SAT test explicitly on grammar and punctuation principles, but most students stop learning those basic skills by the 6th or 7th grade. So for high school students, comma usage, for example, is a forgotten ghost. Preparing to take the ACT or SAT gives students a refresher on those essential rules and how to use them, which can be an invaluable skill for college. The same applies to reading unfamiliar material, inferencing, and other college-necessary skills.

Realigning the focus

What’s the solution? While a few schools are publicly distancing themselves from the ACT and SAT and pushing the idea of “test optional,” Koutsoubos-Miles contends that schools should be even more focused on the tests, using the study of reading, writing, and math on the tests to drive students’ overall understanding and critical thinking skills.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Pragmatically, standardized tests are a convenient tool colleges and universities can use to award scholarships and admit students, but the process of preparation for the ACT and SAT is educationally valuable even above this. By training students to use what they’ve learned and apply it more practically, the tests can help to fill in the gaps left by school systems across the country. Instead of shying away from the ACT and SAT and decrying them as unfair or inaccurate, schools, parents, and students should be more interested than ever in prepping and succeeding at the exams.

As Koutsoubos-Miles says in his piece,

…instead of eliminating high-quality tests, we could develop programs that incentivize teachers to embed their standards into curricula that are written to engage students’ real-life concerns. Blaming tests won’t help. The ACT and SAT reveal competency gaps we cannot afford to ignore. My students and I contend that smart application of these tests plays a key role in closing them.

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SAT ACT Cancellations in the Age of COVID

At this point, no one can deny that the COVID-19 outbreak has changed our way of life forever. College admissions haven’t escaped this paradigm shift, with some schools even moving to a “test optional” admissions process. Still, the SAT and the ACT will continue to be important benchmarks for students to use to set themselves apart. The biggest issue in the short term has been ensuring that your testing center will actually give the test. SAT and ACT cancellations have been a huge issue in the age of COVID. Because the SAT and ACT use high schools and colleges as testing centers, and because many of these high schools and colleges remain closed to students due to COVID, we’ve seen many students have their test delayed or canceled. This has led to student and parent frustration and despair. Some wonder if they’ll even get the chance to take the test.

You’ve got plenty of chances!

First things first, if you’ve gotten that email from the ACT or from College Board that says your testing site has been canceled, don’t despair! The best next step is to sign up for the next available test. The SAT is giving tests every month from August to December, so there will definitely be a spot for you! Seniors have the added advantage of a school-administered test on October 14 (to replace the canceled April test). The ACT has added dates in both September and October to try to accommodate as many students as possible. As the curve continues to flatten, students will continue to return to in-school instruction. This will increase the likelihood that schools will administer the tests. So if you’ve been bumped from one of the test dates, you have a great chance of making that test up in the fall.

Stay on top of things!

If you’re already signed up to take the test in September or beyond, be vigilant! Be sure to check back on the website of either the SAT or ACT often. Look for announcements about testing centers being added or canceled. If you stay proactive, you’ll be better equipped to react when necessary. Some of our students have been able to change their testing centers when others canceled, preserving their opportunity to take the test on their chosen date. One things that’s proved true about this era of COVID is that things can change quickly. Stay on top of the latest information–it could mean the difference between taking the test when you want or being forced to wait weeks or months.

Stay positive!

As the best selling book in the universe advises, Don’t Panic! Even if your testing center is canceled and you’re pushed back a month or more, it’s not the end of the world. Keep working, keep taking practice tests, and keep your chin up! Nearly every college and university has altered its normal admission deadlines to reflect the difficulties of COVID and standardized tests. If you’re looking to apply for an early decision or early action, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to get test scores submitted. Many schools are allowing students to submit their scores later than usual. So don’t despair! Keep working and stay positive! You’ve got this! You can navigate through the SAT or ACT cancellations in the age of COVID!

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Weighing in on “Test Optional”

One of the most common questions I hear from students and parents involves that idea of “test optional” schools. As a result of the COVID-19 dilemma, some colleges and universities have seemingly relaxed their admission requirements in order to accommodate those students who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT due to cancellations. It’s a great gesture by those schools, but it’s been confusing for students. Does it mean you don’t even need to take an SAT? If you already have an ok score, does it mean there’s no need to push for more? Is everyone just getting admitted based on GPA?

No, no, and no.

What does “test optional” mean?

In a June 9 web article, Forbes Magazine took a look at the top schools who’ve gone “test optional” and dug in to what that actually means. Forbes maintains a ranked list of the top colleges and universities, and author Christopher Rim used that list to see which elite schools have switched to “test optional.” Of the top 20 on the Forbes list, only six had made the decision to make the SAT or ACT optional. Four of those schools were Ivy League institutions: University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell. The other two schools to offer test optional application were Cal Tech and Pomona College.

The key, however, isn’t that some schools are “test optional.” The real key is to understand what that actually means. As Rim writes in his Forbes piece, “test optional” isn’t the same as “test blind.” The schools who aren’t requiring an SAT or ACT score aren’t trying to discourage students from taking the exams. On the contrary, other than Cal Tech, the “test optional” schools on the Forbes list are all still considering test scores for admission, placement, and merit scholarships. The schools are still accepting scores and are still using them. Students applying this year simply have the option to submit their applications without accompanying test scores.

Is “test optional” the new normal?

And this brings up a secondary point. Of the “test optional” schools, most of them are instituting this policy for this application year only. The anticipation is that students who apply next year–those who are about to enter their junior year this fall–will still need competitive test scores to gain entrance.

The “test optional” disadvantage

Additionally, Rim writes that this “test optional” policy could actually create a disadvantage for those students who apply without a test score. This would serve to single out students who hadn’t prepared for and taken an official exam early enough to have a score to submit.

Most students aiming for some of the top schools in the country prepare and sit for these tests early in their high school career. Omitting test scores on a college application to a competitive school indicates a failure to prepare as early as students can.

So as we enter the fall season and school begins to come into view, it’s as important as ever to begin preparation for the SAT or ACT as soon as possible! The next SAT dates are August 29 and September 26, and the ACT will offer several test dates in September (9/12, 9/13, and 9/24) and October (10/10, 10/17, 10/24, and 10/25).