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.
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.