I’ve been teaching students how to beat standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for over a decade now. Invariably, I start tutoring with those students by pointing out what should be obvious: these exams measure how well you take exams, not your aptitude or your ability to do college work. In some cases there may be a direct correspondence: students who have excellent grades have correspondingly excellent scores. And yet, there is a not-insignificant group of students with outstanding grades and poor scores. Does this mean standardized testing is unreliable? Or that it fails to consistently predict student success? Not exactly, and yes, respectively.
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the single best input for determining college success: the high school GPA. Time and time again a high correlation has been shown between success and engagement in academics in high school (as represented by an unweighted GPA) and performance in college. That’s because the GPA is a many-faceted thing. It samples various different types of classes according to how often you took them. Classes that meet every day are weighted more than classes that meet once a week, and yet should you take French 5 times a week and Physics 5 times a week, the GPA agnostically weights them equally. The grades for these classes themselves are multi-faceted. Those grades represent tests, homework, class participation, quizzes, and possibly group work and projects. Hardly one-dimensional, the GPA is an accurate and balanced reflection of a student’s aptitude and work ethic.
A three-hour test on a given Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very much a one-dimensional thing. Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests math levels above Trigonometry, meaning that juniors in Precalculus and beyond will need to pull out old notes to prep for the Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2 which are heavily featured in the math section of both of these tests.
There’s also the alleged “Science” section on the ACT, which is nothing but a glorified “interpreting charts and graphs” section which features tricky questions and purposely distorted graphics much more than legitimate science questions.
There are some useful sections to these tests. Reading comprehension is a lifelong skill – and a skill in even greater refinement in our age of information overload. Most students take comfort in the familiarity of the question type, even if they are cowed or bewildered by the wording of the questions or the time constraints (students are typically not given adequate time to answer the questions).
I could go on, but at this point you might (rightly) ask how I can in good conscience uphold such flawed testing by doing test prep? Fair enough.
These exams are accepted by the overwhelming majority of universities, for better or worse, as an additional – sometimes coequal – criteria for admission. My mission has always been to help my students get into the school they want to get into. If the hurdle is this or that specific test, I want to help them beat that test. I have no power to change a system deep within the bowels of an institution (academia) which is defined by inertia. So I do what’s possible: help my students beat the obstacles in place. For those who can’t afford test prep or who simply struggle with testing, FairTest has compiled a list of schools that don’t use testing as a deciding factor in admissions.
In the challenging world of college admissions, FairTest can rightly claim that standardized testing isn’t holistic, while College Board (the writer of the SAT) can claim that while not holistic, standardized testing still has correlations with college success, while we at Get Smarter Prep can claim that we are among your best options to improve on these tests, should you choose to apply to a school that uses them. We hope you take this article as an encouragement to be proactive instead of letting this overwhelming process “happen” to you. As always, we are here to help anytime.