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Hate the SAT and ACT? Me Too, But Colleges Still Love These Tests


Perhaps the most vexing aspect of college admissions in the United States today is the use and abuse of standardized tests.  While there is no solid research to support their pivotal role in determining who is accepted and who is rejected by the nation’s colleges and universities, the fact is that they are a competitive credential.  The better your scores, the better your chances of admission.  Of course, high scores alone will not guarantee you anything but a wet, sloppy kiss from your proud parents.  But all other things being equal, good scores are preferable to low ones.
Much has been written about the history of these tests, and we have described the differences between the ACT and the SAT elsewhere on this blog.  Suffice it to say that the growth of these two tests can be attributed to colleges’ need for some sort of thumbnail comparison of students across schools, across states, and across curricula.  The fact is that with 14,000 school districts and perhaps 2,000 more private high schools in the US, there is little standardization from one school to the next. So it has always been difficult to judge the correlation of 4.0 GPA from an inner-city high school on the South Side of Chicago from a 4.0 GPA from Phillips Exeter.  Supposedly, the standardized tests are a leveler–they help admissions folks compare students from different schools in different parts of the country.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Here’s some reasons why.
First, there is no correlation between success on these tests and success in college.  This correlation is generally assumed to exist:  if you do better on the exams, you are therefore smarter and better able to succeed in college.  In fact, research undertaken by Bates College in Maine demonstrates confirms the absence of any such correlation.
Second, the SAT and ACT tests are not “levelers.”  Quite the opposite.  What research we do have on these tests demonstrates that students of lower socio-economic classes do worse on these exams than do students from more affluent backgrounds.
Third, these tests do not really measure either intellectual capacity or aptitude; they  measure performance on these specific tests.  It is possible, therefore, to cram for these tests and improve scores–without taking more high school courses or taking steroids to improve brain capacity.  Thus, a multi-billion dollar test prep industry has developed to help students cram for the tests.  While not all test prep courses or tutoring will lead to a significant score increase, some test prep can lead to dramatic increases.  A recent study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) indicates that test prep courses and tutoring will raise scores, on average, by only 20 or 30 points on the SAT tests and perhaps only a point on the ACT.
However, I have seen students make very dramatic gains by working one-on-one with a very experienced, very talented private tutor. Thus my interpretation of the NACAC data is that most test prep is pretty lackluster.  If a student really wants to raise his score, he will have to seek stronger test prep services from those who know what they are doing.
I don’t recommend test preparation for all  my clients.  Much depends on what sort of schools interest them, and whether their first round of testing was good enough to allow them to achieve their goals.  But if their scores fall short of those goals, I will work with them to identify good resources to help them do their best.  For while I don’t think that these scores have much to say about a student’s abilities or potential, they have become very important in competitive college admissions.
Mark Montgomery
College Planner and Adviser
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