The Problems With Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is a key component of college applications.

A student’s SAT or ACT score carries a fair amount of weight in admissions offices, but are these tests providing colleges with valuable information? Or are they just one more hoop students have to jump through?

The SAT and ACT are practically synonymous with college admissions to many families. Near-perfect scores are presumed to be a prerequisite for attending highly selective schools, and, in a worst-case scenario, competitive students and parents compare stats as a way to one-up each other. But the SAT and ACT have more than a few problems. By shedding light on the issues of standardized testing, we hope to offer families perspective around test scores and college admissions. These tests are not the end-all be-all of college admissions, and they certainly don’t define a student.

The stated purpose of standardized testing is to level the playing field for students. Not every school is the same, and while the government dictates grade-level curriculum to some extent, programs still vary widely from school to school. Some schools are generally more rigorous than others, some may offer a broad range of classes, including honors, AP, or IB courses (note that often, the rigorous schools are also the ones that offer students a lot of options). Standardized tests act as a singular scale on which to judge the academic abilities of all students. Since the test is the same everywhere, students are all held against one standard.

In theory, standardized testing seems like a sensible way to evaluate all students equally! That’s part of the reason why approximately 2/3 of US colleges require applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score. However, the system is definitely imperfect.

One of the concerns about standardized testing is that it advantages students who take tests well. To some extent, the SAT and ACT even measure one’s ability to perform well on the exam as opposed to measuring their understanding of specific concepts. Some students are not strong test-takers. Other students may perform well with unlimited time but struggle to work within the timed limits of the tests. The tests are long and require significant stamina; students who have challenges with focus and attention may also have difficulty with these tests. In all these instances, a student’s circumstances may result in a score that is an inaccurate reflection of their knowledge and capabilities

Students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds may also face challenges with the SAT/ACT. The tests have been criticized as having implicit cultural, racial, and gender bias; students who come from other demographic background may have difficulties. Poorer students are also more likely to attend schools with less rigorous curriculum and fewer high-quality teachers, so they may not be as prepared for the content of the tests as their peers in other schools. Taking the test in English (if it is not a student’s first language) adds another layer of complexity.

Finally, there are the test companies themselves. These are private companies whose for-profit operations may not align with students’ best interests. Test companies would like to sell as many exams as possible, but too much testing can fatigue students (possibly before they’ve taken the tests in junior/senior year that may really count). The recent college admissions scandal has raised important questions about test security. And testing companies sell students’ personal data to colleges—which many families see as an invasion of privacy. Although students elect to have their data shared by filling out specific sections on the SAT or ACT, most students don’t realize what they are opting into.

This article provides more information on concerns about standardized testing.

Does the good outweigh the bad when it comes to the SAT and ACT?

Here’s our take: Standardized testing is far from perfect. If college admissions shifted to putting less emphasis on these tests, that would be okay with us. Despite being a company that offers test prep services, what we are committed to most is helping students have a meaningful experience through education. The SAT and ACT don’t do a whole lot in that regard.

The tide is changing, and more schools than ever are not requiring test scores in the college admissions process. However, for many students, the SAT and ACT are still a required part of their college admissions process. And for as long as that’s the case, we plan to help students do as well as possible on these exams. At the very least, that means having a clear study plan and sitting for your test of choice twice. If you want more personalized guidance, we’re here to provide that as well.

Remember that an SAT or ACT score is just a number. It doesn’t describe a student’s abilities, nor does it define what they’re capable of. Study hard, do as well as you can, and then let testing go. We promise there is a lot more life left after college admissions.

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