ACT & SAT Tests Are Standardized, But You're Not
Widely accepted as university qualifying exams, these tests claim to forecast students' ability to handle college-level work.

What determines college competence? For nearly a century now, the ACT and SAT have sought to answer this question for higher education institutions across the U.S. As an early alternative to the intelligence quotient exams of late 19th Century America, these tests were quickly accepted as the standard college assessment exams. However, in recent years, the testing paradigm has begun to change. More and more colleges are opting to make the ACT/SAT optional, and instead have adopted a more holistic approach to undergraduate admissions. The problem with standardized tests, colleges find, is that they adopt an averages range that students fail to fit into. Time and time again, standardized test scores have proven to be inaccurate representations of their taker's abilities. Ultimately, everyone is different, and no one fits the exact description of “the average student.” So why is "standardized test prep" so popular?

The preparation you need for an assessment depends greatly on the way you learn and your individual strengths and weaknesses, but tests like the ACT and SAT are often about learning how to "hustle" the test itself (i.e. teaching students ways to “beat the system”). This fissure between the aim of college readiness examinations and the reasoning tests we have today lies within both the skewed definition of college readiness dictated by these testing services and the margin for error present in the testing structure. The various examples of outlier students who effortless score highly on these exams and the futility of effort by those who commit inordinate amounts of time to be disappointed again and again elucidates a strong consistency with the ACT/SAT’s markedly unbalanced analysis of student success potential.

Furthermore, if college tests are predominantly about mastering the course’s subject matter instead of how quickly you adopt to the process of beating a score, then why do companies that make these tests provide so many practice exams? Not only does the assessment provide scores relative to nothing comparable in college experiences, they foster an unrealistic assumption of reversibility when colleges expect nothing less than excellence on first attempts. The practice of make-up or re-assessments is common in high school and accentuates a study and test-taking attitude that diminishes when students begin college. The ACT and SAT corroborates this practice, providing test-takers with multiple opportunities throughout the year to re-assess their ability to take exams with highly particular construction standards.

While the SAT and ACT constantly reassure customers that their exams test skills needed to help students excel at the college level, many students often remark upon the uselessness or irrelevancy of certain skill sets advocated by the education behind the exams. This translates into factual complications when colleges represent a concentration of subject matter for students pursuing specific fields of employment disconnected from the construction standards of standardized tests. The SAT vocabulary set is infamous for being disconnected from daily English utilization and reading, leading some students to believe the exam itself is deliberately designed to confuse students, obfuscating the answer in unnecessary convolutions that make the exam more of a puzzle than a skill test. Fortunately, the new SAT updated in 2016 amputates the vocabulary complete-the-sentence section. Unfortunately, the endemic flaws of standardized testing are realized through the abundance of test prep advice and evidence that supports the frustrated student’s view of college prediction exams.

Author of several “Black Books” (a play on the widespread usage of the College Board’s SAT prep book dubbed the “Blue Book”) on test-taking tips and of the #1 Amazon Bestseller book ACT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective ACT Strategies Ever Published, Mike Barrett has extensively noted the fact of deliberate mystification in the standardized test-taking procedure. As he explicates in his “Black Book” on the SAT, standardized tests are met with the production challenge of establishing a base line of inquiry that maximizes the individual chances of the broadest ranges of potential test-takers. Unfortunately, this utopic vision of the perfect test for the perfect pot of potential students strays far from the reality of standardized testing in America today. Instead, the SAT and tests like it produce questions designed around “tricks” and deciphering the concealed complexities of the question itself. This skill is taught to students from when they are in elementary school, but the way the SAT goes about it strays from the constructive intention of scholastic skills.

While colleges might test the understanding of course material through questions that require students to grasp the subject matter at hand, the SAT constructs questions designed to “trick” students unaware of their construction into picking the wrong answers. The process of SAT test-taking is usually not about choosing the right answer, but about finding out exactly what the question is asking. While this can be seen as an attempt by the testing board to educate students in the logical reasoning and fallacious red herrings prevalent in academic study, this attempt is usually misplaced for high school students attempting to showcase their intellectual aplomb. Realistically, individual intelligence is highlighted through a wide range of skill sets, while standardized tests by nature only cover a limited amount.

What does this mean for test-takers across the nation? Unfortunately, the inherent aptitudes of certain students creates an inevitable gap between score averages from year to year. Backgrounds in the subjects the ACT tests (English, Mathematics, Reading, Science Reasoning, and Writing) provides students with disproportionate advantages in the areas of their individual expertise. Compounding this margin for error is a familiarity with exam structure that is disregarded by standardized tests like the ACT and SAT because it showcases a blatant divide in the exam’s impartiality to new test-takers and one’s who have been through substantial prep. This divide is emphasized by the veritable cornucopia of test prep services provided by large corporations like The Princeton Review, Barron’s and even the testing administration itself (College Board and ACT, Inc.). The ACT prep site endorsed by the institution itself, known as ACT Aspire, conjoins students with materials derived from the hope of instilling the next generation with a fruitful capacity, targeting students from a young age in order to provide them with the necessary aptitude for college readiness. How can an exam claim to be unbiased when the corporation that creates it provides ample paid prep years before the test is ever administered?

More concrete and provable examples of test bias is advocated by the opponents of standardized testing who debate the ethnocentric wording used in the questions presented in the ACT and SAT. Examples include idioms that leave non-nationals at a disadvantage. Further, more inflammatory accusations cite neuroscience in their assurance that the male gender more readily guess on multiple choice questions, a practice that the exams reward. Standardized tests then are seeking to stretch out the limits of an exam construct that inherently possesses irremovable bias.

Given the miniscule average amount of score variation within ACT percentile ranges, testing administration can speciously assure colleges that their exams possess a negligible margin of error. In reality, colleges often possess cut-off score ranges that significantly reduce the chances of students seeking admission into competitive colleges. With a high traffic flow of high-achieving students each year applying to a limited amount of seats at top institutions, the resulting effect of a measurable discrepancy between test scores can prove fatal to otherwise qualified applicants. Although admissions officers often stress the dual consideration of a student’s application (i.e. the soft: extracurricular activities, etc., and hard: test scores, GPA, etc.) the sheer confluence of applicants from across the nation and their high school standards statistically increases the importance of each component, including standardized test scores.

In a time when national universities are becoming increasingly competitive over time and acceptance rates at colleges are decreasing each admission year, the probability of mutable testing scores and their dubious assessment of college readiness presents too great a risk for colleges to continue accepting as an accredited standard. Instead, post-secondary education institutions should look to students and their individual complexity when considering their admission. Leading institutions like the University of Chicago and University of California, Berkeley are already paving the way for a more holistic view of student potential. Hopefully this trend towards a comprehensive and unbiased examination of applicants deters standardized testing and diminishes its prevalence in years to come.


Photo Credit: Nazareth College

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