Standardized testing — the ACT is up

A student bubbles in his answers for an SAT practice test – photo by Daniel Chow ’20

Each year, millions of high school students across the world spend long and stressful hours poring over thickly-bound tomes and answering question after question for practice. Then comes the anxiety of test day, the opening of crisp test booklets and answer sheets with rows of empty bubbles, sitting down and staring at question after question. For many, taking the SAT or ACT is an unpleasant experience, but is it even necessary?

     Although being different tests, both the SAT and ACT aim to assess the same thing. The SAT — which does not actually stand for anything — is a test given by the College Board, a non-profit organization that also gives the SAT Subject Tests and AP tests. 

     While the SAT Subject Tests and AP tests are intended to assess students’ proficiency in specific academic topics, the SAT “is more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education,” according to the College Board website. The test includes a reading test, which makes students read and interpret passages; a writing and language test, which involves finding and correcting grammatical mistakes and improving the clarity of a passage; a math test; and an optional essay.

     These tests are used to determine, in the words of the College Board, “[w]hat you learn in high school” and “[w]hat you need to succeed in college.

     The ACT — which also does not stand for anything — is in a similar vein to its counterpart. The scores “reflect what students have learned throughout high school and provide colleges and universities with excellent information for recruiting, advising, placement, and retention,” according to ACT, Inc. Along with gauging student success in college, the ACT also claims to determine student preparedness for their future careers.

     In terms of the actual test, the ACT has one additional section when compared to the SAT: the science test. The ACT science test evaluates a student’s ability to analyze scientific data and information—similar to the ACT and SAT reading test, but with passages from scientific research and reports instead of from fiction and nonfiction works.

     While it is up for debate whether reading, English and language, writing, math, and sometimes science are the only indicators of future success, the ACT and SAT stand out in a world where grades and test scores are diminishing in importance — especially in college applications, as admissions offices nationwide have deemphasized ACT and SAT scores or not required them at all.

     Despite both tests’ commitments to assessing one’s high school knowledge, performance on the test itself seems to rely more on test-taking strategies than what a student learns in school. Most test-prep books and websites focus on how to ace the test with tips, tricks, and strategies that often do not depend on the academic level of the student. These types of strategies look into how SAT and ACT questions are designed and how answer choices are created, not into the actual content of the question.

     In addition, these strategies might not have anything to do with the question at all, and instead focus on the stance of the College Board and ACT, Inc. For example, the 2017 Barron’s SAT test-prep book (29th edition) said to “expect minority group members to be portrayed in SAT reading passages in a favorable light” and choose the answer choice that positively portrays attitudes towards minority groups.

     Although learning how to take tests effectively and utilizing strategies during tests is a beneficial skill for one to know in a college environment, SAT and ACT test-taking strategies focus on the design and specifications of each test, and not about the academic content assessed. This makes the test less a test of knowledge and more an assessment of how well you know the test.

Having test-taking strategies means that one does not need to fully understand the answer to get the question correct.

     What’s more, having test-taking strategies means that one does not need to fully understand the answer to get the question correct — this causes issues, because someone who is more proficient academically can look the same on paper with a student that is not as knowledgeable, but is able to guess the correct answer choice without fully understanding it. Even though test-taking skills are important, those taught by test-prep materials train students to take a specific test, and inaccurately represents students’ true academic ability.

     The amount of variability and chance that goes into every test also affects student performance, making it hard to accurately gauge ability. For one, the difficulty of the ACT and SAT from month to month often varies, depending on the passages chosen and the types of questions asked. Different students can respond differently to different tests, and on certain days they might do better than others. This obviously favors those who can afford to take multiple tests a year, which not only increases their chances of having one really good score, but also increases the chance of having a better superscore, or the best section scores of all tests taken by a student. 

     There can also be other unforeseen advantages to taking the test multiple times. According to a report by the Washington Post, the College Board is known for recycling old tests — the most recent being last year, when the August SAT turned out to be the exact same test as the October 2017 International SAT. According to USA Today, the answer key for this exam was known to be available online, which gave those who happened to study the old test a massive advantage over their peers.

Hundreds of hours and dollars are poured into a test that does little to show academic ability.

     Instead of being a tool for looking at college and career readiness, the ACT and SAT have become competitions, where students try to get the highest score possible. By trying to push their scores higher and higher, a student’s score has little relation to their actual performance in school, and more relevance to their ability to take the test itself. As a result, hundreds of hours and dollars are poured into a test that does little to show academic ability, which instead serve to put a high number on one’s college application.

     Finally, the time commitment invested into the ACT and SAT is simply too much for a standardized test. With so much of success on both tests relying on how much one has practice beforehand, and with a single practice test taking up to three hours to complete, a high school student can easily spend many hours studying, time that often conflicts with schoolwork, athletics, extracurriculars, and sleep.

     In addition, the price tag that goes into test-preparation and registering for a test date is nothing to scoff at. The cost of an ACT or SAT test with writing is over sixty dollars, an SAT or ACT test-prep book is about twenty-five dollars, and tutoring sessions can cost up to hundreds of dollars per hour. These costs make it especially challenging for students in lower-income families to do well on the tests, with prep materials and the test itself being so expensive. Although free ACT and SAT practice are available online, tutoring and test-prep books are arguably more beneficial. Combined together, a student without the time to study for the test and fewer financial resources to receive high-quality test-prep will be at a disadvantage.

Author: Toby Ma ’20

Toby Ma is an editor-in-chief of the newspaper, previously serving as managing editor and assistant editor of the Features section. Three of his recent articles earned Gold Keys from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing competition. He also contributes poetry and fiction to the school literary magazine Pegasus, and is a member of the Haverford VEX Robotics Team 169 “The Cavalry” and Model UN. His favorite subjects are English, history, and science. Outside of school, he enjoys reading and fencing.