The Weight of Standardized Tests in College Admissions

It’s standardized testing season once again. Seniors are frantically taking their final SATs and ACTs, while hopeful juniors are taking them for the first time...


via Wikipedia

It’s standardized testing season once again. Seniors are frantically taking their final SATs and ACTs, while hopeful juniors are taking them for the first time. But every season is testing season. Many students take the SAT and ACT multiple times and spend their summers withering away in their rooms, studying for upcoming tests.

Why? These standardized tests are required by 78 percent of colleges in the U.S., and are considered a major component of college admissions. However, should they be?

Colleges are currently shying away from placing importance on standardized test scores after recognizing that a major factor in a student’s testing success is family income and educational history. According to a 2012 study from the University of Minnesota, “students from higher income backgrounds generally achieve higher scores.” They found that a higher socioeconomic status was positively correlated with higher score. (It’s important to note correlation does not mean causation—just because you come from a wealthy family does not mean that you will necessarily score higher on the tests, or vice-versa.) David Coleman, CEO of College Board, said that “the SAT is currently fair but has its limits. What it is, is a fair measure of achievement, but what it doesn’t tell is the context in which that achievement occurred.” For instance, two people from different backgrounds may have the same score, but this doesn’t demonstrate the situation that either person was in. One may have had a tutor, greater access to study materials, or other aid in preparing for the test.

Schools also understand that many students don’t perform well in a testing environment. Many students do poorly due to time constraints or anxiety, and their resulting scores are quite different from their academic success in school.

Senior Ava Anglin said that “[she] struggle[s] with time management.” She said that she struggles with the math section, even though she’s in a high-level math class, due to time constraints and how stressful it is. Similarly, senior Henry Cain said that he could answer more accurately if there wasn’t such a small time limit.

The time limit (especially on the ACT) is notorious for challenging students and significantly lowering their scores. One of the flaws of standardized tests is also their greatest strength: they’re standardized. The tests are consistent regardless of arbitrary factors. Tests like the SAT and ACT are the only standard measure of academic success across the country. Class difficulty can vary from school to school, and one student might receive a lower grade in the same class at a different school due to how the class was taught. However, the ubiquity of these tests is also one of their downfalls. In order to succeed at standardized tests, students often have to change their method of thinking to fit the SAT/ACT. Cain said that “it’s weird to standardize everyone with different learning styles.”

Colleges recognize these flaws in testing scores, and that’s why many are placing less importance on them. Unfortunately, they are still a crucial part of the application and shouldn’t be neglected.

Many schools (especially large schools, selective or non-selective) receive hundreds of thousands of applications. Test scores and GPA are a quick way to whittle down the applications, and some schools even use computer algorithms based on GPA and test scores to sort and dismiss some applications. So what does this mean for you and your test score?

If your test score is in the range of admitted applications to colleges that you’re applying to, you don’t need to repeatedly retake the test just to get a slightly higher score. In the grand scheme of things, it probably won’t make that significant of a difference in your application. However, if it is significantly below the range, you may want to retake the test or build up your application elsewhere, such as in extracurriculars or grades. And if all else fails, just ask your parents for $500,000 to change your SAT scores and bribe your way into college!