SAT/ACT tests are ineffectual

BY EMILIE LOZIER —

With the 2013-14 school year coming to a close, seniors are looking to their futures, and juniors are looking for dates to take standardized tests. Understandably, this is a stressful time for students. Many colleges and universities value standardized test results as a universal measure for aptitude, and with the admissions period imminent, the pressure to do well is astronomical. To deal with this pressure, parents and students alike have turned to pricey test preparation methods with frightening voracity. Piles of test prep books are sifted through, hordes of students sign up for tutoring sessions and heaps of practice questions are puzzled over.

Since the advent of the SAT in 1926 and the ACT in 1959, millions of students from every corner of the United States have gone through the trial that we know as the standardized test. Whichever version you take, whether you study or not, the general ordeal is depressingly predictable. Students wake up early in a flurry of tension, haul themselves to the nearest testing center, spend upwards of three hours answering maddening multiple-choice questions and then wait anywhere from 2-6 weeks for the testing gods to hand down their verdict.

Despite the historic widespread use of standardized tests by schools and colleges – at least 20 states require their students to take some derivative of the ACT – this form of student evaluation is suffering a dramatic fall from grace. Branded by many critics as ineffectual and unnecessary, both the SAT and the ACT are no longer required for admission at more than 800 colleges and universities within the United States.

The SAT in particular has been confronted with a significant loss of popularity. Once the most widely used standardized test in America, it has drawn in less students than its rival, the ACT, for two years running. In an effort to bolster its deteriorating reputation, the College Board announced on March 5 a series of changes to the test that will be introduced for the spring of 2014.

Among other changes, the College Board announced that the guessing penalty will be eliminated, the essay will become optional, the scoring will revert from a 2400 scale back to 1600, the math section will be simplified and the exams will include more questions that require students to justify their answers. According to the College Board, these changes are intended to reconnect the SAT with typical high school curriculums.

If I had to bet money, however, I’d say that there are some ulterior motives involved in. Above all, it is important to remember that the College Board has to make money. Although it is funded in part by grants, the association depends to some extent on the fees it collects from students who take the SAT. If fewer students take the test, the College Board gets less money.

Keeping this in mind, a potential monetary motivation can be divined from the planned changes. With an eliminated guessing penalty, no essay and an arguably less challenging math section, the College Board seems to have made the test easier to do well on. With the incentive of a simpler test on the line, who wouldn’t stop to consider taking the SAT over the ACT? I honestly cannot believe that the changes to the test were prompted by the pure desire to conform to conventional academic standards. At some level, whether recognized or unspoken, the new SAT is a ploy to boost popularity.

Even assuming that a more just and relevant test is the College Board’s goal, it is apparent that it has not done enough to bring about that end. Socioeconomic status still plays a role in how well students score, with more affluent test-takers having the added benefit of expensive test prep books, classes and tutoring. Furthermore, the sheer magnitude of related fees associated with the SAT is staggering.

Signing up for the test itself costs $51. If you register by phone, that is another $15 on your tab. You registered late? You need to change your testing date? That’s $27.50, thank you very much. And don’t even get me started on what it takes to send your score to the colleges to which you’re applying. All in all, the overall cost of the SAT is, well, an arm and leg. Take it twice and you’re basically a financial quadriplegic.

Beyond the socioeconomic discrimination implicit in the test, the very notion that it conveys accurate and valuable information to colleges is laughable. It is grossly misguided to think that a handful of questions administered over the course of a few hours will in any way act as a reliable indicator of a student’s academic success.

In the end, the question that needs to be asked is this: Is standardized testing really necessary? When I think of the overhaul that would be required to reform either the SAT or the ACT, I’m tempted to say that it would be simpler, cheaper and smarter to simply do away with it all. Between grades, letters of recommendation, swathes of essays and lists of extracurricular activities, colleges should be able to get a fairly holistic view of their applicants. There’s no need to make our lives more difficult with tests that have proven themselves to be marginally effective and plainly discriminatory.

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