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Everything you never wanted to know about standardized testing

By Staff | Apr 18, 2019

Standardized testing for college admissions has been a hot topic in the news of late. The cheating scandal that hit last month was pretty shocking on many levels, most especially the notion that children were involved, either knowingly or not. It is important to note that most people in the college admissions industry do their jobs in an ethical and fair way, adhering to standards set out by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. But, like any other part of society, there will always be a fringe of people who try to circumvent the law and what is morally correct to gain their own advantage.

So, what are standardized tests and why are they needed? Most colleges require a test score from either the SAT or ACT for admissions. The tests are designed to test actual knowledge as well as to determine readiness for success in college coursework. The tests are used for admissions decisions as well as determinations of awarding merit-based scholarships. Why aren’t GPAs enough? Well, not all schools or teachers teach in the same way. Not all schools use the same grading scales. In fact, some schools don’t offer letter grades at all. Some schools offer AP level work, some do not. The SAT and ACT are a way of leveling the playing field by offering a standard test to all students in a given grade and evaluating them equally.

When does all this testing begin? Some high schools will start with practice PSATs as early as freshman year of high school. Why so early? No one expects a high school freshman to ace the PSAT, but it is helpful for students to get a feel for the tests, the format, the way questions are asked, etc., early. The actual PSAT/NMSQT is given to high school juniors, in October, on the same day nationwide. Should a student prepare for this test? Absolutely. Scoring high on this test will not only be a good indicator of future success on the SAT, but it also serves as a qualifying test for National Merit Scholarships.

The SAT and the ACT are the main tests that all high school students wanting to apply to college will need to take; one or the other. Most colleges will accept either test equally. What is the difference between them? In general, the SAT has more reading passages than the ACT. The ACT has a science component. Both have optional writing components. (Students should look into the admissions policies of the colleges where they wish to apply to determine if the writing portion is required.) The ACT allows a calculator to be used for the entire math portion, but the SAT has a section where a calculator may not be used. It is a great idea for a student to take a practice test of each to determine where their strengths lie and then push forward with a strong action plan of preparation for the real test.

What about the other tests? SAT subject tests are still required by many highly selective schools and recommended by others. The good news with these tests is that there is a variety of subjects to choose from, and a student can select the two subjects in which they are strongest.

AP tests are important to take, because a high score on these tests (4 or 5) will put a student in a position to possibly earn college credit. Some students can graduate a quarter or semester early because they have earned that credit, and that translates to big $$ savings in tuition.

Have you heard about the trend for colleges to have standardized testing be optional? Yes, this is a thing. But, it is important to understand how “optional” it actually is. Look at it from an admissions officer’s point of view: given two students who are virtually the same in every way on paper, except one student submits great test scores, and the other does not submit scores at all which student is likely to be admitted? Before deciding to pass on standardized tests, make sure you understand the test policy of the schools to which you want to apply.

Finally, and very importantly, how does a student prepare for these tests? Is it expensive? How much time does it take? Students have many options for test preparation, from expensive individual tutors to group classes, paid online classes, free online classes (Khan Academy) to individual prep with a book purchased at the bookstore. The College Board, the company that administers the SAT, has free practice tests on their website, and even a free app available so that kids can easily test themselves any time they want. Similar resources are available for the ACT. The main thing is for students to set up a specific study schedule and prepare over a period of time to put their best foot forward on whichever test they are taking.

For links to all of the information discussed in this article, please visit my website, thecollegeauntie.com, using the “more” drop down.

Maryanne Hogan is an independent college counselor and member of the HACAC. For more information about services, visit her website.