Colleges should deemphasize, but not disregard, standardized test scores

Now, more than ever, we are seeing increasing reliance on standardized test scores—the ACT and SAT in particular—for college admission, placement, and scholarships. For instance, the newly established Regents Admission Index, which determines a minimum cutoff for automatic admission into any of the regents’ universities, weights ACT performance almost as much as it does GPA. This trend is not unwarranted; standardized test scores remain the only universally objective factor in a student’s college application. Grades and GPA, for instance, vary from school to school depending on academic rigor and grading system. A student’s extracurricular record, interviews and recommendations are undoubtedly subjective. However, many colleges and educators are correlating test scores too strongly with student ability and college achievement. Especially in large schools, admissions officers often overemphasize test scores. Penn State, for example, considers standardized test scores to be more important than academic rigor, class rank or extracurricular activities. The issue in question is neither the tests’ reliability nor validity. For example, the SAT is highly reliable: only around 10% of a student’s score is due to random chance. In other words, if students were to retake the SAT with no change in ability, they would only see their results differ by an average of one or two questions on each section. The primary problem is that standardized tests cover surprisingly few topics. Neither the ACT nor SAT realistically represents the depth of a rigorous curriculum. Both exams’ writing/English sections are only comprised of basic grammar error identification. The SAT math section only includes up to second- or third-year math, and both exams have few problems that require more than one or two steps to solve. For those applying to highly selective schools, the SAT and ACT do relatively little to separate the outstanding from the above average. For students in the middle of the bell curve, standardized tests may differentiate well, but enough students score near the upper end that admissions officers are forced to compare differences of a single point on the ACT or 30 or 40 points on the SAT. At Ames High alone, nearly one out of every ten students who took the SAT achieved a perfect score on the math section. Even with their drawbacks, standardized tests cannot be eliminated. Unlike other nations with a standardized curriculum, the United States’ widespread differences in curriculum among states and school districts necessitate some sort of universal measurement of academic achievement. There is no definitive measure of college readiness and there never will be, but when taken at face value, standardized tests are still valuable admissions tools. Repeatedly, research has shown that SAT and ACT scores are almost as good as high school GPA at predicting college performance.