SAT and ACT fail the test

The SAT and ACT, the two psychometric icons that continue to drive fear into the hearts of students and their parents, are still defended by those who should know better (“The Truth About the SAT and ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10).  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at how they are constructed.

In the final analysis, their purpose is to help admissions officers rank applicants. I understand the need because high schools differ widely in their grading standards.  But if test designers loaded up their respective tests with items measuring only the most important material taught effectively in class, which is what they should be doing, scores would run the risk of being clumped together.  In that case, their usefulness to admissions officers would be severely diminished.

To avoid that possibility, test makers need to engineer score spread.  They’ve found through experience that the best way of doing so is to include many items that largely reflect the socioeconomic backgrounds of students. I’m not accusing them of trickery.  It’s simply a proven way of keeping their college and university clients happy.  (To its credit, the ACT is more closely aligned with what is actually taught in classrooms.)

The assertion that the SAT and ACT have predictive value has been found to be false.  Bates College engaged in a pioneering experiment in this regard by making test scores optional starting in 1984.  In 2004, the college announced that its 20-year study had found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and non-submitters of SAT results.  Today, some 1,000 colleges and universities make standardized test scores optional.

The other major claim that these tests are not coachable has also been found to be without merit.  Stanley H. Kaplan, who went on to establish the test-preparation company bearing his name, proved otherwise by helping students in his Brooklyn neighborhood dramatically boost their scores through constant practice.  When I was in high school, the College Board did not release old copies of the SAT.  I remember being given only a thin gray pamphlet with two examples for both the verbal and math sections.

I hope students and parents who are reading this column will keep these factors in mind.  In short, the SAT and ACT largely measure what students bring to class rather than what they learn in class.  That’s an important distinction given short shrift in the ongoing debate.


2 Replies to “SAT and ACT fail the test”

  1. Excellent column.
    I want to tell you another difference between Massachusetts and Florida. In Massachusetts, students take the SAT and ACT tests on Saturdays and they are paid for by the student.
    Next week in Florida ALL 11th grade students will take the SAT test during the school day and paid for by the county. Having monitored many of these tests, it is painful to see many students suffer through this excercise.
    Another example where Florida feels everyone is going to college.


    1. mathcoach: College is not for everyone, despite the best evidence available. The SAT and ACT have a vested interest in perpetuating this myth because both tests are cash cows for them. It is indeed painful to see students struggling when they would be far better served by a vocational curriculum in high school and in community college.


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