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The SAT is an indicator of college readiness — let’s not throw it away

Elias Funez/The Union via AP
Students at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, Calif., gather to see their school schedules during the first morning of school on Aug. 16, 2022, for the 2022-23 school year. ACT test scores made public in a report on Oct. 12, 2022, revealed a decline in preparedness for college-level coursework.

As 2023 marches on, you may not realize this is the end of an era: the paper SAT will be no more after this year. As the value of our No. 2 pencils becomes even more obsolete, there is a bigger debate raging in this country, with far more significant consequences — whether or not students should even take the SAT or ACT at all. The short answer is “yes.”

Both the SAT and ACT test the same four general skill areas: reading, mathematics, data analysis, and written communication. So let’s look at the four skills that these exams test.

Reading ability is crucial for success in high school and in college. When a student reads more quickly and with better understanding, they become better at other academic subjects as well, including history, science and even mathematics. That is why reading ability is the most important skill to develop for success in school, and why an assessment of this ability is so helpful for predicting success in college.

Questions in the reading section evaluate students on whether they can understand a written question, understand a passage or paragraph, and take that understanding and translate it into an answer. These are fundamental skills: read a question; comprehend what you are assigned to read; and respond accordingly. These aren’t elitist skills. These are life skills. 

Learning mathematics is important beyond the actual concepts learned. Doing so improves general brain development and makes the brain better able to memorize, learn, reason and solve problems.

The SAT and ACT evaluate students on content spanning years of schooling (algebra I, algebra II, geometry and trigonometry) and are thus good measures of a student’s acquired mathematical knowledge and skill. Because mathematical knowledge is largely cumulative, assessments on foundational mathematical concepts understandably help predict success on more advanced mathematical content in college. 

The ACT science section and the graphs and tables weaved into the SAT verbal section test students on how well they can read graphs, tables and diagrams; understand trends in data; and make reasoned inferences based on scientific evidence. As the world accumulates more data, the ability to read and understand visual representations of that data becomes more important. Students who can start with evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion are better equipped to do so in the college classroom as well.

The foundation of civilization is communication. Through it we learn, teach, make friends, etc. From business emails to love letters to clever Instagram captions, knowing how to communicate effectively is of paramount importance.

The ACT English and SAT writing sections are good measures of reading and rhetorical skills, even if the student does not know all the technical grammar rules (because students who read a lot will be able to get most questions correct just by “hearing” what sounds best). Students who master the questions on these sections are likely to perform better in college classes that require reading and writing.

So, where do we go from here? The SAT and ACT very evidently test content relevant to college readiness. But why do test scores improve assessments of college readiness when colleges already have a student’s high school grades? How can you accurately compare the grades of two students who took different classes, from different teachers at different high schools, and quite likely using different grading scales? You can’t, especially not when there are more than 20,000 high schools in the United States — not to mention homeschooled students and students from around the world. 

Massive grade inflation has made high school grades even less meaningful because the average university student had an A-average in high school (in 2019, 65.9 percent and 79 percent of students at public and private universities, respectively, had A+, A or A- averages in high school). Decades of research on millions of students’ outcomes have shown that standardized tests provide a common yardstick to better help understand a student’s grades. Without this yardstick, students who go to high schools with more grade inflation might take another child’s spot at his or her dream school.

Another concern: If employers give preference to graduates of test-required colleges because these colleges demonstrate that they value verified academic achievement, then graduates from test-optional colleges will see the value of their (very expensive) degrees decline. Already, the widespread grade inflation at many colleges to boost graduation rates has decreased trust in the value of a degree, and more employers are requiring skills-based assessments (standardized exams) during their application processes. That’s a bad bargain for students: no SAT or ACT for admission to college but a multitude of different entrance exams for employment.

Taking tests is not fun (like many other tedious but beneficial tasks). But all students have the opportunity to do well and improve their performance on these exams by learning foundational academic knowledge and skills. If a student is not performing well, their score typically tells an important story of a problem that should be addressed, not ignored. Free test prep is available online and students with financial hardships can take the exams for free

Instead of telling students that measures of academic readiness do not matter, we should be encouraging students to seize opportunities to learn and demonstrate their academic achievement to colleges. Let’s ditch the paper, but keep the test. 

David Blobaum is a nationally recognized expert in the entrance exam and college admissions industry. He serves on the board of directors and is the director of outreach for the National Test Prep Association, which works to support the appropriate use of testing in admissions. In 2013, he co-founded the education company Summit Prep, which does SAT and ACT tutoring.

Tags ACT college prep exams college readiness SAT Standardized tests

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