Enemies of the People: The SAT and ACT

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I was at a conference at New York University recently called “Life of the Mind.”  Its purpose was to use classical and modern texts to examine the meaning of education.  At dinner, everyone at my table shared what they do.  I said, “I own a tutoring company that specializes on the SAT and ACT.”  The fellow attendee sitting next to me exclaimed, “So you’re the enemy!”  And we all laughed.  Humor has its source in perceived truth.  A complete, unrelatable lie would never be funny.  And most, if not all, parents and students can relate to feeling that the SAT and ACT are their enemies.

It might seem obvious why the SAT and ACT are our enemies.  How unfair is it for colleges to typically consider as equal in importance the scores of a three-hour SAT or ACT and the thousands of hours of work and study to earn a high school GPA?  How unfair is the pressure of such a long test under difficult time constraints?

However, let us take a step back.  First, is school important?  Virtually everyone can agree that it is.  If you are not convinced, take a look at this blog post: education unequivocally improves quality and length of life.  So, if school is important, then presumably what students learn at school is important for success in college and in life.  What are some of the things students learn at school?  Grammar, Mathematics, Reading, and Science.  What is tested on the ACT?  Grammar, Mathematics, Reading, and Science.

Do you see the disconnect?  Education and knowledge are important.  Yet, somehow when the SAT and ACT test that same knowledge, these tests become enemies of the people.  The tests are blamed for being “coachable,” meaning that through study students can increase their scores.  But, would we want it any other way?  Would we want to test students on what they cannot learn?  How would that be any more fair?

Colleges need a standardized test to fairly compare applicants (though, of course, no system is perfect).  The valedictorian of a small, rural high school might be of a different caliber than the valedictorian of an elite prep school, but they are both valedictorians and both likely have near perfect GPA’s.  How can a college compare who is more qualified?  Do we just assume that the student from the elite prep school is the better choice?  That seems unfair.  Instead, what if we could have some objective measure that tests those students on the foundational concepts and skills that they learned (or should have learned) in high school and that are needed for success in college?  Luckily, we have that: the SAT and ACT.[1]

But, maybe what people are upset about is that students receive coaching for the tests.  If students could pay to score higher on the tests purely from tips and tricks, then this feeling of injustice would be justified.  But, for the most part, paying just for tips and tricks has a minimal effect on a student’s score.  And, even the “tricks” to the tests are typically very helpful tricks to learn for college and life.  Without giving away our techniques, students can use a skimming trick to cut down their reading time by about 50% on two of the four passages on the ACT reading section.  This technique only works for certain types of passages (the social science and natural science passages), but it works in real life as well on science papers and studies.  Thus, the tricks to the test are typically important skills to learn generally.  But, tricks aside, to significantly increase in score on either the SAT or ACT, students need to learn a lot more grammar, mathematics, reading skills, and science/graph skills.  Elite public and private schools tend to provide a superior education.  It is possible some people dislike that these schools likely provide an above-average education, but I think most people would applaud any institution that helps student to learn: the more learning, the better.  Thus, are we annoyed that elite high schools might provide their students with a justified advantage due to a superior education?  Probably not.  So, why would we be annoyed at students receiving an advantage from receiving supplemental education that teaches them the skills and knowledge necessary to do well on the SAT or ACT?  In both cases, students are learning the important skills and knowledge to succeed in college and in life.

The grammar that students learn on the SAT and ACT helps them become better readers and writers.  The mathematics they learn help them to think systematically and improve upon their computation skills.  The reading skills they learn improve their analytic abilities and enhance their reading comprehension.  And, the science skills they learn help them to interpret graphs and to think using the scientific method.  Even test taking skills are important: how to pace yourself, to keep a cool head under pressure, to quickly adjust to evaluate a problem from a new perspective if the first approach did not work, and to efficiently sift through reading passages and data.  The SAT and ACT are an incredible opportunity to relearn the important skills that were forgotten, sharpen those that became a bit dull, or fill gaps in foundational knowledge. For some, it will be learning beyond the rigor of what they learned in school.  To do well, students need to rise to the skill and knowledge level of the college to which they hope to attend.  The tests are a great opportunity to reinforce and expand learning.

Which brings me to my conclusion: SAT and ACT prep is helpful and important, not just for scoring higher on the tests to gain admittance to a great college, but also to learn important knowledge and skills for college and for life.  Students are not paying for tips and tricks. They are paying to learn more.  They should be (and they are) rewarded in the college admissions process for their hard-work of relearning and/or learning more than what they had been taught in school.  Any students who diligently apply themselves to studying for the tests can dramatically increase their scores, with or without a tutor. The same can be said in school: students could teach themselves everything they learn in school as well.  However, a quality tutor, just like a quality teacher, can dramatically cut down on the time needed to learn the material by explaining it well, periodically reviewing it, assigning quality and targeted homework, and keeping students on track.  If we care about education and find it valuable, then we should care about how our children perform on objective measures of that education and help them to retain and learn the valuable skills that the SAT and ACT measure.



Footnote: [1] The SAT, which stems from the intent to provide college applicants with an IQ test, did not and to some degree does not test academic achievement as directly as the ACT does, though it has moved closer to the ACT in doing so as well.  The SAT was originally designed as an IQ test so that talented, underprivileged students could better compete with privileged students.  If that testing sounds more fair, then consider that achievement was not rewarded as much.  Unmotivated but intelligent students would out-score hard-working but less naturally gifted students.  That hardly seems fair or accurate for predicting success.


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