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Pinna: A Partial Defense of Standardized Testing

Image via The New Republic

“Real change has to be made with how standardized testing companies operate, but at its core, the standardized test is an excellent resource for universities and shouldn’t be removed.”

As another January passes along, with it goes the end of the Class of 2023’s college application season. Doubtlessly, the process is one that is truly nerve-wracking; teens have to craft a comprehensive picture of themselves using only an essay, a GPA, a short resume, two letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores. Their future careers and perhaps, their own sense of self-worth and mental health, thus hinge on what they write on those several slips of virtual paper (which, for some reason, cost money to send).

This brief period of intense reflection, regardless of how accomplished one ends up being, always comes with regrets. If I had put in a little more effort, could I have gotten that A in Trigonometry; should I have tried out for that varsity sport or academic club; and one of the most common: could I have gotten a higher score on my SAT or ACT?

Especially if standardized testing wasn’t a student’s strong point, pondering such hypotheticals can lead one to the conclusion that schools shouldn’t even require the SAT in the first place. After all, they argue, in addition to it being an arbitrary indicator of one’s intelligence, it also disadvantages those of a lower socioeconomic status, as they cannot afford the test prep books or courses that lead to marked improvements in scores.

The latter is a very valid point. The College Board, the makers of the SAT and Advanced Placement courses, is notorious for its high prices. The test itself, with the essay portion, is $64.50, and that cost can breach the $100 mark for late or waitlisted registrations. If a student wants to distinguish his or her application through an SAT Subject Test—some schools like Georgetown “strongly recommend” taking at least three—they should expect to add another $26 per test into their carts. All of this doesn’t even include the cost associated with sending those scores to colleges; although the College Board allows for four free score reports, nearly 40% of all applicants end up applying to seven schools or more, at $12 for each that goes over the Board’s free limit.  

Certainly, fee waivers exist for those who qualify, but those who find themselves slightly over that threshold—or really any middle class family, for that matter—have to endure a hefty price tag nearly a year before they get their first tuition bill. Even those who have it waived are at a disadvantage, because as was said above, they cannot afford the same level of tutoring or prep that others can.

With all that being said however, I do think that standardized testing is necessary, and while I recognize that its pricing is flawed, it is a flaw that can be fixed; the debates between whether or not standardized testing is too expensive and its usefulness—while both equally important in their own rights—are entirely separate, a conflation mistake that many make. To see why this is the case, you would need to look at the situation from the perspective of the admissions counselor, not the student.

Most applicants like to think that their profiles are unique, and if not in terms of extracurriculars, then definitely when it comes to their personal statements. This, unfortunately for many, is not the case. Admissions counselors from selective universities have been quite vocal—anonymously, of course—about how bad the typically college essay really is.

A blog post by a counselor from “a highly regarded school with a <15% admit rate” on a College Forum was very blunt on this topic: “The vast majority of essays received are bad, if not awful.”

A former counselor for UT-Austin echoed that: “Good essays are so rare that, when we received them, we often circulated them internally. In an application season where I reviewed upwards of 1500 essays, there were fifteen to twenty I would describe as outstanding.”

Even I—through my own experience with application consulting and with helping friends—have observed this to be true; simply put, most high school seniors can’t write an interesting, quality college essay. When it comes to letters of recommendation, the same highly selective counselor also reveals that because of the sheer amount of students asking for letters of recommendation, the overwhelming majority of letters are very general.

The purpose of pointing this out is not to detract from students’ accomplishments—all of which might be revealed in letters of recommendation and college essays—but rather to show that clearly, more information is needed to make the counselor’s job possible. This is where the SAT comes in.

I agree to a certain extent with one of the critiques I outlined above: that the SAT isn’t a measure of true intelligence. One, of course, needs to understand certain mathematical or English language concepts to do well, but it is wrong to look at it entirely through that lens. The SAT is primarily a test of adaptability. The SAT and especially the ACT are designed as a race against the clock, as students are made to solve a hefty chunk of problems with a little over a minute allotted for each one. The questions aren’t the most difficult, but that’s intentional: students aren’t used to that style of testing and are forced to adapt quickly to get a better score. Effectively, scores thus uncover those who are better suited towards quickly adapting to new scenarios, a valuable trait to have as one enters into a different chapter of their lives.  

Close research, like the studies found in the John Hopkins University Press’ Measuring Success: Testing Grades, and the Future of College Admissions, prove this thesis; researchers found “detailed evidence that standardized test scores (especially when combined with grades) have significant predictive validity for college performance and completion across race, gender, or socioeconomic status.” Thus, they may be more telling than more subjective aspects of the application, including GPA, which can very from school to school, or extracurriculars.

The value of such tests is proven by the numerous scholarships that students can reap solely through high scores, as seen through this PrepScholar blog. Solid schools like Clemson and Missouri give merit scholarships purely on the basis of score, while others like the University of Arizona combine it with minimum GPA requirements.

This conclusion is reminiscent of one of the previous objections that I brought up: wealthier students can afford classes that let them master such a test. The solution for this isn’t to nix the test entirely though and rob admissions counselors of a valuable way of distinguishing candidates. Instead, competition should be fostered in the sector, one that has demonstrably high demand.

This could be done either by encouraging more private companies to offer similar services, or by following the path of the U.K. and others like it who have national collegiate testing. Adopting a similar test to the UK’s A-Levels wouldn’t eliminate the SAT or AP testing—Oxford and Cambridge, for example, value both at a similar level—but would certainly force the College Board to make their service cheaper and more effective. I usually caution against government intervention in most cases, but, in a situation like this, perhaps such a thing could be effective.

Real change has to be made with how standardized testing companies operate, but at its core, the standardized test is an excellent resource for universities and shouldn’t be removed.

Matthew Pinna is a student at the University of Chicago.

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