Education

SAT test day isn’t fun. But colleges can evaluate students more fairly if we take them.

I never thought I would say these words but … please keep standardized testing for college admissions.

As a high school senior, I am facing a frenzy of college applications and a deluge of informational mailings from prospective colleges. My to-do list includes 30-plus essays for applications, scholarships and more.

Trust me, there is no one that has hated taking the SAT, PSAT, ACT and AP exams more than me. However, these tests do have tremendous benefits.

But I’m happy to have one more thing on my list: The SATs, which are being administered on Saturday and then again later in the fall. Trust me, there is no one that has hated taking the SAT, PSAT, ACT and AP exams more than me. However, these tests do have tremendous benefits not only as a benchmark for evaluating students’ knowledge, but also as a uniform metric for comparing applicants. 

Yet, increasingly, colleges are becoming “test-blind” (meaning they won’t consider test scores as part of their screening process) or “test-optional” (meaning students have the choice to submit scores, but they are not necessarily a focus in admissions). For those who want to attend college starting next fall, the FairTest advocacy organization has counted more than 1,800 institutions as test-optional or test-blind, despite the value standardized testing can bring.

That value comes in creating an equal measure to judge students whose grades might mean different things in different places. Every high school in this country has its own rigor, as do particular classes and teachers. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT help level the playing field, particularly in the face of grade inflation. 

In the United States, grade inflation is a rampant problem. High school GPAs increased 0.43 grade points, on average, from 2.68 in 1990  to 3.11 in 2019, according to the 2019 High School Transcript study done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Although GPAs increased, the average NAEP mathematics and science assessment scores declined. This means that students are earning higher grades but not necessarily achieving the college-readiness skills their transcripts suggest.

In my own experience, harsh grading was the norm in the school I went to in Florida for my freshman year. It was frustrating to see many of my close friends at other Florida schools routinely receive As and Bs in honors classes without ever cracking a book. These very same friends would often go on to fail the End of Course exams administered by the state. (Fortunately, I’m now at a school in West Virginia that practices fair, uniform grading.)

I recently learned this is known as a“rigor gap.” A 2020 Florida Department of Education study found that more than one-third of 10th-grade English students and 12% of first-year algebra students who failed the relevant End of Course exam still earned a grade of B or higher from their teachers.  

Part of the push to do away with standardized tests in admissions has been motivated by flaws in the questions themselves. But this is no longer your mother’s SAT. Prior to 2005, the SAT had analogy and vocabulary categories that were tricky and obscure to say the least, with plenty of socioeconomic bias that favored the well-heeled and well-traveled.

My own mother, who grew up in semi-rural West Virginia in an era when there was no World Wide Web, vividly remembers an esoteric SAT analogy question involving marionette theater, a foreign concept to her classmates. She also recalls being tested on the definition of words like “pulchritude” and “sesquipedalian.” Back then, rote memorization of complex vocabulary words was part of the deal, with students often trying to learn every word in the dictionary or on the infamous Barron’s 3,500 SAT Basic Word List.

However, the current SAT, reformed again in 2016, doesn’t contain these arcane vocabulary or analogy questions. In fact, after the redesigned SAT was administered, a Kaplan Test Prep Survey found that almost 60% of student respondents believed that the questions on the new SAT were straightforward and easy to follow. The current test covers more prevalent words presented with context and tests logical reasoning skills that have more application to everyday life.

Critics of standardized tests also highlight the unfair advantage students from privileged backgrounds have because they can obtain private tutors and other pricey test preparation. While this continues to be a problem, the gap is being narrowed. Myriad public resources are now available, including free official practice tests from the test makers themselves, explanatory YouTube videos and websites that help students prepare at no cost (most notably the Khan Academy SAT preparation in partnership with the College Board). Many public high schools also offer enrichment classes at no charge for developing the skills for the SAT and ACT.

More importantly, for all the criticism of these exams as biased, they can serve to uplift the disadvantaged students who need it the most, which in and of itself should be a compelling reason to keep standardized testing. Just one of the benefits for low-income students is that scores on standardized tests like the PSAT, SAT and ACT can be gateways into countless scholarship opportunities that provide financial help for pursuing higher education.    

Standardized tests are extremely stressful, of course, and they are not the end-all-be-all in determining academic achievement. But to have a fair playing field for all, standardized test scores should be included in applications so colleges can put grades in context. 

In a world with so much uncertainty, the uniformity and reliability of standardized tests ensures fairness for all students, regardless of background.

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