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Pros & Cons of Standardized Testing for College Admissions

A blackboard with numbers 1-3 to list pros and cons.

Debates around standardized testing have been around for as long as standardized test scores have been part of education in the United States. Some argue that students undergo too much testing: by their high schools, by the state, for college admissions, etc. Others argue that standardized tests, such as the SAT and the ACT, are the only fair way to evaluate student achievement.

During the past seventy-five years, arguments about the value of the SAT and the ACT have not eliminated these tests. Yet, these tests have changed. The SAT, for instance, was originally intended to be an IQ test, a perfect encapsulation of a student’s intelligence. Now, college admissions officers know that an SAT score is not a whole picture of a high school student’s abilities. It’s just one piece among many they use to evaluate applicants.

Nevertheless, knowing some of the pros and cons of standardized testing can help you better understand the American education system as a whole and how to approach it.

The Pros of Standardized Testing for College Admissions

Below, you can find some of the major arguments in favor of standardized testing. Schools, colleges, and states that require standardized testing generally believe these to be true, even if they are also aware of some of the downsides to standardized tests (see below).

Standardized Testing Is Fair

This is probably the biggest argument proponents of standardized testing, using the SAT or ACT for college admissions, make: it’s fair. It’s a single test, taken under equal conditions, to measure student achievement fairly. By this logic, standardized test scores from the SAT and ACT are some of the only aspects of a student’s academic performance that aren’t determined by their town or school.

It Creates a Universal Standard for Education

The obvious purpose of standardized testing is to create a standard. Proponents of standardized testing argue that some kind of examination outside of school curricula—which can vary widely by school district—can help an education system better compare students from very different backgrounds because all these students took the exact same test. By measuring students against that universal standard, it becomes easier to evaluate and rank them.

It Holds Teachers and Students Accountable

In the same way that standardized tests provide a standard to measure students, they can also help set larger educational standards for schools across a state or country. Standardized tests make educational initiatives like No Child Left Behind or the Common Core more concrete by checking students’ academic progress. If students in particular school districts are struggling to perform at grade level, superintendents and governments know to get involved.

The SAT and ACT Shows Analytical Progress

Standardized testing can also help standardize individual students’ educations. In addition to comparing students against one another or identifying problematic schools or districts, standardized tests can also illustrate student progress over time. Taking the same or similar tests over the years can allow students to indicate measurable improvement.

It Provides an Inclusive Opportunity

Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, can give students from under-performing high schools a chance to prove that they have mastered ample academic material despite their circumstances. Because standardized tests are not tied to any one high school curriculum, they can offer an inclusive opportunity for students to highlight their successful performance. Proponents argue that standardized testing can help level the playing field in public education.

Many Professionals Must Take High-Stakes Standardized Tests

Finally, while much of the arguing around standardized testing is focused on high school students and younger, the fact is that standardized testing is often a fact of life well beyond secondary school. Anyone who wants to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, actuary, architect, or practitioner of another specialized profession will eventually have to excel at a standardized test. Given that, why not become familiar with test-taking in secondary school?

The Cons of Standardized Testing

On the other hand, many people do not consider the SAT and ACT to be valuable or valid assessment tool for evaluating student performance. This is why some school systems are pushing back on things like Common Core state standards and ever more colleges are becoming test-optional. Below you’ll find some of the main arguments against standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT Don’t Measure Intelligence—Only Wealth

While proponents argue that standardized tests provide an objective measure of student achievement, the data is more complicated. In fact, research suggests that the best predictor of success on the SAT is socioeconomic status rather than one’s education or grade level. Opponents of the SAT argue that this inequity arises because wealthy families have the time and money for test preparation resources and services, which essentially means that a good score can be purchased.

It Restricts Teachers’ Effectiveness and Creativity

Another major argument is that an over-reliance on test data to measure student performance negatively impacts teachers’ ability to actually do their jobs. A standardized test at the end of the school year can disrupt a teacher’s curricular plan and force him or her to cover material that might be less relevant to his or her students. Similarly, many teachers find constant testing over the course of the year to be disruptive and unproductive to student learning.

The SAT and ACT Can Negatively Impact Students’ Confidence

Another argument is that standardized testing, such as the SAT and ACT, causes otherwise successful students to lose confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many students suffer from test anxiety, meaning that they do not perform at their usual level because they find the experience of test-taking so stressful. Evaluating a student’s performance only through an impartial test can also negatively affect graduation rates if low scores demoralize students.

The SAT and ACT Unfairly Affect Public School Funding

Because standardized testing data is a matter of public record, it affects funding for public schools. However, many private schools are exempt from state and federal testing requirements, which means that those students are not bound to the same testing cycle. Meanwhile, public schools that face more significant challenges can end up being cut off from the state and federal support they need if their test results are not making the grade.

It’s Unfair to Certain Types of Learners

In addition to being unfair to low-income students, standardized tests often misrepresent the academic abilities of English Language Learner (ELL) students and students with special needs. Although testing accommodations exist, these tests are still designed with a particular student in mind. Opponents of standardized tests argue that anyone who deviates from that ideal, for whatever reason, is automatically at a disadvantage.

The SAT and ACT Don’t Predict Future Success

Ideally, a standardized test would evaluate not just what a student knows already, but also his or her learning potential. After all, colleges that use the SAT and ACT do so because they want to admit students who will succeed on their campuses. But opponents of these tests point to research that suggests that, in fact, the SAT and ACT are poor predictors of student success at the undergraduate level.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, students and families don’t always have much of a say in what standardized tests they do or don’t have to take. That decision is generally up to schools, school districts, college admissions offices, and graduate and professional programs. No matter where you come down on the arguments for and against standardized testing, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to take a few of them over the course of your education.

Nevertheless, being knowledgeable about the subject can make you a more informed and prepared test-taker. Knowing what the goals of these tests are, as well as their potential downsides, will ultimately be an advantage as you navigate the process. If you are wondering how you can start improving your grades and test scores, or if you’re looking for help designing a test strategy for you, reach out to one of our expert admissions consultants here!

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