Testing 1, 2, 3

18 Mar

Last Saturday morning the alarm on my cell phone chirped brightly at 6:15 a.m.  With a muttered oath and groan, I stuck my arm out from under the warm cocoon of my blankets to turn it off.  Five minutes later, it chirped again announcing that my snooze time was up.  Time to make the donuts.  Like Fred the baker from the 1980s Dunkin Donuts commercial, I stumbled into the bathroom, shuffling in my slippers.  In my pre-dawn haze, I wondered how swimming or ice skating parents do it every day, waking up at 4 a.m. to take their children to practice.

It was SAT exam day and it seemed like my daughter’s entire junior year class was taking it.  After weeks of test preparation and tutoring, this was it.  I made my daughter a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and packed some snacks and water.  By 7:30 I dropped her off at the test site and watched as she and other students disappeared into the school building.

Taking the SAT is a rite of passage for American teenagers applying to college.  Most colleges require submission of either the SAT I Reasoning test or ACT scores, although a growing number of colleges are now standardized test-optional.  According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing’s website, there are over 830 colleges that no longer use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of first year college students.  The list includes highly selective schools like Bates College, Bowdoin College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College.  These colleges have evidently determined that standardized tests are no longer a good predictor of college academic success.

In my posts I often compare the way things are with the way things were, if only because I’m at an age where I can.  Thirty years ago, everyone I knew took the SAT and dispensed with the ACT, which was more popular with students in the south and Midwest.  Thirty years ago, there was only one SAT; now there’s the SAT I Reasoning test, and myriad SAT II Subject Tests from biology to U.S. history.  The good news is, because colleges today will accept either the SAT I or ACT, students can pick the test that will better highlight their abilities.

Neither test is easy and the consensus is that the ACT tests knowledge while the SAT I tests aptitude.  There are other major differences:

  • The ACT does not penalize wrong answers while the SAT deducts one-quarter point per wrong answer.  So guess away on the ACT.
  • The ACT math section tests up to trigonometry while the SAT I tests up to geometry and algebra 2.
  • The ACT includes a science reasoning section that the SAT I does not have.

Lots of articles have been written about which test may be better for your child and here are two that summarize the issues succinctly: one by NPR and one in the New York Times.  Both were written in 2007 but the information is still relevant.  To help figure out which test is more suitable, students can do free practice tests on the Internet (see the College Board and ACT websites).

To complicate matters – and what’s not complicated in college admissions? – many colleges require SAT I scores along with at least two SAT II subject tests in lieu of the ACT test with writing alone (e.g., Swarthmore College).  This means that a student will need to take at least three SAT tests.  But then there are schools, like Carnegie Mellon University, that require applicants who submit their ACT scores to also submit two SAT II subject test scores.  So always double-check each college’s testing requirements.

All of this is a lot to think about and keep straight.  What’s more, students can take the tests more than once and many colleges say that they will consider the higher scores.  And there are different testing strategies to consider: picking one test and taking it more than once, taking both tests and submitting the better score, and variations thereof.  However way you look at it, it amounts to a lot of testing and test preparation in junior year.

Test-optional colleges, anyone?

 

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