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College Admissions Testing: Even More of an Arms Race

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Originally published on Inside Higher Ed, January 6, 2020

The ACT’s recent announcement that students will be able to retake individual sections sounds like good news, and as a test prep tutor, I can say with confidence that lots of students will be better off under the new policy. While students usually get scores pretty much in line with their practice scores, the ACT, like other tests, has a margin for error. As a result, it’s common for students to max out on some of the sections and underperform on others. Until now, students who did well on three of the four ACT sections would usually be better off not taking it again unless the other section was a total disaster. The hassle of maintaining one’s skills across so many dimensions is considerable, and while they might do better on the one bad section, they would likely do worse on some of the others. Even when colleges superscore (consider only the best sections), they can see the other performances, and you don’t want colleges to see you crash and burn just to have a chance at a modest improvement on one section. Now, though, I’ll change my advice. If you can take only part of the test, you can focus only on your weak section(s), and so you’ll be better off taking more shots at the ACT in the hopes of getting a score in line with (or even better than) your real skill level. This sounds like a good thing, because lots of students will be able to improve their admissions chances with less hassle. But it’s more complicated than that. Consider this: The competition has this option, too. It’s not just you that can improve your score by taking the test lots of times. Everyone else can do it, too, and that creates an incentive to keep chasing a few points just to keep up. As a result, everyone will have to work harder just to be competitive. This could be the testing equivalent of the higher ed arms race: the grad degree is the old college degree, the college degree is the old high school degree, and pretty soon you need to take on burdensome student loans just to have a shot at a job as a bartender. Similarly, taking Advanced Placement exams used to be a good way to demonstrate interest in a subject and get some college credits. But the explosive growth of AP testing has turned an advantage into a requirement. Students are now under immense pressure to take AP courses just to stay competitive, and as a result, already overscheduled students are slaving away in courses in which they have no interest. How much smaller would AP Chemistry and AP Calculus be if the only people who took them were people who were actually interested in the subjects? The process is already too long and getting longer. Years ago, I advised students to wait until the second semester of junior year to take the SAT or the ACT. Now, though, I advise them to get their scores long before APs and finals, before their junior year starts, if possible. Although I feel guilty for encroaching on their summer, for many, the summer before junior year is the only time when they’ll be able to give test preparation the attention it needs. Once the school year starts, they’re completely exhausted, drowning in worksheet-based tedium. The fetishization of “resilience” and “effort” has bought us a punishing system of compliance-based education that puts students on a treadmill with no off switch. Is it any wonder that today’s students are less likely to hold jobs or to date? And we keep raising the ante. If students have an incentive to keep taking the ACT, they will, and they’ll also have an incentive to start earlier as well. If bad scores don’t matter, why not take a crack or two as early as possible? More testing favors the already advantaged. By now, the relationship between test scores and parental income is well established and well-known. High-stakes testing reflects the economic inequality of modern society, and it also magnifies it. The more privileged among us start with better prenatal care, attend safer schools with better resources and have parents who can afford to pay expensive tutors, such as, well, me. Preparing for these tests is part of the culture in higher-socioeconomic-status communities, and it makes a difference. Similarly, if students have the option of paying for more tests that might give them an edge, the already advantaged will not hesitate to sign up, but low-SES families will have a tougher decision to make. Having the money to take the ACT lots of times is not the most important issue related to economic inequality, but it is another brick in the wall. Being customer focused isn’t always a good thing. Back in the day, most everyone took only one of the tests, probably just once, towards the end of junior year. Since then, students have become aware of both the SAT and the ACT, the number of test dates has increased, it’s much easier to bury a bad score, unpopular question types such as analogies and antonyms have been eliminated, wrong-answer penalties have been abolished, the number of choices on the SAT has been reduced to four from five, and the tests have become less of a measure of abstract reasoning skills and more of a measure of the exact skills taught in school. As the ACT and the SAT fought for market share, each change made sense in that it served an articulated need, but all of them together have taken us to a strange place. Now, students work harder to get to the same place, and the skills rewarded in college admissions are the same ones that were rewarded in high school. Customers keep getting what they want, but they’re no better off for it. At some point, we may look back at the days of less flexibility with envy, because people usually got the score they needed without it dominating their life, and the tests rewarded skills outside the typical high school curriculum. What is to be done? It’s too late to go back, of course. Even compelling evidence of dysfunction wouldn’t arrest this trend now that it has momentum. Still, we can at least make conscious choices and maintain sanity in a current of escalation. I tell my students to pick either the SAT or ACT, and change only when there’s clear evidence to do so. I try to get them to focus preparation in a tight window, do their best and move on to more rewarding aspects of life. And I remind them that the skills measured by these tests are overemphasized in the college admissions process but are much less important in the real world. High school and college admissions tests may be a tedious slog, but there’s a better world of curiosity, inspiration and creativity waiting to be explored.

Bio Ben Paris is a private tutor and learning designer with more than 25 years of experience in test preparation and educational assessment. He has designed test-preparation courses, trained hundreds of teachers and personally taught thousands of students how to succeed on standardized tests.

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