TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, March 12, 2018

WSJ: The Truth About The SAT And ACT

Wall Street Journal, The Truth About the SAT and ACT:

Myths abound about standardized tests, but the research is clear: They provide an invaluable measure of how students are likely to perform in college and beyond.

This Saturday, hundreds of thousands of U.S. high-school students will sit down to take the SAT, anxious about their performance and how it will affect their college prospects. And in a few weeks, their older peers, who took the test last year, will start hearing back from the colleges they applied to. Admitted, rejected, waitlisted? It often hinges, in no small measure, on those few hours spent taking the SAT or the ACT, the other widely used standardized test.

Standardized tests are only part of the mix, of course, as schools make their admissions decisions. They also rely on grades, letters of recommendation, personal statements and interviews. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The SAT and ACT matter. They help overwhelmed admissions officers divide enormous numbers of applicants into pools for further assessment. High scores don’t guarantee admission anywhere, and low scores don’t rule it out, but schools take the tests seriously.

And they should, because the standardized tests tell us a lot about an applicant’s likely academic performance and eventual career success. Saying as much has become controversial in recent years, as standardized tests of every sort have come under attack. But our own research and that of others in the field show conclusively that a few hours of assessment do yield useful information for admissions decisions.

Unfortunately, a lot of myths have developed around these tests—myths that stand in the way of a thoughtful discussion of their role and importance.

Myth: Tests Only Predict First-Year Grades
Longitudinal research demonstrates that standardized tests predict not just grades all the way through college but also the level of courses a student is likely to take. Our research shows that higher test scores are clearly related to choosing more difficult majors and to taking advanced coursework in all fields. ...

Myth: Tests Are Not Related to Success in the Real World
Clearly there are many factors, beyond what is measured by tests, that have an impact on long-term success in work and life. But fundamental skills in reading and math matter, and it has been demonstrated, across tens of thousands of studies, that they are related, ultimately, to job performance. ...

Myth: Beyond a Certain Point, Higher Scores Don’t Matter
Some might concede that these skills are important—but only up to a point, beyond which higher scores don’t matter. It’s an understandable intuition, but the research clearly shows that, all else being equal, more is better. ...

Myth: Common Alternatives to Tests Are More Useful

Admissions staff often rely on letters of recommendation, interviews and student essays and personal statements to create a complete picture of a student. It’s a worthy goal. Success is not just a function of high-school grades and test scores. Unfortunately, most of these tools are not stellar indicators of future success. ...

Myth: Tests Are Just Measures of Social Class
Admissions tests aren’t windows into innate talent; rather, they assess skills developed over years of education. They evaluate a student’s capacity to read and interpret complex prose, think critically and reason mathematically. How well students develop these skills is influenced, of course, by many factors, including educational quality, high expectations, stable communities and families, and teacher behavior. It is a tragic reality that these factors are not equally distributed across social class and race in the U.S. ...

Myth: Test Prep and Coaching Produce Large Score Gains
If tests were easily coached and coaching was only available to the wealthy, there would be an equity problem, even if tests are generally useful. Commercial test prep is clearly expensive, so this is a critical issue. Researchers have conducted a mix of experimental studies and controlled field studies to test this question. They have generally concluded that the gains due to test prep are more on the order of 5 to 20 points and not the 100 to 200 points claimed by some test prep companies. ...

Myth: Tests Prevent Diversity in Admissions
Do standardized tests have a negative impact on the admission of a racially diverse student body? A good test of this would be to look at schools where admissions tests are optional for applicants and compare them to schools that use the tests. Recent research demonstrates that testing-optional schools have been enrolling increasingly diverse student bodies. But the same is true of schools that require testing. ...

Standardized tests are just tools—very effective tools—but they provide invaluable information to admissions offices. They identify those students who need help catching up with fundamental skills and those who are ready to tackle advanced material and rapidly accelerate in their learning.

(Hat Tip: Trey Childress.)

Legal Education | Permalink


Not a myth: The ACT actually makes more accurate predictions when only the English and Math sections are considered and the other two sections are ignored.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Mar 12, 2018 3:43:25 PM

OK, so the correlation between standardized test scores and college grades and career success is causation because [unspecified reasons] but the correlation between socioeconomic background and standardized scores is not causation because [unspecified reasons] and the correlation between socioeconomic background and career success is apparently unknowable. Seems super legit. [rolls eyes]

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 12, 2018 11:51:31 PM

No, UEN. You don't understand causation. Standardized test scores do not "cause" career success. Scores cannot cause something. Rather, the claim is that they predict success. On the other hand, socioeconomic background might cause career success, if it can be proven.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Mar 14, 2018 11:02:06 AM

Let me rephrase: there are well-documented correlations both between standardized test scores and grades and between socioeconomic background and standardized test scores, yet the article in its fervor to advocate for standardized tests attempts to dismiss the latter correlation while claiming the former is some manner of unimpeachable human truth. Of course per Jerome Karabel "The Chosen" the SAT (which was created by Charles Campbell Brigham, a proto-Murray eugenicist whose execrable "History of American Intelligence" makes "Bell Curve" seem subtle) was also long claimed to be a de facto IQ test... until Stanley Kaplan's NYC test prep business in the 1950s showed how teachable the test was (the reality of which contradicts another of the article's assertions). My point is if one is to cherry-pick which correlations have validity and which do not without limning why in any fashion, they should be called out on it. One might note that an increasing number of selective colleges have gone test-optional in recent years, so evidently the faith in the correlation between the SAT and college performance isn't too strong at, inter alia, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Wake Forest, Smith, GW, and so on.

We all know that socioeconomic background, at a minimum, puts a heavy finger on the scale of selective college admissions in multiple forms, which in turn has an enormous effect on where goes to grad school and/or if they can start their career in an "elite" industry/company. Even today, 40-60% of students at the major Ivies come from well into the top 10% of household incomes (as can easily be gleamed from their financial aid policies) and per Deresiewicz nearly a 1/4 of students at HYP still come from just 100 of the nation's 37,000 high schools (to say nothing of the world's # of high schools). 94 of those schools are private. Go figure.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 15, 2018 10:08:26 AM