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A Closer Look at College Entrance Exams

Original post made by Daniel Morizono on Dec 30, 2009

Standardized testing is supposed to level the playing field for college-bound students. The morning of test day, thousands of students from across the country take the same SAT or ACT exam. From a college admission officer's perspective, tests are "standardized" because educational opportunities for students vary widely across the United States. Not every high school can afford to support a range of AP and honors courses, clubs, sports, and other activities, as San Ramon HS or Monte Vista HS can. Standardized testing is a constant that measures true from school to school and from student to student. That's the way things are supposed to be.

I took the SAT exam in March and June of my junior year. My scores in Critical Reading, Writing, and Math were all higher the second time around, so I didn't need to use Score Choice. I knew that colleges would take my June scores over my March scores by default, so I sent both results to every college I applied to. However, Score Choice is not where I take issue with standardized testing. Many students applying to college simply take these tests without asking themselves how they are being examined. In reality, the SAT (I don't have firsthand experience with the ACT) is flawed in its design. The shortcomings of the SAT feed into the larger dysfunctions of standardized testing and its role in the college admissions process.

Let's start with length. The SAT is three hours and 45 minutes long. Included is an unscored "experimental section" looked at only by the test-makers. Before the test begins, students must spend about 40 minutes bubbling in personal information and listening to exam protocol. With breaks, the whole exam lasts about 5 hours. The College Board doesn't tell you this, but the SAT is a test of stamina more than anything else. How long can you keep you eyes moving in a horizontal direction on those long-reading passages? How long can you find the value of x and x/y and (x/y)^2 for?

Next is the essay. Part of the newly revised SAT, the essay consists a 25-minute timed response to a prompt. Many test-prep programs and SAT guidebooks advise you to outline the essay with prepared examples prior to taking the test. The introduction paragraph should begin by stating your viewpoint on the issue at hand followed by something along the lines of, "this reality is exemplified by the diverse examples of x,y, and z." Because the prompts are fairly open-ended most can be answered using this similar method. However writing is not supposed to be such a formulaic process, but instead should be an analytical and reflective exercise. In 2005, an MIT study found that essays written with larger handwriting tended to score better than essays with smaller handwriting, even though both essays say the same thing. The SAT essay is not a solid indicator of writing aptitude, rather it measures how much you can write in a short period of time and how well you can follow directions.

Finally, the SAT caters to those who can afford expensive test-prep programs. Because each exam tests the same concepts and tends to ask the same questions, the SAT becomes increasingly easier with preparation. The cost of test-prep programs can range in the thousands of dollars. While more affordable options such as SAT prep books exist, only the highly motivated student will spend the time and energy reading through this dense material. The student who is willing to study the books is likely to do well on the test anyways. It is far more easy to sign up for a test-prep program and learn the material from a trained teacher. In other words, it is far more easy to be spoon-fed the information, rather than doing all the work by oneself.

We students do not learn how to do well on college entrance exams in school. We learn how to write or how to do math, but we don't learn how to take these tests. That much is left to private test-prep businesses that only the affluent can afford. If public high schools integrated standardized testing into their curriculum, then good schools would be known for producing good exam takers. Alternatively, the College Board could more align the material on their tests with the curriculum taught in schools. Even more radically, more colleges could go the way of Bowdoin and Middlebury and make standardized testing optional for prospective students. These possibilities could make preparation for the SAT and ACT more accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. While no test will ever be perfect, in an age when college admissions are more competitive than ever, our college entrance exams should be held to the highest standards of fairness and quality.

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The Teen Wire provides a perspective on today's youth, in the face of a changing world. Daniel Morizono, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School, news editor of the Wolfprint, and managing editor of the SRVHS International Studies Academy can be contacted at theteenwire@gmail.org.

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This is the fourth in a six-week series of blogs about applying to college by admission advisor Elizabeth LaScala and Teen Wire high school senior Daniel Morizono - showing both sides of the coin, so to speak. Topics will cover everything from pressures to apply early, to parental involvement, to dealing with acceptance, rejection and the hated wait-list option.

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