Monday, September 17, 2012

Why are standardized tests so important? (SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.) - Part 2

Why are standardized tests so important? – Part 2
As an SAT and  ACT tutor I've encountered many students who think that college entrance exams are truly evil, or are government conspiracies, or are more painful than root canals. While I can definitely sympathize with these beliefs - it wasn’t too long ago that I was a High School student who clung to similar theories - I've come to really appreciate in recent months the logic of standardized tests (for instance the SAT and ACT for undergrads, and the MCAT, LSAT, and GRE for grads.) More and more I understand the role they serve in the admissions process. Obviously, they give institutions a concrete, although imperfect, measure with which to group students. But I also appreciate the linearity and innate logic within the exams. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, I've developed an admiration, that's spilled over into love, for standardized tests. Like many whirlwind romances, I never anticipated this fiery passion I'd develop. We started out merely as unknown acquaintances -then they charmed me and stole my heart.
Now give me a moment to explain myself. It may seem odd that I've developed a love for inanimate objects that I hated not too long ago. So I'll explain.
 I truly enjoy teaching the ACT and SAT, and I find it fulfilling to impart knowledge to others. Whenever I'm teaching, I feel like I'm improving the world in my own little way. So in this respect, it makes sense that I've grown to like the SAT and ACT in part because they've been the subject matter of my teaching. It's like the experiments with the rats - rat hears bell at feeding time - bell is associated with food. So under this theory, teaching is interesting to me - therefore the SAT and ACT become something I like.
Still though, I think there are innate characteristics that I enjoy about the ACT and SAT. Here are the big ones: firstly, they are more or less predictable - the more practice tests you take, and prep sessions you complete, the more familiar and predictable the exam becomes. In time, you can see these tests tricks coming from a mile away. Improving then is simple - the more you study, the more you understand the test.
Furthermore, while I think the SAT and ACT each have their own shortcomings, they do a fairly good job accomplishing what they say they do, something I can appreciate about anyone or anything. They DO give colleges a crude approximation of a student’s level of understanding of some basic academic concepts. Students who get 10’s, 11’s, and 12’s on their SAT essays (out of 12 points) are generally better writers; they show a greater proclivity for language and writing, and will probably have an easier time in college classes. Students who score well on the Math section similarly show a mastery or a competency in basic algebra and geometry that will serve as a vital foundation for college level mathematical thinking.
Importantly, standardized tests don't exactly convey true intelligence; if they did, how would an almost instant jump in scores afforded by prep classes be possible? A few tutoring sessions and classroom lectures can bump a student’s overall SAT score by more than 200 points. Also many variables - like amount of sleep before test day, level of distraction, blood sugar levels, etc. - wildly affect performance. Neither do the SAT and ACT measure interpersonal intelligence, diligence, or study habits, factors perhaps more important to college success than reading and writing skills. Again though, they do offer a crude approximation of college readiness.
So they're easy to master, if you put in the time, and yet they're still useful for colleges.
Can there be an easier set up for students? A test that is at first difficult, but can be understood by anyone who puts in the time, and yet that is still viewed as important by the gatekeepers of your future.
So while the SAT is an imperfect exam, it's not a bad deal for students, if you weigh it all out. Plus I find it fun (does that make me a nerd?)
So, a student hoping to gain admission into a competitive college, or pay for college with scholarships, must understand the realities of a situation, and prepare for the realities, ideal or not.  There are definitely worse things in life.

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