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What Do The ACT & SAT Actually Test?

ACT and SAT Prep Student

What do the ACT and SAT actually test?

The students we tutor regularly pose this question to us during their prep sessions. The short answer I try to give is that it tests nothing other than how proficient one is at taking the ACT and SAT. Instead it is closer to the truth to claim that the test scores are blunt measurements that colleges use (among others, such as GPA) to help decide who gets into their schools and who doesn't. In other words, it does not test a student's intelligence nor does it predict whether or not a student will have a full and rich life, in or after college.

What do the scores mean then?

The scores from the test are mere snap shots of a student's ability on a given day to perform well on the test itself and not necessarily in life or college. They don't even test how well students learned their so-called three R's in school: Reading wRiting and aRithmetic.

I see this all the time. For example, I have tutored more than one excellent calculus student who has trouble with the timing in the math sections of these exams, but otherwise his or her content knowledge of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry is super solid. In the end, the math section scores of these students do not accurately reflect their math abilities.

But...if you want to dive into the question--what do the tests actually test--a little deeper you will readily find heaps of research and ink spilled on the topic, to the point that you could say it is a running debate.

What is the debate about?

In my best guess, the debate likely goes on because there is obviously lots of time, money and research invested into crafting these exams themselves every few months. So to dismiss the tests as mere blunt tools, as I have done above, doesn't square with large sum of resources put toward designing the exams and the large role they play in higher education for admissions processes and scholarship money. And to be fair, there is research that correlates intelligence and future college and monetary success to better scores.

I won't dive into all the studies that have been done here. But they are out there for anyone to read. In my view, even if higher test scores correlate with, say, higher intelligence as one study might show, there is the stark fact that intelligence itself is, at best, a murky concept and can be expressed in multiple ways.

Bottom line for students and parents is this: Forget the debate about what the test actually measures and concentrate on the prep. That way you can get past this hurdle on the way to college and life. After all, what do high or low test scores mean in the long run compared to hard work and the fact that students taking the exams are still maturing mentally and physically? Basic advice: Take the tests seriously and get ready for them, but don't make them a judgement on your life!

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