In 2001, I was in 8th grade and looking toward high school. My local high school was decent, but I wanted the best education I could get, so I asked my parents to call local private high schools to ask them to send me profiles of their school. Graduates of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL had the highest average ACT scores compared to those from other local private schools, so I set my sights on attending there. I received a 50% need-based scholarship, but my parents (a hospice chaplain and a teacher assistant for students with special needs) still could not afford to send me there, so I also got a job caddying and paid a quarter of the remaining tuition each year so that I could attend.
My hard work paid off. My rigorous high school studies prepared me well and, without test prep, I scored a 33 on the ACT. That was enough to get me accepted into the University of Chicago, and the rest is, as they say, history.
But that is my story. Why should others care about the SAT and ACT? Because my story is just one example of the positive impact that the SAT and ACT have on students, high schools, colleges, the U.S. workforce, our country, and the world.
Although not perfect (nothing is), the SAT and ACT help the world in the following ways:
Helping families select the right high school:
The average SAT and ACT scores of a high school’s graduates are some of the best pieces of information to help students and parents decide on which school districts to live in and/or where to attend high school. It worked for me (with no preparation I was able to do well on the ACT because my rigorous high school education prepared me for the test). If the average SAT and ACT scores of a high school’s graduates are high, families can be very sure that the high school sends students to great colleges. And high schools are aware that families evaluate them on the basis of standardized test scores: this is why high schools publish these results in their school profiles. (And think if there were no SAT and ACT scores: students would actually be incentivized to attend easier high schools where they could more easily get A’s – that trade-off of getting a higher GPA but lower quality education would unnecessarily hurt students’ educations, decrease the quality of students at colleges, and be devastating to the U.S. workforce.)
Helping high schools evaluate the education they deliver:
Average graduate SAT and ACT scores help high schools understand the quality of education they provide so that they can best equip students to succeed (since the SAT and ACT test fundamental skills and knowledge needed to succeed in both college and life).1, 2, 15, 16 In contrast to a state’s own standardized tests (which are often not mandatory or taken seriously by students and are not comparable to the tests in other states), the nationally standardized SAT and ACT are taken seriously by students, provide high schools with results that can be understood nationally, and evaluate high schools on what most high schools care most about: how well they are preparing students to gain admittance to and succeed at college.
Helping reward hard-working students:
SAT and ACT scores also help students differentiate themselves in an era of rampant grade inflation.3, 4, 5, 19, 20 (About half of students in the U.S. currently graduate with an “A” average.) 6 Especially if hard-working students attend a high school that colleges are not familiar with (such as one in a rural area), without SAT or ACT scores, these students would likely go unnoticed by colleges. With GPA alone and no standardized measures, colleges have no way to evaluate how well students are prepared for undergraduate coursework because they do not know the quality and difficulty of the high school. Thankfully, SAT and ACT scores ensure that the hardest working students – regardless of the school they attend – will more likely be recognized for their academic achievement.
Helping colleges match students to schools that fit both parties best:
These scores also help colleges to make better admission decisions so that students will be appropriately prepared to succeed at that college (the inclusion of considering SAT or ACT scores with high school GPA improves predicting a student’s success).1, 2, 7, 8, 9 Students who are mismatched to more difficult colleges than they are prepared to succeed at are at greater risk of succeeding less in life and even of dropping out of college but still burdened by college debt.10, 11 In fact, 47% of people who start but do not finish college are in default on their student loans, which average $14,000.12
Helping employers select good candidates:
In addition to the intrinsic benefits of education, why do we care about it? Because the practical benefits are a better high school, better college, better job, and – hopefully – better life for oneself, others, and future generations. Without the SAT and ACT, the quality of students admitted to colleges would diminish and employers would lose trust in how well vetted students at those colleges are. Because employers need to find the most appropriate and best applicants for jobs, what would they then do? Increase their own (much less objective) pre-employment testing (as they have already been doing, potentially in response to the increase in grade inflation at colleges).13, 14, 17, 18 A decrease in employers’ trust in the value of a college education hurts all students who have worked so hard (and paid so much) to attend college, in addition to hurting the ability of employers to find the right people to hire.
The SAT and ACT, then, are engines for academic excellence in which students can select better high schools, high schools strive toward higher educational quality, colleges and employers can more accurately select for and reward hard work, and our society benefits from a better educated, more capable populace. This striving toward excellence helps our country thrive as a dynamo of innovation and opportunity and helps the world by extension.
Like me, countless students are encouraged to work hard because they know that there are objective measures (the SAT and ACT) that can help them rise above the constraints of the zip code of their home and school. Work hard, and you will succeed.
- David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p.87
- The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, Paul Tough, p.309