Love them or hate them, the ACT and SAT serve a number of valuable purposes. Currently, both tests are primarily (but not entirely) college admissions exams. And despite the controversy and anxiety that inevitably accompany the ACT and SAT, most colleges continue to rely on them to inform admissions decisions.
Granted, a human being is so much more than a number, but quantitative data matters a lot when evaluating applicants in a pool that exponentially exceeds the number of available seats. Furthermore, standardized test scores aren’t even the most important numbers. All things being equal, a student’s grade point average is the first and foremost metric that matters.
Why, then, are tests needed at all? Can’t grades tell the full story of a student’s academic ability?
Unfortunately, grades are not enough in most instances. One reason they cannot always be trusted is the dramatic variability in academic excellence from school to school and even teacher to teacher. School grades are generally based on criterion-referenced tests and assessments, which are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards. Combine criterion-referenced tests with generous amounts of extra credit and grade inflation, and pretty soon grades don’t mean much at all.
In fact, even graduating high school serves as no guarantee that a student is ready for college-level study. The New York Times recently addressed the unreliability of high school diplomas:
…It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and country — urban, suburban and rural — where the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy.
With 93 diploma options available across our 50 states and the District of Columbia for the class of 2014, college admissions officers are understandably eager for more signifiers of college readiness. Enter the ACT and SAT. These valuable, highly scrutinized norm-referenced tests rank each year’s college-bound population in ways that add critical context to student grades. As long as they do so, colleges will embrace them, so students should as well.