Student demands more support for standardized tests

How do you prepare students for the ACT or SAT?  I teach the concepts tested, and I try to familiarize students with the test format, but that’s the extent of it for my Kentucky juniors.  For his final project in AP Language this year, one of my students took me to task on this point.  Read his article and let us know what you think:

SAT/ACT Test Prep in Schools?

This Student Says Yes

By Andrew Bates

On a rainy morning sometime in March, all 200 of my classmates were crowded into our high school’s cavernous gymnasium to take the ACT. That morning, every junior in the Kentucky public school system took the test for free. As I reclined in my desk during the long wait to begin, surveying the crowd of 16 and 17-year-olds, my eyes drifted from student to student. A few slept. A solid fourth of the room looked impervious to the significance of the ACT—slumped over, heads down, as if they had just been assigned a long list of chores. A few students were as sprightly as ever, radiating a playful disregard for the officiousness of ACT administration. Several students practically shook with pre-test nerves. And just a couple of students, myself included, wore faces of utter focus. These were the top students in the class, who understood the gravity of the test but felt confident in their abilities. These students were ready to beat the ACT.

(1998 Mark A. Hicks)

We had been learning ACT math, English, and reading content for years, so why were so few students prepared for the test that determines where (or whether) one can attend college? The answer is surprisingly simple: the few students that were genuinely ready for the ACT prepared on their own, outside of school—a safe assumption because the majority of schools* fail to teach the critical test-specific strategies that make the ACT beatable.

This reality is a large part of what keeps the ACT and SAT from being democratic tests—to excel requires a commitment of time and money to preparation. Wealthier, more educated parents are more likely to invest in their children’s ACT/SAT prep. The College Board’s own demographic data show that SAT scores are highly correlated with parental wealth, with students from families earning more than $200,000 a year averaging a combined score of 1714 and students from families earning under $20,000 a year averaging a combined score of 1326. ACT sells its own coaching books, indicating its acceptance of the test’s vulnerability to simple preparation. The Princeton Review test prep company boasts of the SAT’s vulnerability to its strategies: “It’s a game you can get good at, and beating the test can be fun.”

The vulnerability of the ACT and SAT to simple preparation is great news for students who can afford the requisite prep materials, ranging from study books to practice tests to actual classes.

However, the tests quickly become unfair for disadvantaged students, who go into the testing room without knowledge of basic techniques while their well-off counterparts saunter into the room armed with every trick known to The Princeton Review’s diligent staff.

Consider the following SAT math question, taken from The Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT:

9. Zoe won the raffle at a fair. She will receive the prize money in 5 monthly payments. If each payment is half as much as the previous month’s payment, and the total of the payments is $496, what is the amount of the first payment?

A) $256

B) $96

C) $84

D) $16

E) $4

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the writers of the SAT, want the test taker to solve this question by setting up the following algebraic equation: p + (1/2)p + (1/4)p + (1/8)p + (1/16)p = 496. However, solving this equation can easily lead to careless mistakes and wrong answers. Princeton Review advises that instead of using real mathematics to solve the question, you can simply Plug In the Answers (PITA) to crack it. You start with the median answer, C. Adding up the resulting payments yields a total of $162.75, which is much too small, so C, D, and E can be ruled out. All that is left to do is try choice B. If B works, it is the answer, and if B does not work, A is the only choice left. ETS’s answer, by the way, was A (B yielded a total of 186, still too small).

Education idealists will argue that Princeton Review’s method of solving this problem is not math, and that students should be learning only the algebraic method. They would be right—it is not math. But this is not school; it is the SAT. The SAT, in the words of the Princeton Review staff, is “not a test of aptitude…or how successful you will be in life. The SAT simply tests how well you take the SAT.”

If you were preparing for a basketball game, you would practice basketball, not football or coaching or sports medicine. If you were preparing for a spelling bee, you would study spelling, not punctuation. French students preparing for le baccalauréat study the contents of le bac. Likewise, if you are preparing for the SAT and ACT, you should study the SAT and ACT, not an entire high school curriculum. Here lies the problem with how schools prepare (or fail to prepare) their students for these outrageously important tests.

My own small high school in Kentucky takes the statewide ACT very seriously. For my class, the hype began freshman year, when we took a practice PLAN test—a practice practice ACT, for lack of a better term. Sophomore year, we took the PLAN along with a practice ACT. Junior year we took the same practice ACT and finally the real ACT in March. Through this entire carnival of ACT-related activities, not once were we given the opportunity to look back at the questions we missed on practice tests, and because of an issue with the company that provides our practice tests, we never even received scores for the practice ACT we took sophomore year.

What’s more, we learned very little in the classroom that had much relevance to the ACT. Well-meaning math teachers handed us stacks of practice ACT math tests, but the few times we went over them in class, we only received the mistake-prone, time-consuming, proper way to solve tricky questions, using advanced algebra, geometry, and probability. English teachers earnestly assigned us dozens of pages of reading from our textbook, very little of which pertained to the five or so basic ACT English concepts. Despite all the reading and analysis we do in our English classes, we never learned how to apply these skills to the ACT. The ACT science test was completely ignored.

I do not hold my teachers or administrators accountable for the lack of preparation. The issue at hand is not incompetence or ineffective teaching. It is not an outdated curriculum. This issue is an educational culture where the idea of teaching to a standardized test is so taboo that we harm students’ chances of success by ignoring the predictability and weaknesses of the tests. The curriculum we currently follow is effective at teaching students to think, write, and solve problems. But the SAT and ACT do not test those skills—not effectively, at least.

Whether one supports the testing system or not, data showing the bias of the SAT and ACT cannot be ignored, and a brief review of the contents and records of each test shows that they measure neither intelligence nor potential. Simply put, they are not fair tests, and their unfairness renders them useless.

Why, then, must our education system contribute to the unfairness of the tests? We teach all of our students vast quantities of in-depth information and skills, and then we place them in a desk in a huge gymnasium, hand them a pencil and a test booklet, and ask them to sort it all out in a stressful four hours. We don’t let them proceed, however, without reminding them that these four hours might determine whether or not they can go to college. Good luck!

No wonder well-off students who prepare on their own chronically outperform minorities and the poor. Students who prepare on their own learn to focus an approximate knowledge of many things down to an exact knowledge of the ACT/SAT. Their hapless, unprepared peers must wade through a mess of useless excess information, a major reason why even brilliant students can have lower test scores if they are from a disadvantaged background.

The biases of the SAT and ACT will remain as long as colleges require the SAT and ACT as admissions criteria. The stylish 2016 overhaul of the SAT, with its reduced emphasis on vocabulary and its optional essay, might make the test somewhat less blatantly biased against minorities and ESL students. However, these changes do not touch the character of the test—it will still serve the same purpose and it will still be ripped apart by well-prepared students equipped with the latest test-cracking techniques.

Since the SAT and ACT are not going anywhere any time soon (the business of testing is too lucrative to be abolished anyway), we are left with a choice. Either we can forget our ideals about the integrity of test preparation and begin teaching students the tricks to the SAT/ACT, or we can continue to allow wealthy students an edge by ignoring the predictability and simplicity of the tests. It is a matter of high schools doing their job. Their job is not to judge the ethics of teaching to a test; it is to prepare students for success. College acceptance and scholarships are undoubtedly large contributors to success in life, and the SAT and ACT are critical to both.

Test preparation does not have to be an enormous time commitment. Teachers will be rightfully reluctant to spend valuable class time on a stupid test. Efficiency is key—several focused lessons during the course of one week would surely suffice. Class time, however, is not imperative to a fair preparation system. Most important is to provide all students with equal access to preparation materials.

Let us stop throwing our students under the bus in the name of true education and confront the issue head-on. To democratize the testing system will require radical change. Teaching test strategies to everyone is a step in the right direction.


*I surveyed a number of friends from other high schools in Kentucky (and one in rural Ohio), from schools as diverse as a Catholic all-girls’ school in Louisville, a public school in southeastern Kentucky, and a private school in Lexington. The private schools were the only schools where all students have access to test prep. Some public schools offer test prep to gifted students but not all students; most public schools offer none.


Additional resources:

College Board demographic information:

Bias of the ACT:

SAT’s failure to predict success:

See: Katzman, John, and Adam Robinson. Cracking the SAT. 2014 ed. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.