A former OnToCollege student asked a few questions about diagnostic testing, questions that we’ve heard from many others before.

What do test scores say about a student’s intellectual ability?

Test scores suggest a student’s intellectual capacity when it comes to the material covered on the diagnostic test, which for grammar, math, and reading can be quite representative of the student’s learning to date and future capacity in those areas of study. Still, standardized test results do not reflect work ethic, civility, artistic skill, or ability to get along with others, all very helpful attributes for future success.

Does socioeconomic status play a role in doing well on standardized tests?

There is a strong link statistically between standardized test scores and socioeconomic status, which is saddening because education is the world’s greatest economic mobility engine. However, experience suggests that low test scores can also correlate with low effort, though not always. A score of a 17 on an ACT, for example, is often the product of years of less than full engagement in school or minimal test preparation or minimal effort while taking the test that day— sometimes all three. Since the average ACT score is about 20 in the fourteen or so states that mandate all juniors take the ACT, the issue of effort is a primary challenge nationally in education. As educators, we can’t change a student’s demographics, but we can strengthen the will to learn. Strengthening motivation, in a widespread way, is the primary goal. Improved academic outcomes, including test scores, will follow.

Standardized tests and student motivation

Why should a student care about their standardized test scores?

Standardized test scores are indicators of learning to date and ability in the future, a valued component of most colleges’ admissions and scholarship decision-making.  So students interested in admission to selective colleges (typically the colleges that reject the majority of their applicants) should care about that score. Further, nearly all merit-based college scholarships significantly consider ACT or SAT scores. So if you’re not excited about paying full price for college, prepare hard for the ACT or SAT, the best paying job a high school student could have (jumping that GPA is another).

How much weight do elite colleges put on standardized test scores?

Most elite colleges don’t clearly state how much weight they put on standardized test scores. Apparently the few but growing number of test-optional elite colleges such as UChicago, Bowdoin, Wake Forest, and Bates do not put much weight on them. However, all of the other elite colleges do weigh standardized test scores significantly for many reasons.

These colleges want students who are comfortable in fast-moving, rigorous classes; higher test scores suggest that they will be. Also these colleges want to rate high in college rankings; nearly all college ranking services consider test scores. And these colleges want another indicator of learning to date and future ability at a time when grade inflation nationwide, over decades, has decreased the reliability of the GPA. There may be other reasons. However, the perceived difference between a 34 and a 36 on the ACT or a 1520 and a 1580 on the SAT is not much, so a developed extra-curricular skill can have more impact than those extra few points at the top end of the scoring range.

Is the college admissions process truly holistic? Why or why not?

Most people, when saying “holistic,” mean a more subjective, more qualitative approach—something that takes into consideration the “whole” person and her or his less quantifiable attributes. Yes, there’s a lot of subjectivity in selective college admissions. The more likable applicants often get in — the ones with the better essays and recommendations, for example. The candidates with less represented attributes are more likely to get in with lower scores— urban minorities, low-income rural students, or first generation college students, for example. Bottom line, all of the colleges that accept less than ten percent of their applicants have an abundance of more than qualified applicants, requiring admissions pros to exercise significant subjectivity. Meanwhile, the non-selective colleges take the majority of their applicants and often their scholarships follow a score and GPA formula, but their biggest scholarships often also involve significant subjectivity. So yes, good scores and GPAs are critical, but holistic admissions are prevalent.

If you have a question you’d like John to answer in a future blog, please email them to john@ontocollege.com.