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

Test scores suggest a student’s intellectual capacity. For grammar, math, and reading, standardized tests can be representative of learning to date and future capacity in those areas. 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?

A strong link exists statistically between standardized test scores and socioeconomic status. This is so unfortunate because education is the world’s greatest engine for economic mobility. However, experience suggests that low test scores can also correlate with low effort, though not always. An ACT score of 17, for example, is often the product of years of less than full engagement in school, minimal test preparation, or minimal effort while taking the test that day— sometimes all three. Since the average ACT score is 19.5, student effort needs to be a national priority in education. Educators can’t change a student’s demographics, but we can strengthen the will to learn. 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. Students interested in admission to selective colleges should care about that score, which provides a competitive advantage versus applicants merely submitting a high school transcript. Further, nearly all merit-based college scholarships 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. The few but growing number of test-optional elite colleges such as UChicago, Bowdoin, and Wake Forest may not put much weight on them. However, the majority of applicants to UChicago still submit test scores for a reason: they can provide a competitive advantage versus peers only submitting a high school transcript.

Further, test scores matter because they suggest college readiness. Colleges want students who are successful in fast-moving, rigorous classes. No one benefits when a student drops out. Also, colleges want to rate high in college rankings; college ranking services consider test scores. And, colleges want another indicator of true learning to date and future ability at a time when grades vary by high school and have experienced inflation over decades, decreasing their reliability.

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

“Holistic,” means 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 have advantages — the ones with the better essays and recommendations, for example. However, the candidates with coveted attributes have huge advantages and are more likely to get in with lower or no scores— athletes, urban minorities, low-income rural students, or first-generation college students, for example.

The bottom line, all colleges that accept less than ten percent of their applicants have a glut 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. However, 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 let us know.