What do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure?

Emma Pallante

     In the American education system, college entrance exams are considered one of the most crucial components used to determine whether a student will thrive at higher educational institutions. Elite schools like the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard typically admit students who have achieved scores in the highest percentile on standardized tests. These tests are supposed to determine one’s aptitude,  but do these exams accurately measure the students’ capabilities to succeed at elite institutions?     

        The anti-standardized test movement is on an upward trend for a variety of different reasons. One reason is due to students with test anxiety performing poorly on standardized tests:  not because they don’t know the answers, but because they are feeling too anxious to demonstrate what they have learned. Other students with certain learning disabilities, such as reading disabilities,  may be equally as intelligent as others taking the exams but may have trouble understanding what the problems are asking. It may also be possible for some students to get confused by unfamiliar references on standardized tests. These are just some examples of reasons why testing does not always provide reliable or valid indicators of a student’s true capabilities. This is unfortunate because testing problems may result in students being denied admission at a school where they may actually thrive. Additionally, some people  also argue that the tests are biased because students from wealthy families often score higher than students from families with limited financial resources. 

        That is not a new problem. An article by Sabrina Tavernise published in The New York Times in 2012 highlighted the education gap between the rich and the poor. Tavernise’s article asserted that the wealthier students enjoy advantages over their lower income peers when it comes to test prep and therefore weakens diversity of accepted students. This is not surprising because test prep tutoring such as the Princeton Review costs around $1,299 for just 2 months of private tutoring. Therefore, if a family is struggling financially, they will not have the ability to pay for test prep that could help children perform well on these hard tests. Many poor and middle class school districts do not offer free SAT prep courses. This disparity continues to result in wealthier students having a leg up on students whose families have a lower income. Wealth also allows some families to find other ways to make the admissions process work in their favor.

       In 2019,  United States federal prosecutors charged around 53 wealthy parents with conspiracy in relation to a college admissions scandal. Some parents involved were charged with paying people to fraudulently take standardized tests for their children. Other parents actually bribed college officials to admit their children. These are obviously examples of illegal and unfair schemes, but wealthy students are also legally getting ahead in terms of college admission all the time. For instance, the average cost of a Philadelphia private prep school is approximately $16,000, and some schools charge as much as $66,000. Students at many of these schools are known for their outstanding SAT scores and for attending elite colleges. Students at some of the prep schools in this area achieve SAT scores in the top 75-90 percentile and average ACT scores above 27. Popular colleges these students attend include University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Yale University, and New York University. These colleges are seen as elite in the workforce, and, therefore, their graduates are often guaranteed excellent jobs with financial security for the future.  

     Despite the valid objections to these tests, it is understandable that college admission officers use them when determining admittance. Test scores do provide some reliable data that helps admissions staff to evaluate the many thousands of students who apply to their institutions. There is also some evidence that SAT scores do often predict college GPA. It is also important to note that just because students who attend elite private high schools have more opportunities than those students from other schools does not mean they do not earn their spot at elite universities.   

     With evidence to support both the pros and cons of standardized testing, it’s not surprising that this remains a controversial topic.