Case Study: How does a college use standardized test data?

By Levi Busch

(Test preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT) and English Literature tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Mom talking to her daughter

Source: via Pinterest

If you’re a student in Hong Kong who’s entertained even the faintest desire to attend university in the US, then you’ve probably known for a long time that the SAT or the ACT would be in your future. Many of my friends in high school first heard about these standardized tests when they were barely in middle school, and once their parents had made that fateful first mention of the SAT, my friends were hit by an ensuing deluge of casual threats to their destiny. Here are a memorable few that I was told about: “if you don’t start preparing for the test early, then you won’t make it into Columbia and you will end up homeless,” “I wish you would study for the ACT; don’t you want me to have an Ivy League bumper sticker on the van?” and “do you see those soldiers in Saving Private Ryan? That’s what life will be like if you don’t do well on the SAT.”

All joking aside, we all know that the SAT and the ACT are important exams, but we also all know the feeling of taking our eyes off of a math problem about how much money Harold and Juanita will get for an hour of peeling carrots at minimum wage,  sighing, and asking ourselves the age-old question: “why do I have to take this test?” It’s a strange question to ask about an exam that you’ve known about for years, but this is why it’s also a great question: everyone knows about the SAT and the ACT, everyone knows they’re important for the college admissions process, but not everyone knows the exact reason why.

With that in mind, let’s act out an admissions scenario!

Bloviation College – Garth Plexus vs. Lauren Ipsum2 students

Let’s say that you’re a member of the admissions committee at Bloviation College, a top liberal arts school with about 1,000 undergrads in the American Northeast, and you want to secure Bloviation one of its strongest, most academically prepared incoming classes ever this year. Your first assignment? You must grant admission to one of two similar candidates: Garth Plexus, a 4.0 student from a high school in West Virginia you’ve never heard of, and Lauren Ipsum, another senior with a perfect GPA from an unknown high school in Connecticut. They both have daunting lists of extracurricular activities, 1st place medals in various sports, extremely rigorous courseloads, and incredibly strong essays that affirm their desire to attend Bloviation, but you must pick one student and deny the other.

Remember how these kids both came from unknown high schools? This is an extremely important point. What if Garth Plexus’s high school is a highly selective collegiate preparatory program with exceptionally high standards? What if Lauren Ipsum’s high school looks great on paper but is known in its area for handing out perfect grades for almost no work? How can you tell the difference?

As a member of the admissions committee, you want to ensure that you’re making this selection as fairly as possible, so, noting that these students both seem similarly qualified, you look to their test scores to make the decision.

act sat and gpa score

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In assessing standardized tests, you can establish a fairly objective point of comparison between these two candidates. Since the SAT/ACT features the same content no matter where you take it, it is useful for those who must accept or deny students who are applying from vastly different educational systems around not only the US, but also the world. In your case, you now know that Garth Plexus received a 1130 on his SAT (ACT ≈ 25) and that Lauren Ipsum scored a 34 on her ACT (SAT ≈ 1530). This insinuates that Lauren Ipsum’s college preparation has been more rigorous, so, in keeping with the dean’s desire to have the strongest incoming freshman class, she receives the vaunted offer of admission. The dean of Bloviation gets to brag about the SAT/ACT stats of the college’s incoming class, and Garth Plexus must set his sights on another school in his list.

You, as an admissions officer, now have a few pieces of info on the high schools that Lauren Ipsum and Garth Plexus attended. Since Garth’s SAT scores did not reflect his GPA, you make the note that his high school may very well inflate its grades. Since Lauren’s ACT score was commensurate with her GPA and ECAs, you may assume that future applicants from her high school will demonstrate this same reliability. The more you know about these schools, the more informed your assessment of applicants from them will be.

There are, of course, many other reasons why colleges want to see your SAT/ACT scores. Some colleges publish this information in hopes of attracting top talent, some use scores to award scholarships, and some use them to determine a student’s placement in required college courses. We cannot go over all of them today, but stay tuned for later blog posts in which we continue to unravel the ways admissions committees use your scores!