A Case for the ACT

Now more than ever, there seems to be quite a bit of Groupthink among High School students, particularly with the emergence of the social media age; The opinions of the whole population largely shift together. Think about it. Whether it is deep-rooted social issues like gay marriage or even things as petty as the amount of homework they receive, by and large, the opinion of the masses tends to shift together. This Groupthink of course applies to one of the chief issues that High School students face in standardized testing, particularly the ACT and SAT. These tests represent a sort of crossroads for students.

A high score can open doors previously previously thought impossible, while a disappointing mark can provide a lesson in the the harsh realities of the world. Regardless, they provide more impact than any other single figure in the college admissions process. The tests are arbitrary, they will say. They don’t measure intelligence, just test taking ability. Perhaps a few particularly spirited debaters will even cite studies linking income to test scores. While these points are all well and good, and even hold some validity, they fail to capture the heart of the matter: these tests are a necessary evil on the path to a college education.

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Across the country, the rigor of courses, the competitiveness of schools, as well as the generosity, are not the same. A 4.0 in a wealthy prep school on the Upper East side as it is in an inner city school a few blocks away. What may be good enough to be a valedictorian at one school may not make the top ten percent at another. This is where the primary use of standardized tests comes: they provide a common tool to assess the knowledge of incoming students. This way, colleges can easily assess where a student ranks relative to their peers in relevant subject knowledge.

Of course, these tests don’t offer an entirely holistic measurement of one’s academic prowess; the ACT doesn’t test something like Calculus or even Physics. Rather, it provides an opportunity to see if students can apply general concepts outside of the box. The math section, for example, uses both word problems as well as spacial problems to test if these students can use the ideas they’ve learned in a different setting. The science section is almost entirely abstract and requires very little prior knowledge. This way, colleges are able to gauge a student’s general academic potential.

The timing of these tests has come under fire as well. Students are given little time to solve a lot of problems during these tests. This has upset many, namely “slow test takers”, who claim this to be unfair. The timing, rather, provides an additional element to the test: tenacity. Can a student stay focused and motivated to keep going four hours into testing, under pressure from the clock, knowing full well that they are taking the biggest test of their lives? If they struggle with time, can they strategize to correctly to maximize their score? Obviously these tests are not, nor will they ever be, flawless.

Students with the opportunity to prepare more will always perform better, as will those who can afford to take the test more often. Certain aspects of education, namely the arts and social sciences, are almost entirely unrepresented. Writing, perhaps the most important skill in college, has a limited component. Yet, taken as what it is, a single metric used by colleges to compare the college readiness of students across the country, the ACT and SAT can be thought of as, at the very least, a necessary evil, and perhaps the masses will one day grow to acknowledge this much.