Do Standardized Tests Matter? Preparing Students for High-Stakes Tests, Higher Education, and Careers

Elaine Riordan
April 30, 2019

As students register for standardized testing, including state tests, the SAT, the ACT, and their writing components, teachers and administrators are looking for ways to best prepare students for not only the tests but also for their future in a marketplace that increasingly demands agile, innovative workers. For some students, a four-year college is a given; others will pursue an associate degree or certificate, and the rest may not be sure about next steps. So how important is it to prepare every student for end-of-year standardized tests, whether or not they attend a four-year college?

How relevant are today’s standardized tests?

As college admissions requirements evolve, the number of “test-optional” or “text-flexible” accredited U.S. colleges and universities has grown, with not requiring SAT or ACT test results in applications, and some elite colleges have dropped the SAT and ACT writing tests. George Washington University’s president said that his school’s application pool has become more diverse since they became test-optional, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s senior vice president of enrollment and institutional strategy said that not requiring the SAT or ACT has made her school “more accessible to underrepresented populations whose standardized test scores have historically underpredicted their academic success: women, minority students, low-income students, and first-generation students.” Research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that factors other than grades and standardized tests are becoming more critical in the selection process, such as demonstrated interest, writing samples, and extracurricular activities (Clineninst and Patel, 2018).

The case for standardized testing, including the SAT and ACT

On the other hand, Jonathan Wai, Matt Brown, and Christopher Chabris argue in the Washington Post that standardized test scores are the most objective and predictive requirements of the college admission process and should continue to be used. And considerable research suggests that interventions that help students improve test scores are linked to better adult outcomes such as college attendance, higher incomes, and the avoidance of risky behaviors (Goldhaber and Özek, 2018). In other words, creating learning environments that lead to higher test scores is also likely to improve students’ long-term success in college and beyond.

Indeed, the number of students taking the SAT and ACT has continued to grow. In 2018, more than 2 million students took the redesigned SAT on a school day, a 25 percent increase over 2017, and 1.9 million took the ACT. Currently, 20 states and Washington, D.C., contract to administer the SAT to some or all high school juniors for free, and 6 more states have schools or districts administering the tests as a requirement or option. Twelve states administer the ACT, with seven requiring the writing test. One way the SAT’s administrator, the College Board, has been able to win so many state contracts is through their alignment of test questions to the Common Core and other state standards.

And administering the test on school days, waiving fees for some low-income students, and aligning test questions to state standards are not the only ways the College Board is addressing questions of access. To combat criticisms that only the wealthiest students can afford test-prep coaches, the College Board has worked to remove the test’s “coachable items.” And in interviews, the organization’s leaders have stated that while today’s SAT covers a broad range of topics, students now can expect to be tested specifically on the U.S. Constitution and computer science, two areas they believe will help all students succeed after graduation. The board has also said it strives to test students’ knowledge, skills, and agency to measure their ability to contribute as adults, reasoning, “Kids learn things, learn how to do things and then discover that they can use all that to make a difference in the world.”

How teachers can prepare students for standardized tests, higher education, and careers

Recent research suggests that the competencies that the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests are now evaluating are essential not just for students who will attend four-year colleges but also for those who participate in CTE programs or choose to seek employment requiring associate degrees and certificates. The researchers argue that all of these students require the same level of academic mastery to be successful after high school graduation (Steedle, Radunzel, and Mattern, 2017).

So how can teachers help all students attain the competencies required to succeed not only on these standardized tests but for whichever pathway they choose after graduation?

The answer is probably not in coaching to the test. Though the number of test-prep organizations appears to be on the rise, research doesn’t bear out that coaching makes much of a difference in a student’s scores except, perhaps, for students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who have taken challenging coursework (Domingue and Briggs, 2009). In general, whether they’ve been coached or not, test-takers usually improve their scores when they retake the test.

Instead, the way to help students build essential competencies is not by asking them to memorize facts and formulas, but by engaging them with inquiry-based approaches to build higher-order thinking and apply that thinking to novel situations.

As one dean of admission said, the ability to communicate, work in teams, and solve problems in the moment is key to success in a college that prepares students for the careers of the future.

The College Board lists the principles that drove them in their recent SAT redesign: focus, transparency, command of evidence, demonstrated achievement, rich applications, relevance, and craft—pointing out that students should take rigorous courses, read in depth, and build academic and nonacademic skills. They also spell out six requirements that the SAT asks test-takers to demonstrate. Based on these requirements, here are some practical ways to set students up for success on these redesigned standardized tests and for higher education and careers:

  1. Assign rich, complex texts in ELA, social studies, science, and career-related texts to help students construct knowledge and hone critical thinking skills. Use primary texts, secondary texts, and news articles to engage students in new thinking. Pairing a variety of texts on the U.S. Constitution, for instance, will prove useful for students taking the SAT and navigating the world as adults. Push their thinking with questions, and whenever students give one-word answers, ask them why they answered as they did and have them describe the evidence that led them to draw their conclusion. It’s important not just to check for comprehension but to lead students to analyze literary, social studies, and science texts in context and draw well-thought-out conclusions.

  2. Give students opportunities to write about a range of academic texts, and help them continually improve their skills in usage, grammar, and punctuation as well as showcase their ideas and deeper understanding of different types of texts. Regularly ask students to compose short written responses to in-class assignments and ask them to reflect, in writing, on topics you’ve been teaching over multiple days or weeks—a practice that will help them not only with writing portions of the standardized tests but with college applications, higher-education coursework, and future careers. As researcher Wayne Camara said, writing is predictive of college success (University of Nebraska). According to Georgina Coleman, COO of a test prep and college admissions consulting firm, when writing college application essays, “applicants should reflect, not just tell a story from their life.”

    To help students who experience test anxiety (Stenlund, Lyrén, and Eklöf, 2017), use digital platforms to comment in real time on their answers to multiple-choice questions and their written selections, and ask them to reflect on their learning so that they can become more thoughtful and strategic test-takers. Helping them regulate their emotions (Rozek, Ramirez, Fine, and Beilok, 2019), continually work through difficult assignments, acknowledge what they’ve learned, and feel hopeful can help them build readiness for future challenges.
  3. Use creative ways to enable students to use math to solve problems in science, social studies, and other texts. Discuss the math used in an article about how many young people are at high risk of smoking e-cigarettes, for example, or ask them to read and write about why salt prevents water molecules from solidifying into ice crystals at 32F. ELA teachers might assign the novella Flatland to discuss the concept of dimensions.
  4. Guide them in tying their observations and conclusions to evidence provided in texts. You can use class discussions to model higher-order thinking and encourage students of different abilities to state points of view, articulate their reasoning, and respond to other students’ analyses. ELA teachers can consistently ask students to provide evidence to support their conclusions in daily writing exercises, even in quick one-paragraph responses to texts.
  5. Provide data from charts and graphs for students to analyze and interpret. Science teachers can help students find meaning in scientists’ representations of data, and social studies teachers can introduce data tables illustrating periods of social and economic change, such as the Industrial Revolution. Helping students think like scientists and historians can help them bridge the gap from simply reading academic texts for comprehension to questioning the ideas they encounter and exploring potential solutions, a part of inquiry-based learning.  

    Another way to engage students with data is through data equity walks. The Education Trust-West’s toolkit enables teachers to post visual depictions of data about their state’s public schools on their classroom walls, invite students to walk around the room and interpret what they see—and then guide discussions on how students can use the data to develop creative ideas and solve problems. The national Education Trust also features data-rich infographics on national issues that you can quickly download and print for your data walk.
  1. Discuss vocabulary words not through strict memorization but through context and a discussion about why authors choose certain words to describe concepts or persuade an audience. You can help by scaffolding texts to define challenging words, provide texts that discuss word choice, offer context where needed, and sequence texts to build understanding of words and concepts such as human rights, free will, and the conservation of mass.

Practice tests and coaching will only get students so far. Teaching every student how to read thoughtfully; ask the questions typical of scientists, historians, and business leaders; test hypotheses; and demonstrate new thinking in writing and problem solving will help students engage with your class material and build on their thinking to succeed in an agile 21st-century marketplace.


Works cited:

Clineninst, M. and Patel, P. (2018). 2018 State of College Admission. National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Domingue, B. and Briggs, D. (2009). Using Linear Regression and Propensity Score Matching to Estimate the Effect of Coaching on the SAT. Multiple Linear Regressive Viewpoints 35 (1), 12-29.

Goldhaber, D. and Özek, U. (2018). How much should we rely on student test achievement as a measure of success? (CALDER Opinion Brief). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. CALDER Opinion Brief 12-1118-1.

Rozek, C., Ramirez, G., Fine, R., and Beilok, S. (2019). Reducing Socioeconomic Disparities in the STEM Pipeline through Student Emotion Regulation. PNAS 116 (5): 1553-1558.

Steedle, J., Radunzel, J., and Krista Mattern (2017). Comparing College Readiness and Career Readiness: What Admissions Tests Tell Us. ACT Working Paper 2017-7.

Stenlund, T., Lyrén, P-E., and Eklöf, H. (2018). The Successful Test Taker: Exploring Test-Taking Behavior Profiles through Cluster Analysis. European Journal of Psychology of Education 33 (2), 403-417.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Buros Center for Testing. Emerging Fairness Concerns as a Result of Current Policy, Practice, Technology, and Methodology. (2017). Presentation from Research Meeting: Fairness in Educational and Psychological Tests: Issues and Solutions, October 12-13, 2017.

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