One of the most common comments I hear from parents during the tutoring process is that their students get good grades. Parents are confused as to why ACT or SAT scores aren’t on par with their student’s grades. I also often hear the reverse from students who talk about friends and classmates who “seem dumb” or “have horrible grades” and yet do very well on standardized tests. The reason behind this is that most standardized tests are testing things that aren’t reflected in grades or directly taught in school. This makes sense though, since if the tests and the grades reflected the same things then colleges wouldn’t require SAT or ACT scores and would just look at student grades!
The issue for colleges is that different schools and even different teachers within schools have different grading criteria. Everyone knows that some teachers are an “easy A” while other teachers really make students work for good grades. How, then, are colleges supposed to compare two different students who have been in different schools with different teachers?
This is where the tests come in. Take the ACT for example. The first two sections of this test are fairly content based. They test how much students have been paying attention in English and math classes. Consequently, a student who does poorly in these subjects can improve their subject level understanding through hard work and thus improve their score (given that they have enough time). Students who have achieved good grades through cramming or other non-long-term learning solutions (like making sure they have easy teachers) may struggle with the content.
Despite being content exams, many people don’t realize that these exams are also testing other skills that are not explicitly taught in school. The math, for example combines many forms of math that students have learned over time forcing them to employ critical thinking skills to solve problems in new ways. Many teachers only test one math concept at a time so this is a struggle for many students. The English asks students not just to proofread for grammar and punctuation but also for understandability and clarity of message- another thing that students don’t often practice in school.
The second two portions of ACT test are not so much content based. They test quick reading comprehension and scientific comprehension. Many students read well enough to get by in school but have to put a lot of effort into all assignments. These students work very hard and long hours to ensure that reading is completed and understood. The standardized tests set a time limit, though, so that students who have good grades through hard work don’t have the time to complete the tests. Naturally good readers- students who have for the past ten years been ignoring classes to read a novel under their desks- excel.
The science has similar issues. When students in school don’t understand scientific information, they ask the teacher who explains it to them. This doesn’t allow them to develop the skills they need to digest scientific data as required by the ACT. On the test, students are presented with information and concepts they’ve never seen before and, instead of having someone explain it, they need to figure it out by themselves- and quickly! Students who do well in science classes may still not have the skills needed to succeed.
In short- getting good grades does not mean that students have developed the quick critical thinking skills that colleges want and that these exams test for. Students need to take classes that will challenge them to develop critical thinking skills. They need to learn to read and understand complex questions quickly- not the simple to-the-point questions that are often asked in schools. Mostly, they need to read every day from an early age so that their reading comprehension skills are advanced enough for them to quickly understand each passage and every question. These are the skills that will lead to high test scores.