Is Standardized Testing Effective in Determining Success in College?

Test prep companies have been teaching students how to beat standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT for years. The simple truth is that these exams measure how well you take exams, not your aptitude or your ability to do college work. In some cases there may be a direct correspondence: students who have excellent grades have correspondingly excellent scores. And yet, there is a not-insignificant group of students with outstanding grades and poor scores. Does this mean standardized testing is unreliable? Or that it fails to consistently predict student success? Not exactly, and yes, respectively.

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the single best input for determining college success: the high school GPA. Time and time again a high correlation has been shown between success and engagement in academics in high school (as represented by an unweighted GPA) and performance in college. That’s because the GPA is a many-faceted guage. It samples various different types of classes according to how often you took them. Classes that meet every day are weighted more than classes that meet once a week, and yet should you take French 5 times a week and Physics 5 times a week, the GPA agnostically weights them equally. The grades for these classes themselves are multi-faceted. Those grades represent tests, homework, class participation, quizzes, and possibly group work and projects. Hardly one-dimensional, the GPA is an accurate and balanced reflection of a student’s aptitude and work ethic.

A three-hour test on a given Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very much a one-dimensional thing. Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests math levels above Trigonometry, meaning that juniors in Precalculus and beyond will need to pull out old notes to prep for the Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2 which are heavily featured in the math section of both of these tests.

There’s also the alleged “Science” section on the ACT, which is nothing but a glorified “interpreting charts and graphs” section which features tricky questions and purposely distorted graphics much more than legitimate science questions.

There are some useful sections to these tests. Reading comprehension is a lifelong skill – and a skill in even greater refinement in our age of information overload. Most students take comfort in the familiarity of the question type, even if they are bewildered by the wording of the questions or the time constraints (students are typically not given adequate time to answer the questions).

How I can in good conscience can anyone in good conscience uphold such flawed testing by doing test prep? Fair enough.

These exams are accepted by the overwhelming majority of universities, for better or worse, as an additional – sometimes coequal – criteria for admission. If the hurdle is this or that specific test, we want to help them beat that test. We have no power to change a system deep within the bowels of an institution (academia) which is defined by inertia. So we do what’s possible: help students beat the obstacles in place. For those who can’t afford test prep or who simply struggle with testing, FairTest has compiled a list of schools that don’t use testing as a deciding factor in admissions.

In the challenging world of college admissions, FairTest can rightly claim that standardized testing isn’t holistic, while College Board (the writer of the SAT) can claim that, while not holistic, standardized testing still has correlations with college success. Still, test prep is among your best options to improve on these tests, should you choose to apply to a school that uses them. We hope you take this article as an encouragement to be proactive instead of letting this overwhelming process “happen” to you.


I agree with much of what you wrote.  I recently heard that they are revamping the SATs for next year and making it easier than it is now.  As we see so many students fail out of college, leaving themselves with loans that will take them forever to repay.  Is making the SATS easier going to benefit students?  What we need to do is find alternative ways students can find jobs they are prepared for, not getting more people into college for an education that might leave them with huge student loans and the inability to find a job.  When I went to high school, there were three levels of diplomas.  Regents and regular diplomas (for most students who were planning on going to college) and BOCES which taught students who weren't college bound skills that would give them the ability to get jobs that could help them support themselves and their families.  Not everyone is college bound.
I did not have the opportunity of being able to take a test prep course while in high school. As a result, my scores were average, making any hope I had of applying and getting accepted to 1st tier schools impossible to non-existent.  As an adult, after years of liberal arts and science courses behind me, I can honestly say with almost certainty I can take a standardized test (such as the GRE) and do above average. But this is only due to the fact I had to teach myself how to learn and how to study effectively.  Trial and error seem to have been my best friends for many semesters.  While I do not endorse standardized testing, as the author of this blog has pointed out, it is now entrenched within our academic system and hard to change. My question is: Why are we fighting teaching for the test?  If we mandate testing, we need to teach students how to take the test. Forcing them to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars at a for profit test center does not even the playing field between economically disadvantaged students over the advantaged ones.
Now I am not adverse to vocational training.  In fact, vocational training is needlessly under-rated and the people who pursue vocational training are unfairly stigmatized as "not smart enough."  This could not be further from the truth, as I have first hand experience trying to do my own wiring and plumbing, almost killing myself in the process. And this doesn't even begin to touch upon my disastrous ventures within auto repair.  I think I can safely say, thank god for electricians, plumbers, and mechanics.  Because without their expertise, I would be living without electricity, without indoor plumbing, and riding my bike to work!


Michael W.

UCLA Professor / SAT ACT Expert

300+ hours
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