There are many reasons that colleges prefer to see a standardized test. One reason is that the curriculum in each high school, and certainly each state varies. When you consider the resources some students have because of their school district versus the lack in others, it is easy to conclude that the level of exposure/mastery a student in a struggling district has when earning an A may be vastly different than a student who earns an A in a district rich with resources like 3D printers, computers for every student, large designated laboratories for science classes and so forth.
Colleges are all too familiar with students who have received generous grades due to being well liked, a star athlete, a star student who is popular, who are not prepared to handle rigorous classes in college. If you have heard your son or daughter mention that the teacher is giving students more time to finish the test because some did not, or someone is able to retake a test because they did not do well, or it is an open book, take home test, the school may be helping students achieve good grades now, but leaving them at a disadvantage for college.
These are very real situations. Back to the first point— colleges are business. Take a look at their business model:
12,000 New Students @ $10,000 per semester
No new students
800 Students do not return from previous
semester, resulting in an $8,000,000 loss
The college business model is income heavy in the first semester as students arrive and pay for their first semester. However, a student who does not do well, often does not return second semester -parents may refuse to pay for subpar grades, the university may ask the student to leave, or the student may realize they are underprepared for the school. But the school still has the same expenses as the first semester!!! Losing $8,000,000 is a huge problem for a university, so to minimize losses they want to ensure the students who are selected for admission are likely to be successful and return for second semester.
This situation shows the emphasis on grades; and most schools do prioritize grades in their evaluation, but they look at standardized tests to confirm the grades are realistic. Since the test is the same for everyone, schools are able to see trends for both high schools and states. But a great test score can also reveal that a student is a slacker (very smart with a lot of potential but performed poorly due to lack of motivation or desire), especially if the student’s application also shows the student takes shortcuts.
While we all hate the idea of being judged strictly by a one-time test, the reality is that the test sheds light on the students’ ability to problem solve. Much of the test is based on curriculum that students have been exposed to by ninth grade. The math does cover a broader span, but certainly much of it requires the understanding of basic math principles - hidden in complex looking word problems.
So if the test is simple, why do students benefit from test prep? Typically, a high school student will review a specific topic in each high school class for a week or two and then be tested on that specific information. If they have studied, the test questions are familiar, it is what they just learned. However, the ACT covers years of basic concepts, presented in multiple ways, to determine if a student has really mastered the problem-solving concepts required to do well in college. These skills are often very different than the memorization and regurgitation of material on a high school test. But, again since colleges are businesses and students are required to learn on their own outside of the classroom, colleges want to be sure they are up to the challenge.
The problem-solving skills required on the ACT are life skills that students will use when buying a car, making a larger batch of a recipe, writing an email, consider the best mortgage, understand weight to dosage charts or make a buying decision based on cost per unit. This type of information requires different skills than simply demonstrating that you have mastered a concept you were taught in class, it requires being able to apply the concepts you have learned to new situations. These skills will help students beyond the ACT, as they help with tests throughout college and beyond.
I will give a quick example: Ask your child if they know the midpoint formula. Most will say they “know about it but do not have it memorized”. This is fine because you do NOT need it!!!!
Here is an actual ACT test question:
In the standard (x,y) coordinate plane, the coordinates of the endpoints of line DM are (11,3) and (17,15). What is the midpoint of line DM?
This can easily be solved with a simple number line (math learned in 3rd grade) and using the numbers given like this:
X 11____________________________________ 17
How many spaces are between 11 and 17 (17-11) =6 we take 1/2 of those, 3, and add from the left or subtract from the right so 11+3= 14, and 17-3=14. Our X midpoint is 14. We would do the same with the Y:
Y 3 ______________________________________ 15
15-3 = 12 1/2 of 12 is 6 so 3+6=9 just as 15-6 =9.
Midpoint is (14,9)
This is the EASIEST, FASTEST, MOST VISUALLY ACCURATE way to find the midpoint on the ACT and yet I see students grab their calculators and try to remember the midpoint formula, punch in a bunch of numbers and realize they have an answer that is not even an option.
The above is just one of the math strategies we show students to speed up their timing and make them more effective.
Knowing the content being tested is also important. For instance, in the English section, students are tested on comma usage. In one area they test on commas before “quotations”. Now most students would immediately place a comma before any quotation, but in reality, unless it is a direct quote, the comma should not be used. For example, a sentence that reads They termed the process “photosynthesis” should not contain a comma before the quotation as it is not a direct quote - someone stating something. Most students miss this type of question because they rarely see this, or use this in their writing, and they learned this information several years ago in an elementary grammar class.
Understanding how to take the test in the time allotted and get the score you desire takes work for most students. Learning what is tested, how to identify it and what rule applies is the difference for most students. If a baseball player was struggling with hitting, they would go to a hitting coach. But when a student struggles with the ACT, it is often related with phrases like “my son or daughter is a bad test taker” “my daughter has always struggled with math” or “my son struggles with the timing”.
Students benefit from understanding that just like anything else, you can learn to do better. Similar to the hitting coach example, it will take more than one visit to an ACT tutor and it will take practice for it to become a habit. Think of all the professional athletes, each with a coach, some with multiple coaches to help them improve and not fall victim to their own shortcuts. The same philosophy should be applied to testing - both standardized and high school testing - there is always a better way, a way to improve and it usually takes a coach to get there.
Think of the self confidence boost your son or daughter will get when they do well, when they realize they are not a bad test taker, they are not bad at math, they do not need to struggle with timing. Think of the benefits that brings down the road when they hit an obstacle and now realize they are in control of the outcome, they can get help to improve.
The ACT may be needed for college admission, but in reality there are solid life skills taught within the test and even more surrounding taking it. Learning to take a test, learning to manage anxiety around a test, learning to ask for help, and realizing with help you can do so much more than trying to do it on their own are life skills that are worthwhile for a student to learn before leaving for college.
When you consider the financial benefit that a few points can make in scholarship money, prepping for the test with an expert, a coach who can guide them through their challenges is very worthwhile.