Good and bad testing news

The Atlantic’s “When Grades Don’t Show The Whole Picture” makes a compelling argument for all the ways that SAT scores are good for, among other things, offsetting grade inflation, allowing students of all backgrounds to showcase their strengths, and providing colleges with a useful evaluation tool. Except it’s not an article at all—it’s an advertisement from the College Board (with accompanying tiny print that indicates so). The quality of this news is bad. In fact, it’s not news at all. It’s advertising.

Why did they do an advertisement? Because the SAT is big business (the College Board’s 2015 revenues were over $915 million). After spending years in second place, the SAT’s main competition, the ACT, has surpassed the SAT’s popularity in recent years. And nearly 1,000 colleges are now test-optional for many or all applicants. Whether a huge company makes razors, cars, hotels, or tests, advertising is a popular strategy to protect—or to reclaim—market share.

I mention this because at colleges with applications that go beyond just grades and test scores—those that require descriptions of your activities, lists of your honors or awards, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc.—the evaluation process is a personal one. Most of the human beings reading the applications at these schools are genuinely committed to understanding the human beings behind those apps. They care about context. They care about your environment and your upbringing. They care about the circumstances that have impacted your education. They’re looking at your numbers, but also looking at the person. It’s not a meritocracy and it’s not infallible, but at the very least it’s driven by good people trying to do the right thing.

Standardized test scores don’t measure the whole you. They don’t care how you’ve grown up, what opportunities you’ve had or missed out on, or whether you’re a committed student who works hard. They don’t care if you didn’t have the money to spend on expensive preparation or whether you work 30 hours a week to help support your family. They don’t care whether you’re a good person who treats people right and makes every class or activity you’re in that much better for those around you.

Standardized tests only measure one thing well—how good you are at taking standardized tests.

So if you’re a good test-taker, congratulations. You have one less thing to worry about and you should show off that skill by nailing your standardized tests.

But if you’re not a good test-taker, I encourage you (and your parents) to not take your scores personally. Don’t let those scores make you feel bad about yourself. And please don’t obsess so much about transforming yourself into a good test-taker that you ignore school, your activities, your time with your friends and family, and anything else that makes you feel happy and engaged. Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process–the majority of colleges don’t require high test scores to be admitted, and again, nearly 1,000 schools don’t require test scores at all.

And that’s good testing news.