Office of Admissions
One Dent Drive
September 5, 2022
Standardized test scores are just one data point of many that college admissions committees consider. At some schools, like Bucknell, test-optional policies empower students to decide whether their SAT or ACT scores are included in their application at all. For other applicants, completing these tests is still essential step in the college admissions process.
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're providing some helpful info for students who will be taking tests like the SAT, ACT and AP Subject Tests as part of their college admissions journey. Topics include the merits and weaknesses of standardized tests, how to decide which tests to take, tips for studying and more.
Our guest is Ben Kavanaugh, associate director of admissions at Bucknell.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:00:07] BT: Longtime listeners of College Admissions Insider might remember one of our early episodes on applying test optional, which began with a little quiz that went like this: Are standardized tests (A) one element of many that colleges consider when looking at your application; (B) an opportunity to set yourself apart from the other applicants; (C) four hours on a Saturday morning that shouldn't define your future; or (D) all of the above.
[00:00:33] BHA: And just like it was then, the answer is still (D), all of the above. While standardized tests are a means of demonstrating your academic readiness for college, they're just one data point of many that college admissions committees consider.
[00:00:45] BT: They can be a fairly important data point though, for students applying to colleges that require students to submit these test scores as part of their application. I'm Brooke Thames from Bucknell University, and on this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're providing some helpful info for students who will be taking tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP subject tests as part of their college admissions journey.
[00:01:06] BHA: I'm Becca Haupt Aldridge, also from Bucknell. Today, we'll talk about the merits and weaknesses of standardized tests, how to decide which tests to take, tips for studying, and more.
[00:01:16] BT: And joining us once again is Associate Director of Admissions Ben Kavanaugh. He's a familiar voice here on our podcast. You might recognize him from episodes like applying to college as a home-schooled student, and making the most of a counselor visit. Welcome back, Ben.
[00:01:30] BK: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:31] BHA: There's a lot of questions, opinions and quite a bit of research surrounding standardized testing. Let's start by chatting quickly about why tests like the SAT and ACT exist in the first place. What do they tell colleges and universities about their applicant pool?
[00:01:46] BK: Well, I think the key word is “standardized.” It is something that you can give quickly, cheaply, efficiently to a wide range of students in a wide range of places all over the world. And when evaluating applicants, it's a common measure. The test, in and of itself, is pretty much the same — if we're talking the SATs or the ACT — whether you're taking it in Lewisburg, Pa., or Huntsville, Ala., or anywhere else that you might want to take the test. The standardized element, it's a means of sort of saying, “Okay, at least these students have this one thing in common that we can sort of compare them against.”
[00:02:28] BT: And when trying to figure out what scores students need to score on these standardized tests, students can often find a college or university's desired test scores, or at least the average scores of admitted students, on the website or maybe in printed admissions materials. But are the scores a school is looking for arbitrarily chosen? Or is there some math going on there behind the scenes?
[00:02:50] BK: Well, I mean, the college board and the ACT both list out sort of percentiles. So, certain scores may say…Well, if you're above 1,400, just plucking out, that's probably putting you 95th percentile and above. That's probably one consideration. When it says, “We’re a top institution. We want to enroll top students.” Well, you'd probably want to have testing that's in a very high percentile.
I think also a lot depends on if institutions are looking, for example, at various scoreboards, various rankings, various third-party groups, sort of ranking institutions, then certainly test scores are one of those measures that is often considered. They may be looking at, “Alright, let's look at admissions in terms of what's going to push our average, the middle 50%, in terms of testing higher.” And also, a lot of institutions probably have similar strategies when it comes to using testing in terms of awarding merit awards.
But yeah, I think I think it's one of those things that different institutions are going to look at testing differently. And then some of them are actually going to say, probably more on the low end, that below certain scores to certain thresholds, do students actually have the academic tools to be able to be successful in college? I think there's definitely value at the low end, arguably more so maybe than at the high end.
[00:04:13] BHA: And so far, we've mentioned two major standardized tests that students might take the ACT and the SAT. Ben, can you tell us about the difference between the two?
[00:04:21] BK: Well, they've become more similar in recent years. I mean, originally, the SAT was the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It was really meant to try to discover innate intelligence. It was trying to find sort of hidden talent. One of the early uses of the SAT was by Harvard University for scholarship competition. Trying to standardize the various institutions’ entrance exams. They were trying to use the SAT to find hidden talent — to find students that weren't typically on the radar.
The ACT emerges as a competitor, post-World War II as a much more curriculum-based test. They’re saying, “Well, we're not measuring aptitude. We're measuring what the students have actually learned, what they've retained, what they know.” The sections are different.
I would say, in recent years, the way the SAT…the initials no longer technically stand for anything. It's moved away, I think, from its aptitude roots, and become much more similar to what the ACT measures in terms of trying to determine how much curriculum students have effectively learned.
[00:05:30] BT: And so, when we're looking at the actual structure of the SAT versus the ACT, do we see differences? Are there differences in the subjects or even the time that it takes to complete the test?
[00:05:41] BK: Yeah, I mean, both of those tests are marathons. You're talking 4-plus hours typically on a Saturday, unless there's some sort of religious exemption or some sort of students can get a waiver if there's learning difference issues in terms of getting an extended or no time test.
But the SAT have got, traditionally – it's gone through many names — but critical reading; there's a math section; they've gone back and forth with the writing section, which has now kind of been reincorporated. The ACT has always been much more — and again, the names have changed — simply the math section; the science section used to be more of a social studies but, now, it's more of a reasoning section — though, it still has heavily social studies in it; and then, of course, an English section.
The ACT has much more been distributed on four measures, high score out of 36. And you sort of averaged those four to get to the 36. The SAT has gone…it was out of 1,600, and then for a years, out of 2,400. Now, it's gone back to being out of 1,600.
[00:07:06] BT: Yeah, it sounds like there's been some evolution in these tests. You mentioned the SAT going from looking for special talents to really testing what students have learned — and even the differences in what the testing scores were. And so, since the SAT and ACT are pretty much now on an even keel, do colleges prefer one test over the other or evaluate applicants differently based on the test that they took?
[00:07:31] BK: No, I mean, there's pretty well-established concordance scales. Of course, those change because every so often the SAT — more so than the ACT, I think — have re-centered their tests. The scales have sort of adjusted accordingly. But there's no preference between the two. And it's not unusual to see not only students taking both tests, but taking tests several times.
[00:08:11] BT: And both tests are administered by the College Board. Is that right?
[00:08:15] BK: No. The College Board administers the SAT. The ACT is administered by – Well, they’ve merged with another entity. But in terms of who actually administers the test, it's heavily dependent on teacher volunteers. I think it's more of a voluntold kind of system. One of those perks of being in secondary education is being roped into administer standardized tests on a Saturday or in May with the AP exams.
[00:08:42] BHA: And so, if it sounds like a lot of students are choosing potentially to sit for both the SAT and the ACT, and if a student's trying to decide which one they should take, is there any guidance for a student who might be better suited for one test versus the other? Either if they're an anxious test taker? Or if they really enjoy essay writing? Is one test potentially a better fit for them?
[00:09:04] BK: Well, that's the thing. I mean, that's one of the reasons why test optional options have increased and become more popular. As some students have just said, “I don't want to navigate that stress at all.” Frankly, I don't know if I've seen a lot of studies out there saying one group of students does better on one test than the other.
I mean, typically, just reading applications, I think the scores tend to be fairly similar. But you always have a few students in your pool that seem to do significantly better on one test and the other. And I really don't know if there's enough data points or enough of a pattern to say, “Well, this is the reason why, to really identify a causation for that.”
[00:09:43] BT: Once a student has chosen whether to take one test, or the other, or both, how might they go about preparing? Or how should they go about preparing? What resources are available for studying up?
[00:09:55] BK: Well, I think it's an argument that Stanley Kaplan made back in the day: Any test you take can and be prepared for. Any tests can be studied for. I think so few students actually use the test, I think, in the way that the designers had in mind, which is actually looking at the various sections. Because then not only do you get a score for the entire section, you get subsection scores. And very rarely do I think students really look at those subsection scores to see what their weaknesses potentially are, things that could be improved.
If we're doing a range of investment, I think on the low end, there's been books available and study courses available for years, if not decades. And at the other end, you've got people that are making a nice living as tutors for test preps. It's certainly become an industry. And I think more and more students have felt like they needed to spend often voluminous amount of time preparing for these tests in order to get what is seen as an acceptable or competitive score.
[00:10:59] BT: Ben, I'm curious, when you're looking at a student's application after they've taken these tests and submitted their scores, and those scores get to the colleges and universities that they're applying to, what actually are you seeing? Is it really just a series of numbers? Or is there any other information that tells you kind of how well a student did on these tests?
[00:11:21] BK: That's the thing. I can't recall an instance or very many instances where I've actually dug into the file to look at sub scores. I mean, we're usually looking at kind of overall scores. You might notice ranges on ACT if someone had a particularly high or low subsection. But I usually just kind of take the scores as they are. Just sort of the overall section scores.
You know, that's one of those things you kind of note. They took the test. Okay, that's how they're scored. And, oh, they didn't take the test, okay. Well, there's other things to look at. I mean, I don't recall thinking or spending a lot of time on testing when looking at an applicant. It's one data point of many.
[00:12:04] BHA: And the SAT and the ACT aren’t the only test that a student can take to demonstrate their knowledge. There are also AP and IB subject exams, which can actually earn a student college credit if they score within a university's required range, usually a three or above, on a scale of one to five. Ben, then these tests are also standardized tests, right?
[00:12:24] BK: Yeah, but they're very different. I mean, AP is, again, a function of the College Board. The argument was, “Well, this will give you advanced standing in college. If you take and pass this class, you'll get credit for passing this course in college.” Those are much more score specific, whereas the IB Diploma Program, especially, is meant to be taken together as a suite. You don't take one IB course. You take typically three — in some cases four — higher levels and take three standard levels. And then have a theory of knowledge, and there's usually a paper as well. They're very different design. One is much more pointillist, for lack of a better word. There's much more symphonic, if I were to go by.
I think the challenges are, when you're taking an AP class, you can't just call any class an AP. That's really something that College Board has cracked down on. The teacher has to submit their syllabus to the College Board and get it approved so it's in line with kind of what the course should cover. But also, you're trying to prepare students for tests that they're not writing. So part of it is sort of that anticipation of what's going to be covered. There are usually short answers, especially in the humanities to document-based questions, which I always loved.
Whereas IB, you don't know the score until the end. We read transcripts, and we'll see predicted scores, which may or may not turn out to be accurate. But it's different because IB, International Baccalaureate, is global. The reach is global. And I think the language and sort of the mindset is more global.
They come out of two very different places, even though students can earn college credit for either one.
[00:14:11] BT: You mentioned earlier the fact that students can be really focused on getting the highest score that they possibly can on any of these tests — SATs, ACT, or AP subject tests. And so. when it comes to AP and IB courses, sometimes you'll see students, I'm sure, who pack their schedules full of these courses, so they appear academically impressive in their college applications. But is that what high schoolers shouldn't be thinking about when considering whether or not to even take AP or IB course or test?
[00:14:40] BK: No, I think that's very much true. It's one of the surprising elements of recent years is how many students have added AP Calculus. Even if they have no intent to pursue anything STEM related, there's a perception that it just needs to be on the transcript to show that there's enough rigor there. But I also think, again, it's what can a student handle and still be able to have other extracurricular activities — being able to eat and sleep? And eating and sleeping seems to be what's gone out the window for a lot of students. You want to see your students challenging themselves. You want to see students who are prepared for the challenges of college work. But at the same time, I think just taking AP just to take them doesn't make a lot of sense.
Places like Bucknell, a typical student course load, there’ll be four classes a semester — one class equal to four semester hours. I see students taking five AP classes. I always think, “They're taking a schedule that's harder than what they take in college.” They're actually more engaged. No wonder they're not sleeping, because they're going above and beyond. So it's a balance between challenging yourself being prepared for college but also what can the student handle? Or what should the student be handling? And that's an individual decision.
[00:16:02] BHA: And Ben, I'm glad you brought up the mental health and the eating and sleeping, right? That's kind of part of what we do in holistic admissions; we need to make sure students academically viable, but how are they going to contribute to the community? And if they're not taking care of themselves and balancing their academics, how are they going to be able to do that at high school level or at the college level? I'm really glad that you brought that up.
[00:16:24] BK: There’s so much pressure, both perceived and real, about being admitted to the most competitive, selective institutions and not enough thought as to, “Well, what do I want out of that? Okay, so I get into X school — then what? Like, what do I want out of the experience?”
I think to Brooke’s earlier point, coursework should be taken in preparation of something. I think what we've lost is that it's almost impossible for high school students to take something just to take it just for fun, right? That's kind of gone out the window. You almost have to wait for college for that. If someone were at an institution that had a History of Hip-hop class, I would take that. I'm not even a big hip-hop guy, but I would take that class because it would be interesting to see. But I would then, as a student, be concerned about the perceived rigor of the class — that people might be thinking, “Well, that's not as challenging as taking AP world history.” Although, it may actually be more, not only useful, but interesting class.
You obviously think, “What are we gaining? But also, what's the trade off?” Because we speak so much here about students following their interests and following their goals. And in many cases, this is kind of the first time, once they get to college, that they're really able to do that and still feel like they're moving towards a larger goal.
[00:17:49] BHA: Yeah, and I have to imagine that's hard for a student to juggle too as they're looking at a course catalog. There's, I'm sure, classes that pique their curiosity, but then there's also the classes that they believe that they should be taking in order to be on that college preparatory track.
I've also heard, of course, the theory that standardized tests don't necessarily measure how good you are at being a student, they measure how good you are at taking a test. And as someone who reviews applications at Bucknell every year, would you rather see a high test score with a lower overall grade in the course? Or would you rather see a high grade in the class and potentially an average or kind of middle-of-the-road test score?
[00:18:28] BK: Let's be honest. If you're comparing the two, you're really looking at students that's are kind of on the periphery of the pool, and you're looking at students that you're kind of thinking, “Oh, this is a bit of a risk here.” Having said that, I would almost overwhelmingly go towards the student with the higher grades, and a higher strength of schedule, and lower testing than the student with the higher testing and the lower grades.
Yeah, I think grades are an indication of consistency of performance. They’re a better indication of, “Oh, does this student know how to study? Does this student correct mistakes? How are they evolving as learners?” Versus, “Okay, you showed up one day on a Saturday to take a test.” And you have to wonder how that kind of – Especially on a Saturday when you're not quite awake. Does that kind of thing impact scoring? Does that impact how the performance? And you have to think it does.
[00:20:11] BT: Yeah, like we mentioned at the top, it's really just a couple of hours one day in the whole life of a student. And so many things can be wrapped up in that. And so, yeah, your score might not be indicative of how good you are of a student or a test taker, really, at all.
As we come to the end of our time here, let's take a step back and talk about something that you've been talking about this whole time, Ben, which is the trend in higher education towards test optional. Bucknell has been test optional since 2019, and is one of the many schools that are no longer requiring students to submit test scores. So why are we seeing this gradual release of testing as an academic metric?
[00:20:51] BK: Well, you have to go back. I think it was Bowden in the 70s, and Bates as well — some of those wonderful main liberal arts schools. There’s a lot of liberal arts colleges at first that sort of pushed back on this idea. I think to Becca’s his earlier question, is the test measuring anything except the student's ability to take tests? Because it's not measuring, for example, creativity. And so many students, I think, read the questions on these tests and come up with answers that they could probably argue are actually more correct than the one that's the official right answer. These tests aren't really necessarily great at discovering people with maybe an artistic or visionary mindset who just look at the world differently. And of course, these are the kinds of people that tend to create things that we celebrate long after all of us are gone.
So many institutions, when they started looking at the data and they started looking at various sort of plot points, really discovered that the testing in and of itself — if you removed socioeconomic status, and you removed a lot of factors that had to do with wealth — it didn't have a lot of predictive value. It really didn't. And I think a lot of institutions started to feel like the testing was really a barrier in terms of enrolling the kinds of students and the kinds of classes that they thought would thrive at their institution. And too often, a measure to incentivize the enrollment of students who maybe weren't the best fits for institution just because they had great testing on a Saturday.
Again, institutions going test optional was not based on a whim. It was not based on some kind of sales thing. I think it was based on just kind of general philosophical disagreements with what the testing represented and what their institutions represented. And by removing what, for many students, is a barrier to entry, in our cases, we've seen not just much more diverse classes but, I think, a different kind of student that potentially would thrive here that, perhaps, because being so focused on testing in the past, we were missing on. And I think other institutions have had similar thoughts and similar discoveries.
[00:23:19] BHA: So Ben, as we close our time together, if there's one question you think a student should ask themselves when considering their options about testing, what would that be?
[00:23:27] BK: Well, do I want to put up with it? The institutions that require it, how badly do I want to go there? If I'm someone who genuinely feels test anxiety, or it feels like the testing doesn't reflect my ability, then the amount of time that one would have to study or train — really, it’s a form of training — to get a qualifying score, I think one has to wonder, “Is this worth it? Are these institutions really valuing the kind of person that I am? Do I feel like I need to change who I am as a person in order to match the entrance requirements of this institution? Or should I try to find an institution that welcomed me as a student because I bring other talents that aren't necessarily reflected in test score?”
I think what testing has become, again, because it's standardized, it becomes this simple measure for beings for creatures who…we’re not simple. We're not one dimensional, right? And I think we give ourselves too little credit when we reduce ourselves to what our test score was.
[00:24:36] BT: Well, thanks, Ben, for joining us and giving us so much to think about when it comes to testing. I'm sure it's going to be a really great value to the students and families who tune in to our podcast.
[00:24:46] BK: Well, thanks for having me. I hope I provided some things to think about.
[00:24:51] BHA: And thanks to everyone out there listening. If you're a fan of the podcast, please take a moment to rate, subscribe and share this episode with the high schoolers in your life.
[00:24:59] BT: We will be back with another episode in just two weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to email@example.com. We read every note you send.
[00:25:08] BHA: And finally, you're invited to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. You can also follow our student run Instagram account which is @iamraybucknell.
[00:25:23] BT: Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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