A Discussion on the Stressful Impact of SAT and ACT Exams on Students

Standardized Stressing

Controversy has been revolving around the country-wide use of standardized testing to portray the level of student intellect. There are many pros to standardized testing, but there are just as many, if not more, cons to the exam. Currently, ACT and SAT exams are universally accepted forms of testing throughout the United States. They have culturally become the standard of prerequisite for college entrance. Although they illustrate a student’s grasp on the subjects evaluated, they have many shortcomings, one being staff and location inconsistency.

The tests evaluate a small range of topics, excluding problem solving, practicality of a situation at hand, and communicative skills. Regardless of the deficiencies, we cannot neglect its importance. We must cultivate the current process to broaden the scope of measurement, starting at the educational approach in schools. However, for now, to achieve success with the system in place, we must comply with the expectations required by the exams.

The current standardized testing process is as follows.

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Students are seated for roughly four hours, with a break halfway in between, on an early Saturday morning. They are stripped down to a pencil, calculator, and their own wisdom. Students are expected to apply their knowledge on a written test in order to receive an evaluation of their scholarly intelligence. With the score they receive, they can qualify for scholarship and college applications. The result of their exam can have a positive or negative impact on opportunities available to them.

The two main standardized tests are closely related but have their differences:

The SAT, with a maximum 2400 points, and the ACT, with a maximum 36 points, are scored differently, but otherwise are no more different from each other than American football differs from the Canadian version.

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Students usually do equally well on each. The SAT’s new 25-minute essay is required, while the ACT’s essay is optional. The SAT is three hours and 45 minutes long. The comparable ACT is three hours and 25 minutes. The SAT has three sections: critical reading, math, and writing. The ACT has math, science, reading and English sections, plus optional writing. The ACT with the writing test costs $43, more than the SAT’S $41.50, but the ACT is only $29 without the writing section (Mathews 79)

Students that have taken both the SAT and the ACT stated the ACT was the superior test. One girl, named Robin, liked it better because it did not penalize her for guessing answers on questions she was unsure of. Another girl, named Melissa, said she like the ACT better because she was allowed to only send her best score to colleges, not every score she has ever received.

Currently, standardized tests are considered a major factor, some more than others, in college acceptance. Certain colleges may require a minimum score in order to be accepted, while others may not even require an ACT or SAT score at all. The SAT started as an assessment test for students applying to Ivy League schools, and it is starting to become more and more irrelevant to the various degree requiring jobs in the 21st century. “As long as a degree remains the gateway to the best jobs and a bright future, is filling in a bunch of bubbles with a pencil really the best way to size up a student’s future?” (Gray 45)

In the fall of 2015, about 200 out of 800 students attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut were accepted into the school without giving them SAT or ACT scores. This is surprising to many who have attended, are attending, or are about to attend a college. Almost all of those people know the feeling of the nerve wracking and drawn out test that can make or break their transcript, financial aid, or even college acceptance. “One reason for the change is a belief among some administrators that the tests’ predictive power for college success is overrated. “People make too much of test-score differences,’ says William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions. “People with the very highest test scores coming into Harvard do a little better than those with the lowest test scores, but they don’t do a lot better?” (Gray 45).

Standardized testing is today’s most consistent method of measuring student intelligence, but it does not evaluate the full range of a what a student knows. It leads to many issues that result in inaccurate measurements of a student’s knowledge. These issues include test anxiety, biased teaching in schools limiting what the students actually learn, inconsistent test moderators, cheating, and minimal collaboration. The use of high-stakes testing is only increasing, yet it may not even be the greatest method of assessing students.

High-stakes standardized testing can cause feelings of nervousness and anxiety in students taking the tedious exam. Lack of preparation is one of the most common culprits causing students to have feelings of stress during standardized testing. Throughout their entire educational careers, students are given information to practice with, memorize, and regurgitate upon request. If they never practice high-stakes testing, they will not know what to expect when it is time to perform, causing them to lose control of their emotions and thoughts. Students also develop these thoughts because they are aware they are being evaluated, and if they do not perform well enough, it could affect their futures. A one point difference can be the deciding factor for them being a recipient of a scholarship requiring a certain minimum ACT score to be eligible. A one point difference could even make a student become ineligible to be accepted to a college of their choice. These thoughts rush through many student’s heads during tests, sidetracking them from the task at hand. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, claimed, “When students are anxious, their worries use up some of their working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources to devote to the test” (Paul 44).

Schools have unintentionally geared their curricula to improve the students’ test performances by teaching more of what is on the test, and less higher level stimulating thinking. Disadvantaged students in low income schools can be especially deprived of substantial education because teachers may be pressured to improve tests scores of their students to increase their school’s funding. In order to boost the test scores in disadvantaged students, they may be taught with repetitive, less engaging, memorization-oriented methods. These methods lack stimulation and higher order thinking skills, decreasing the student’s chances of content retention and success (Morgan 70).

Even though the tests are standardized, the testing locations and test moderators are different all across the country. Some testing locations have students seated closer to others, hidden behind other students, and use desks that may provoke wandering eyes. Test moderators are different at every location as well. They are all supposed to read the directions from the test booklet and behave as instructed. In my personal experience, some moderators are less strict and aware than others, increasing the margin of nefarious behavior and dishonest test results.

While it is highly frowned upon and policed, cheating is still a significant issue throughout the SAT and ACT. New methods are arising all the time in which students are able to obtain information from other places rather than solely their own mind. Wearable technology is a trending topic in the tech world. These wearable devices such as smart watches or glasses have access to the internet, enabling students to receive information wrongfully. Luckily, current standardized tests are modern enough to keep up with technology and outlaw it accordingly during testing times. However, with technology expanding at the rate it is, standardized tests may not be able to stay modernized enough to keep up with the ever growing tech world. But depending on the location and moderators of the test, students may be able to cheat the old fashioned way and sneak a peek at other participants’ answer sheets in order to confirm or obtain a possibly correct answer.

In extreme cases of fraudulent test answers the testing staff have been involved. Like previously stated, schools can receive increased funds by increasing test scores. Ordinarily, schools adjust their curriculum or spend additional time with struggling students to achieve test improvement. However, desperate schools who see no improvement from the previous methods may steer towards unethical alternatives: “One of the nation’s largest cheating scandals took place in the Atlanta Public Schools, resulting in the indictment of 35 employees in 2013 including the superintendent. Prosecutors accused educators of participating in a scheme consisting of artificially raising test scores, at times by erasing wrong answers and replacing them with the correct ones” (Morgan 69).

High-stakes standardized testing may give a student a number on a scale portraying how intelligent they are based on the questions given to them, but it portrays only that. Some students may be able to reciprocate knowledge passed down to them in high school, but jobs in the 21st century require much more than memory. The test lacks a quality, and consistent, problem solving measurement. What if a student who scored a 31 on the ACT acquires a job that is constantly changing? Will they be able to adapt to the ever changing tasks they are expected to complete if they have not rehearsed or done the task before?

The ACT and SAT are solely dependent on a student’s knowledge and only theirs. In the real world, most jobs require a person to have co-workers or others to collaborate and associate with. If somebody is unsure about how to complete a task, they can ask others for assistance or have someone else do the task for them. By singling out students, standardized tests teach them to either do it themselves or sink in their failure. Failure or disappointment in test scores can discourage young adults making them feel lesser than the student sitting next to them who breezes through the test. Discouragement during adolescence can jeopardize their will to try harder and improve, which can make them adopt those characteristics and carry them for the rest of their lives, causing students to never reach their full potential.

Colleges do not only look at test scores when assessing applicants. They also look at high school GPA, along with the types and difficulties of courses taken. A study done by William Hiss, through 123,000 student records from 33 colleges, concluded that high school GPA projected the success of a student more accurately than any standardized test score even in low income schools.

We cannot discard standardization all together because grading systems vary from school to school, thus a C+ could be a B in another school. If we were able to standardize teaching and curriculum, embracing the diversity of students, only then could we dispose of standardized high-stakes tests. However, this would be a difficult and expensive transition. “Ultimately, though, we must begin by shifting the conversation away from a false choice — between data and no data — to one about how to make data useful” (Schneider 67).

Standardized tests are not new technology and have been questioned since their creation: the Civil War era. This is where standards-based grading comes in. Formerly discussed, test anxiety is a big problem with students taking high-stakes tests no matter how severe. By measuring students when they are in a comfortable environment, the classroom, errors that can be caused by anxiety are eliminated. This portrays a more accurate measurement of student performance over time. Standards-based grading would provide a consistent education system which allows students to become comfortable with a universal teaching method, instead of adjusting to every teacher’s different style. “Classroom-based data are superior to standardized test data if teachers validly measure student performance and develop ways of reliably reporting on it” (Schneider, 61).

Forest City High School, which I am currently attending, is making the switch from traditional teaching methods to standards-based grading. The principal of the school, Mr. Baker, stated, “Standards-based grading is more straightforward about what is expected when completing graded tasks with the provision of rubrics.” He also noted that lecture is not the best way to teach every subject. Having students participate in learning activities makes the information stick in their heads. By physically doing something, their brains lock in the content received rather than trying to soak up it up solely through auditory means. Not every student learns the same way; some learn visually while others learn from action. Standards-based grading allows instructors to give extra attention to those in need.

When asked about overall improvement of students during the introduction of standards based grading practices, Mr. Baker said, “There were less failing grades throughout the high school compared to the previous year, and the students who did have failing grades the previous year have fewer failing grades now” (Baker).

Standards-based grading takes heavy focus away from homework, past performances, and behavior, and puts it towards current academic performance. The use of rubrics is incorporated to clearly state what is expected of students on academic work, along with the allowance of limited test retakes to assimilate real life. Retakes help students learn, improve, and retry a task that was failed or not completed adequately. This can encourage students to try harder after improvement is made, because it is attainable by everyone.

Standards-based grading needs to be able to portray results similar to current standardized testing in order to satisfy the opinions of both sides of the argument. This could be achieved by still incorporating standardized tests, but reducing the importance of one test alone. The switch from standardized testing to consistent teacher assessment will take time, patience, collaboration, and dedication. Educators will need to be instructed and know how to implement the new system changes in their classrooms. There will be a transition process among students until the system is being practiced in its entirety, and students become proficient with the new teaching style.

As much as I wish we would have a new system implemented to represent the true intelligence of students, we have to make the best of what is currently being practiced. Standardized tests will not be eliminated overnight, which means students need to honor the importance of the exams. They need to be sincere in their effort and preparation to achieve their highest potential score. In order to improve test scores, students do not necessarily have to learn new information about the subjects being tested on, but about the test itself and how to give themselves an advantage to gain a few extra points. That is why ACT and SAT test prep courses are some of the best resources available to students to give themselves an advantage for the exam (“Online Test Prep Students Ignore Math, Science”).

In conclusion, shortcomings provided by standardized testing has brought up much controversy about how student intelligence is being evaluated. Students receiving a below average score may feel a negative stigma about their true abilities and potential, which may discourage them in their career choice. Alternate systems are available, but need to be further explored and implemented around the country if we want to reduce the weight one test has on a reflection of a student’s academic representation. 


Works Cited

  1. Baker, Ken. Personal Interview. 30 Mar. 2017.
  2. Gray, Eliza. “Bubble Trouble.” Time, vol. 186, no. 14, 12 Oct. 2015, pp. 44-49. EBSCOhost, libraryresources.waldorf.edu/login? auth=CAS&url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=a9h&AN=110074639&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  3. Mathews, Jay. “Test Wars the Sat Vs. The Act.” Newsweek, vol. 148, no. 8/9, 28 Aug. 2006, pp. 78-80. EBSCOhost, libraryresources.waldorf.edu/login?auth=CAS&url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=21983274&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  4. Morgan, Hani. “Relying on High-Stakes Standardized Tests to Evaluate Schools and Teachers: A Bad Idea.” Clearing House, 89. 2 (Mar/Apr 2016): 67-72. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00098655.2016.1156628.
  5. Online Test Prep Students Ignore Math, Science.” Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, vol. 18, no. 9, Sept. 2004, p. 8. EBSCOhost, libraryresources.waldorf.edu/login?auth=CAS&url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=14258198&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  6. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Relax, It’s Only a Test.” Time, vol. 181, no. 5, 11 Feb. 2013, pp. 42-45. EBSCOhost, libraryresources.waldorf.edu/login?auth=CAS&url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=85325892&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  7. Schneider, Jack, et al. “The Best of Both Worlds.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 98, no. 3, Nov. 2016, pp. 60-67. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0031721716677264.

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A Discussion on the Stressful Impact of SAT and ACT Exams on Students. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-the-stressful-impact-of-sat-and-act-exams-on-students-essay

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