The Real Problem with the ACT and SAT in College Admissions

Sep 22, 2022

A problem.

It’s true that a minority kid from a place like Inglewood averages about 950 on the SAT while a white kid from a place like Brentwood averages about 1,115.  And that’s probably biased and unfair.  But it’s not the real problem. 

The Real Problem.

The real problem is the family from Brentwood has the money to hire me (or someone like me) to privately tutor their kid.   So, three months and $5,000 later the kid from Brentwood is scoring 1500.  Now that kid studied very hard and earned every point, but having my help is a game changer.   The kid who didn’t have the money to hire me is still stuck with a 950.   

Suddenly, there’s a very big difference in scores, and a very big problem to go with it.  The kid who got the high score now has much better college and university opportunities than the kid who got the low score.   Not only is that hugely unfair to the individual kid, but it’s a terrible way to identify the best and brightest to train as future leaders.  That’s the real problem. 

Who Gets High SAT and ACT Scores? 

If you want to predict who will get really good SAT or ACT scores and who won’t, the primary question you need to ask isn’t: What’s a student’s ethnicity, or gender identity?  Or, which high school did they attend?  Or, how much money do their parents make?  The question you need to ask is: Who had access to excellent test prep?  

Ten years of teaching test prep have taught me one hard truth: Students who receive excellent test prep tend to do very well on the ACT and SAT.  Students who don’t get high-level test prep tend to score much, much lower on the tests.  This is why …

What the ACT and SAT Actually Cover.

One secret about the SAT and ACT is that the overwhelming majority of the material covered on the tests is stuff the students learned by freshman year.  Nobody is asking them to do differential equations or analyze Moby-Dick.   Math is mostly limited to basic algebra and geometry, grammar is primarily basic sentence structures and subject/verb agreement type things, and the difficulty of the reading passages is about as challenging as you’d find on the reading syllabus in a typical freshman English class. 

So, If the Math and English are So Basic, Why Are the ACT and SAT So Hard? 

The truth is, most students I teach already know most of the “stuff” on the test.  Sure, we review (often rigorously) some material, but for the most part, I tutor good students who get good grades (frequently better than my own) and they come to me with really good math and English skills (again, frequently better than my own).   But they still have a hard time posting high scores.  What gives? 

One of my students put it perfectly.  She said, “Mr. Hanson, I know all this stuff, but they ask it in such weird ways.”  Exactly.  

Doing well on the ACT and SAT is a little bit about knowing basic English and math and LOT about knowing how the tests work.  That’s the stuff they never taught you in high school but you HAVE to know to get a great score. 

So How Do the ACT and SAT Work and What Does Test Prep Have to Do with It? 

The tests aren’t hard because of WHAT they ask (as I said, the material is pretty basic).  The tests are hard because of HOW they ask the questions. 

What first-rate test prep does is teach students to look at a question and immediately know: a) what they’ve just been asked to do or solve (not always obvious) and, b) exactly which steps the tests expects them to take in order to get to the right answer … FAST (definitely not obvious).

For example, in any ACT or SAT equation, regardless of how needlessly complicated they try and make it, there are only three things a student needs to look for.  And each one of those three things is telling students to take very specific steps in their algebra as they solve the problem.  If you know the three things and what to do, the test gets A LOT easier.  If you don’t, you struggle.  

Another example.  There are four questions that you can ask yourself that will break down ANY reading comprehension passage and make the main points incredibly clear.  If you know the four questions, you will be incredibly fast at reading comp because you are simply looking for specific information rather than trying to digest the entire passage.  And you will be incredibly accurate when answering the questions because you’ve established a laser focus on what they will likely ask you.  

There are a number of these techniques and frameworks that make the test a lot easier.  If you’re taught them, you have a very high chance of getting a very high score.  If you aren’t taught them.  Good luck.  

Wait, You Started This Article with a Problem; Are You Going to Suggest a Solution? 

I am.  The problem with ACT and SAT scores is the same problem that has plagued education for decades.  Wealthy families tend to get access to very high-quality educational recourses and less wealthy families tend to get less quality educational resources.   

And that used to be especially true in test prep.  When I started doing this, test prep meant hiring a private tutor to coach your child one-on-one.  And that was, and still is, really expensive.  

But it doesn’t have to be like that anymore.  The frameworks that unlock the tests aren’t terribly hard to teach or terribly hard to learn.  You just need a way to distribute the information so EVERY KID has the same access to the same training, so they can complete on an equal footing.  

And while technology on its own can’t solve that problem (sorry Silicon Valley), a teacher with a very deep knowledge of test prep can marry online teaching technology with their expertise and provide a top-notch test prep program that can be distributed inexpensively.  First Choice Admissions provides one for $50. 

I’m not suggesting the solution is perfect.  One-on-one private tutoring will always be tremendously effective and tremendously expensive and available only to the wealthy.  However, I think trying to find ways to level the playing field is important.  And I think it’s possible to significantly level the playing field on the ACT and SAT, and make a meaningful difference in the access underserved students have to higher education.     

We don’t have to try and change the entire education system to make progress; just get students very good at two tests. 

Why Not Just Get Rid of the ACT and SAT Altogether? 

It’s not an insane notion.  I’m just not sure it’ll be very effective in achieving the goal of creating more equality in the college admissions process.  There are two things I think about a lot.  (Yes, I know.  I need a hobby.)

First, if you get rid of the ACT and SAT, I think it’s likely another standardized test will just take its place.  In fact, we’ve already seen evidence of that.  During COVID, as colleges made the SAT and ACT optional or declared they wouldn’t accept scores at all, AP tests became very popular.  In the same breath that UCLA said they would no longer accept ACT or SAT scores, they announced they would review other standardized test options.  Test-specific tutoring and training will always unlock higher scores on any standardized test.  So, replacing one standardized test with another doesn’t really solve the problem.  

But there’s a bigger issue.  Kids who attend wealthy high schools have an enormous advantage over kids who attended poorer high schools.  For example, I was fortunate to attend a fabulous high school in suburban Chicago.  I took advanced classes in everything from chemistry to English, sang in two choirs, was cast in the school musical, was co-captain of the soccer team, and was involved in Spanish club and National Honors Society.  I also had access to a school counselor who was experienced at getting kids into high-powered colleges and universities.

To admissions departments, I looked great on paper!  And the mock interviews that my high school provided ensured that I impressed admissions committees in person as well.  I had advantages that were (and still are) very hard to compete with.

My counterpart in a less wealthy school might be a better chemistry student than me, but maybe didn’t have a chance to take AP chemistry because it wasn’t offered.  Ditto with music or sports.  You might be a gifted musician, but do you have a jazz band at your school?  Your gymnastic skills might be extraordinary, but do you have a gymnastics team?  Or a golf team?  Or a robotics team?  It’s just that much harder to demonstrate and communicate your abilities and skills to an admissions department when there are fewer opportunities at your high school.  

So, What, Exactly, is Your Point?

I’d love to see all high schools have equal resources and I’d love to see all high school students enjoy the same types of opportunities I was blessed with.  That would go a long way toward creating equality in the higher education admission process and in education in general.  But that would also require a massive shift in the way we finance education in this country.

And I’m all for it.  I’d love to see that type of reform.  I think it would be extremely good for students and for the country.  But while we're working on overhauling the entire educational system, maybe we concentrate on getting kids good at just two tests.  Just two tests that actually matter.  Two tests that actually open up educational opportunities for kids who really need it.


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