An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Getting smart about standardized tests
Getting smart about standardized tests

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

When I applied to college in the '90s, I took the SAT. I struggled with the analogies and despised the antonyms section. Having to identify the antonym of "anodyne" seemed ludicrous; I doubted scholars ever used the word (I never saw it once in college!). I then sat for three SAT II exams in Math II, Spanish, and Writing, which were required by every college on my list.

Today, the SAT no longer has analogies and antonyms. The "SAT II exams" are now the "SAT Subject Tests"; few colleges require even one. The Writing Subject Test no longer exists and nationwide more students take the ACT than the SAT. 

The landscape of standardized testing is always shifting. Lakeside's college counseling office follows developments closely and is committed to keeping families updated on current trends and requirements. Our students have always done well on standardized tests (more on that later) and whatever changes to college admissions testing may occur, faculty and administrators work to ensure our students are positioned for success.

Parents and guardians can play a part by staying informed about the best ways to help their students prepare and when to begin. The college counseling office has created a new secure FAQs webpage, accessible to families from Veracross, with details about the tests' content and format, and with timetables explaining when to begin. The webpage also includes a video about testing. The major tests covered are the PSAT, SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and Advanced Placement (AP) exams. 

Here is a short summary of FAQ highlights (find the full listings on the FAQ webpage, accessible from Veracross):

SAT or ACT (or neither): Test requirements vary by college. Most require the SAT or ACT; there is no preference for either and every college accepts both. No school requires both. More than 700 colleges now require no standardized test. The number of test-optional schools grows each year and now includes such highly regarded schools as Bowdoin College, George Washington University, The University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and Whitman College. Our FAQ page discusses the differences in the SAT and ACT that might make one test or the other more advantageous for certain students. In recent years, many more Lakeside students are taking the ACT because of increased familiarity with it (for the sixth year, Lakeside offers an on-campus mock ACT to expose students to the exam) and because of recent changes in the SAT, which made it difficult to understand the content of the test and to prepare for it.

PSAT: The PSAT is a practice exam for the SAT and is never considered in the college admissions process. It is, however, the test for juniors to qualify for the National Merit Competition. (See our recent article for more on the PSAT and National Merit Semifinalists.) While being named a National Merit scholar can lead to scholarship money, it is unimportant to most selective colleges in the admissions process. 

Subject tests: Few colleges require or even recommend the SAT Subject Tests. In fact, most college counselors and admissions officers speculate that the SAT Subject Tests will be phased out in upcoming years. The FAQs page includes when to take these tests and a chart showing which classes prepare students for each exam.
 
AP tests: None are required by any U.S. college, though many schools abroad do require them. Strong AP results can earn students college credit at some schools (not all colleges accept them) but their role in the admissions process is minimal — and often, non-existent. 

Transcripts count more: Colleges that require testing view scores as important but never as important as students' transcripts, which show their grades and courses. Test results enable colleges to directly compare applicants, but colleges take into account that these tests disadvantage certain groups: Research overwhelmingly reveals a correlation between test results and socioeconomic status. Testing is thus a significant, but not the most important component, and is considered within the context of the student's background. 

U.S. versus abroad: For parents and guardians who attended university abroad, it's important to understand how the approach of many selective schools in the United States differs from most countries. In China, students take the GaoKao, a national entrance exam that alone determines for which universities they are eligible. In South Korea, students sit for Suneung, a test that functions much like the GaoKao. In the United Kingdom, there are minimum testing thresholds, or "qualifications," and students who score below them cannot advance in the selection process. Thus, in many countries, college entrance exams are a source of great anxiety because they can "make or break" a student's future. 

For parents and guardians from international backgrounds, understanding this distinction — that testing is a component of U.S. college admissions and not the component — is important in supporting their students in the college admissions process. When their students perform well, this alone does not indicate they will be strong candidates at the most selective colleges. Inversely, when students underperform, this doesn't automatically exclude them from the same schools.

Putting scores in perspective

Our students' performance on college admissions tests is one of many reflections of the quality of Lakeside's educational program and the talents of our students. 

Overall, Lakeside students continue to score in the highest percentiles nationwide on the SAT and ACT. Three quarters of our students score in the 97th percentile or higher on the ACT. Half or more are in the 99th percentile. On the SAT, three quarters of our students score in the 94th percentile or higher on both sections. In math, our students especially excel: at least half score in the 99th percentile. These score ranges are among the highest in the nation, even among peer independent schools. For instance, a comparative study done by the college counseling office this summer showed Lakeside's ranges exceeded those of Phillips Academy - Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy. (For those who like charts, you can find one below showing a national comparison.) 

With the recent annual announcement about National Merit semifinalists (read about them here), some parents and guardians have asked about how students' test preferences affect scores over time. Scores on the PSAT, the qualifying exam for the National Merit Competition, have been fluctuating in recent years because an increasing number of Lakeside students are focusing their test preparation on the ACT. Because fewer students are studying for the SAT (which also prepares them for the PSAT), Lakeside has fewer students scoring in the top percentiles on the PSAT than it did even five years ago. Twenty-nine students in the Class of 2013 took the ACT; 88 took the ACT in the Class of 2018. If the ACT trend continues, we may continue to see fluctuations in our number of National Merit semifinalists. 

As the testing landscape evolves, we remain confident our students will continue to excel on the ACT and SAT, the most important of the college entrance tests.

Here are three things Upper School parents and guardians can do to support their students in preparing for these tests:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the college counseling office's recommended testing timeline, available on our FAQs page (there are both FAQs and a brief video on standardized testing; they are accessible through Veracross). This will vary by student. For some, testing early in junior year is beneficial. For others, it is not.
  2. Join the college counselors for a College Coffee Talk on standardized testing at 7 p.m. on Oct. 4 at in Allen-Gates Hall, Kent Evans Auditorium. Please watch the video on standardized testing beforehand. If you are unable to attend, an audio recording of the talk will be on our FAQ page about a week after the event.
  3. Remember that testing is only one component of the application to U.S. colleges. Overemphasis on testing not only detracts from students' performance in the most important area — achieving mastery in a rigorous curriculum – but produces unnecessary stress and anxiety for students, and parents and guardians. 

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. Reach him at collegecounseling@lakesideschool.org.

The charts:

SAT and ACT scores of Lakeside students, Class of 2018
Lakeside students continue to score in the highest percentiles nationwide on the SAT and ACT. For instance, for the Class of 2018, the mid-50 percentiles are listed below with their corresponding national percentiles:

 

25th

National Percent

50th (Median)

National Percent

75th

National Percent

SAT Verbal

710

94

740

97

760

98

SAT Math

710

94

770

99

790

99

ACT

32

97

34

99

35

99

 

Number of Lakeside students who choose to take the ACT versus SAT

 

% who took SAT

% who took ACT

Class of 2013

97% (139 out of 143)

20% (29 out of 143)

Class of 2018

73% (106 out of 145)

61% (88 out of 145)