Then and Now, Changes in Standardized Tests

Then and Now, Changes in Standardized Tests

by Bryan Bibler, CEO and Co-Founder of Thirty-Six Education

As Bob Dylan said so many years ago, “The times, they are a-changin”—and this rings true for standardized testing as much as for any other aspect of a high school student’s life. Even as record percentages of high school students matriculate to colleges, top schools in the US have never been harder to get in to. For better or worse, this trend places even more importance on testing—one of the most important aspects of college admissions success. With the upcoming changes to the SAT in 2016, I thought it would be interesting to reflect a bit on how test-prep has changed since I took my own standardized tests in the early 2000s.

First, there’s the matter of choice. When I was in high school, the ACT was legitimately not an option for me! This is even more surprising considering that I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the heart of the midwest, where colleges tended to prefer ACTs over SATs. Because I was applying to mostly private, east-coast schools, though, it had to be the SAT. A few friends may have taken the ACT, but I certainly didn’t (in fact, I never saw an ACT until I started learning how to tutor the test while in college!). I took the SAT, and the SAT only, because… well… I had to. There was no other choice; it was “well known” that the schools I had my eye on wanted SATs, not ACTs. (In retrospect, I probably could have submitted an ACT to the schools I applied to, but I wasn’t aware that this was actually the case at the time.) Going even further back, my father, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, didn’t even recall hearing about the ACT during the early 1970s—despite being smack in the middle of “ACT country”—because “the SAT was the drill.”

Today, ACT and SAT are accepted by colleges at all levels, in all parts of the country, without prejudice towards one test or the other—really! 2013, in fact, marked the first year in US history during which more students took the ACT than the SAT. For those of us who went through this process a decade or more ago—even more so for the parents of current students—this is a radical change from our experience. But it’s true. Students can take whichever test suits them better, and test selection is an important new part of the testing process. It is so important that students and parents know about this, as regional preferences for SAT vs. ACT still persist to a great degree (among students, not college admissions departments). The states in which the fewest students take the ACT are all in the northeast, where SAT has long been “the test” students feel they have to take. I’ve spent nearly a decade reassuring students and parents, especially in the northeast, that yes, really, the ACT is accepted at every US school, and yes, really, you can prepare for ACT instead of SAT if that’s the better test for you. And for many students, this is a welcome change, as the more straightforward ACT is rapidly gaining in popularity. College admissions expert Shereem Herndon-Brown, founder of Strategic Admissions Advice, echoes this sentiment: “The ACT is the much more popular test right now [among my students] and for good reason. It seems to be more aligned with what students are learning in school…”

Second, preparing for these tests has changed dramatically, even since a decade ago. My case may not be entirely typical—I took the SAT only once—but it represents the lesser emphasis many of my classmates placed on standardized tests compared with today’s students. Granted, I did well on the first try—1570 out of a then-perfect 1600—but I also did very little preparation for the test. I remember my parents bought me an SAT book and brought it on spring break with us, encouraging me to “study” for the SAT while we were on a cruise. I’m pretty sure I spent about an hour looking through some vocab words before blowing off the process entirely. A number of my friends took a class over the summer, offered by Princeton Review, at our high school, but mostly they goofed around and didn’t do their homework. I heard of one or two friends hiring private tutors, but I can’t confirm that. The bottom line is that my friends and I all knew the SAT was important, but none of us prepared for the test the way that current students do.

Times have changed. SAT/ACT prep has become as integral a part of the typical junior’s life as soccer practice or prom. To continue with my high school (Seven Hills, Cincinnati, OH) as an example, when I graduated from Yale and returned to Ohio to start my tutoring business, things had changed significantly, even in just the five years since I had gone through my own “test-prep” (if you can call it that). By the end of my third year tutoring in Ohio, I was personally meeting with nearly 1/3 of the junior class at my high school, and those students who didn’t work with me had almost all taken classes or hired other private tutors. Our current students at Thirty-Six typically spend anywhere from several months to a year or more preparing for SATs and ACTs. We have gotten more requests this year from sophomores, and even freshmen (!), than ever before. Students are preparing longer and harder than they have before, and they’re starting earlier. And because these tests measure students relative to how other students score on the same tests, current high school students with college aspirations are increasingly forced to embark on SAT/ACT preparation as if it were a 6th core class alongside their already rigorous junior-year course loads.

Finally, acceptances at top colleges have become harder and harder to secure, even for students with increasingly impressive college resumes and applications. Take my alma mater, Yale, for instance. The acceptance rate for my class (2008) was 10%. The acceptance rate for last year’s applicants fell to 6.9%. For those doing the math at home, this might seem small—only 3.1% less than my class’ acceptance rate—but the change represents a drop of approximately 31% in acceptance rate from 2004 (when I applied) to 2014! That’s an enormous change. I can’t help but wonder whether 2004 Bryan would get into Yale in 2014.

This reflection is not meant to be all doom-and-gloom, and there is hope for students going through this process today. First, test preparation options for students have proliferated and become much more sophisticated and successful than they were when I was in high school. A decade ago, a student’s options were primarily classroom prep with one of the “giant” test prep companies—namely Kaplan and Princeton Review—or hiring a local tutor or teacher who had some experience with standardized tests. As the test prep industry has grown, so has the sophistication of tutors’ approaches to improving scores and the understanding they possess of the tests’ construction, which of course leads to more successful score gains when working with a tutor. Current students also have many more options—a wider range of books, more tutoring companies, even iPhone apps that drill test content—at more price points than ever before. The stakes of standardized testing have increased, no doubt, but students who are willing to put in the time and effort to improve their scores have much better resources available to them.