The cancellation came 36 hours before I was to take the June ACT college admissions exam. The email was so unclear that I asked my dad to drive me to the test site to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. It was padlocked.
I had spent months studying and taking practice tests. This was the fourth time one of my standardized tests had been canceled because of COVID-19.
Even before this latest cancellation, I had begun to question the logic and usefulness of high-stakes college entrance exams. High-performing students can spend years prepping for the three hours it takes to fill in the bubbles of the math, English and science questions. Some families hire tutors or enroll their kids in prep courses, which often means kids with fewer opportunities or more responsibilities at home are at a disadvantage. And some parents will go to even more extreme lengths, both legally and illegally, to boost their teens’ scores.
I spent two hours a day for two months taking practice tests and working through prep books. Before that, I spent two hours a week reviewing the basic math and English concepts these tests focus on. I have friends who started studying for their SATs in seventh grade and gave up sports practices and theater rehearsals to do so.
All for a three-hour test.
What do colleges and universities get from this? They get the convenience of a consolidated number that allows them to quickly compare tens of thousands of applicants. It’s one piece of quantitative data in the midst of a process dominated by a raft of qualitative supporting information. They also get a boost in prestige on various college ranking lists if the scores of the students who attend their school are high.
Is excellence on entrance exams a predictor of college performance? The amount of effort I put into studying for the SAT and ACT could be considered an indication of grit and determination. But so are consistently high grades in school. What students like me know is that with enough practice comes familiarity with the tricks of wording and types of questions on the test. We can approach, or even reach, test perfection. That doesn’t mean we’ll do well in college.
And there’s an opportunity cost to all of this preparation.
Soon after my ACT was canceled, the colleges I was interested in announced that they were “test optional” this year. I decided to take them at their word and stopped test prep. Instead of spending hours studying, I ran for and was elected president of a local youth philanthropy initiative. I reformed my high school’s student ambassador program and welcomed scores of new students to a huge public high school in the midst of a pandemic. I challenged myself to read 100 books in a year and started tracking my progress in a new book blog.
The leadership experience and project planning skills I gained through these activities will do far more to help me in college than learning how to ace a standardized test. More importantly, I used what would have been test prep time to make a real difference in my community.
“Instead of spending hours studying, I ran for and was elected president of a local youth philanthropy initiative. I reformed my high school’s student ambassador program and welcomed scores of new students to a huge public high school in the midst of a pandemic. I challenged myself to read 100 books in a year and started tracking my progress in a new book blog.”
Given the social crises facing our country, young people need to be involved in public service. Closed schools and online learning are leaving millions of elementary school students far behind. A historic election requires canvassing and poll workers. The pandemic response demands contact tracers. The need for volunteers in other sectors is endless.
Around 4 million students take the SAT and/or the ACT every year. Even without prep time, each of these students spends three hours one Saturday morning taking the test. In total, that’s over 12 million hours that could be dedicated to tutoring elementary school students or working in food banks or some other community service. Counting prep time and the fact that many students take the tests more than once, we’re talking about millions of more hours that could be put to more socially beneficial use.
Colleges should release their applicants from the need to study for a three-hour test not just during the pandemic but for good. They should urge their applicants to take the time they would have spent in test prep and devote it to their communities. Students could then reflect on their service in their college applications. With this change, institutions of higher education would be performing a true public service. Millions of hours not spent preparing for a test but dedicated to making the United States a better place ― think what we could accomplish.
Sophie Adams-Smith, 17, is a senior at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Virginia. She currently serves as chair of the Arlington Youth Philanthropy Initiative.