Why the SAT Still Matters

03/27/2014 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014
  • Shiv Gaglani Test prep guru; MD/MBA candidate, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine & Harvard Business School
  • Blake Cecil Brown University student; Helps students succeed on the SAT and ACT

The recent announcement by the College Board to modify the SAT for a second time in less than a decade has rekindled a debate about the relevance and validity of our college entrance exams.

Detractors of the SAT and ACT have rediscovered studies that show surprisingly little relation between test scores and performance after high school, and have reminded us that some universities have chosen to make the tests optional. Others argue that the tests have lost touch with the high school curriculum and, more importantly, the necessary skills and knowledge required to excel in the modern workforce. Some have even charged the College Board with being less motivated by educational reasons than by their declining market share to the ACT. In this environment it is no wonder that many are asking Does the SAT (or ACT) still matter?

As recent high school students who have collectively mentored hundreds of students and started two companies, our answer to this is a resounding yes. We believe that the SAT and ACT can serve as highly motivating forces for improvement and bellwethers of dedication. It is simply a matter of perspective.

A fundamental problem with the tests has nothing to do with their content or format, but rather with how they are viewed by students, parents, and teachers. At best the SAT and ACT are seen as stepping stones on the path to college; at worst they are seen as unnecessary obstacles that are flawed or even arbitrary markers of potential. It is this "Stepping Stone Myth," which is often applied to other elements of education, that does more harm to student achievement than the tests themselves.

If instead the exams are seen as a challenge on which any student has the capability to succeed, they are no longer logistical nuisances of the admissions process or another mechanism to harm the disadvantaged in society -- they are a guide in the endless journey towards self-improvement, like an inspiring teacher or successful parent, or that frightening final exam that ultimately became a source of great pride.

If the preparation is time-efficient and based on meaningful learning and generally helpful strategies, the SAT and ACT can be productive elements of a motivated student's strive to stand out. For example, while both of us initially memorized hundreds of words and grammar rules to do well on the tests, we pleasantly realized that our improved vocabulary and writing skills significantly contributed to our ability to publish two books and contribute pieces such as this one to dozens of outlets in the years that followed. We thus came to view the tests less as stepping stones, and instead see the skills developed during preparation as escalator steps which stay with you and continually propel you forward and upward.

That philosophy motivated us to use our deep experience helping students prepare for the tests to write Standing Out on the SAT and ACT: Perfect Scorers' Uniquely Effective Strategies for Testing and Admissions Success (April 2014; Osmosis Publishing). Instead of focusing on gimmicky short-term machinations, our book focuses on actual learning and strategies that not only help on the SAT and ACT but also in college and beyond. Fortunately, this approach is also the most potent tool for any student to improve his or her test scores, and one that will be in harmony with the new format of the SAT. For example, rather than skimming passages and honing in on buzzwords we encourage students to actually develop better and faster reading comprehension skills by, well, reading more. Similarly, for the math section we demonstrate the pitfalls of students' reliance on calculators and have them solve questions directly as opposed to guessing using the choices via process of elimination. We spend an entire chapter crafting a case for putting some care into the SAT or ACT, because we know that these tests are often merely a source of worry while they could be something much more helpful and productive.

We acknowledge that skewed perspective is not the only harm attributable to the SAT and ACT. As we describe elsewhere, they have spawned a bloated test preparation industry that feeds on expensive classes, often exclusive to the wealthy, and mass-market books that pander to students who are hungry for gimmicky strategies that do not translate into real learning. However, we firmly believe that a small shift in perspective toward aspirational learning by students, parents, and teachers can restore relevance to the SAT and ACT and provide an example of the educational opportunities all around us. After all, ultimately it is the skills, not the scores, that matter.

Shiv Gaglani and Blake Cecil are authors of Standing Out on the SAT and ACT: Perfect Scorers' Uniquely Effective Strategies for Testing and Admissions Success ( Gaglani graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and runs the education tech startup Osmosis. Cecil is a freshman at Brown University whose guide to test prep and admissions on College Confidential has been viewed more than 600,000 times. They each earned perfect scores on both the SAT and ACT.