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The Validity of Standardized Tests Such As the SAT & ACT

by Patrice D. Robinson

The primary use for the SAT and ACT exams is for the selection of students for college admission. Although there differences of opinion about the validity and reliability of these tests, recent revisions to both exams are causing the current body of research about validity and reliability to be questioned more strenuously.

Standardized Testing for College Admissions

A standardized test is an exam where the instructions, questions, scoring and reporting of those scores is the same for all who take it. Many colleges and universities require students to take one of two specific standardized tests: the SAT or the ACT. Many students opt to take both exams so they have a better chance for any scholarships or grants that may be available.

Validity

Since the scores of these college admission tests have become a funding opportunity for the student, the question remains: What exactly is being examined? That is basic validity. Validity in educational testing refers to whether or not a test “examines” or measures what it says it does. Four methods are used to gauge the validity of an exam: content validity, criterion-related validity, construct validity and, most recently, consequential validity. To examine the validity of the ACT and SAT, researchers look specifically at criterion-related validity, which refers to the fact that a student has to show mastery of certain criteria or data that has been learned. The criterion-related validity in testing can be further broken down and discussed as predictive validity. This refers to the standardized test being able to “predict” an outcome based on assessment responses. Consequently, how well a student does on the SAT or ACT should predict how well he will do in college.

Validity of the SAT

Since 1926, the SAT has been used as a predictor of college success in those subjects tested by the exam. The basic skills of reading, mathematics and writing form the core of the SAT; however, there are 20 subtests in the areas of foreign language, mathematics, history and science that can also be examined. According to the College Board, publisher of the exams, the SAT “is consistently shown to be a valid predictor of college success for students from all backgrounds,” but in a 2012 speech, Dr. Richard Atkinson, former chairman of the Board on Testing and Assessment for the National Council of Research, noted that the SAT is an exam at war with itself because the core test is not as valid as the optional subtests. The subtests are better predictors on whether or not a student will be successful in specific classes in college.

Validity of the ACT

The ACT, first given in 1959, is a college readiness assessment that measures a student’s readiness for college in the areas of English, mathematics, reading and science. The ACT Plus Writing has the four area multiple-choice tests plus a Writing Test. In a study completed in 2011 and published in the May 2013 issue of the American Economic Journal, researchers from both Stanford University and the University of Chicago question the predictive validity of the science and reading portions of the ACT. The report further argues that colleges would get more successful students if they examined the predictive value more closely.

About the Author

Patrice Robinson is a retired professional educator and administrator. She worked in the public schools for more than 30 years. She holds a bachelor's degree in the teaching of English, two master'sdegrees (one in English and one in education) and a doctorate degree in education.

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