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/ You are a tutor? Don’t talk to me.

You are a tutor? Don’t talk to me.

An aspect of the conversations around college admissions that has baffled me is how some college admissions officers and college counselors entirely dismiss the input of SAT and ACT tutors.

Everyone’s input should be put to scrutiny, especially when someone has a financial interest in a topic. So scrutiny of a tutor’s input is justified. But is outright rejection of the possibility that they can meaningfully add to the discussion surrounding the value of the SAT and ACT? I think not. Here’s why.

Understanding Samantha

Only SAT and ACT tutors see the tests, students’ performance and progress on the actual content, and the results. No other stakeholders in college admissions see these three parts, and this perspective brings otherwise impossible insight.

One of my students, Samantha, has straight A’s from a great public high school in New Jersey and started with a 16 on the ACT. She now has a 21 (her equivalent SAT score is lower than this). She will likely apply test-optional to colleges despite about 50 hours of tutoring. A few pertinent questions then: 1) Is test-optional admissions the right path for Samantha? and 2) Was her ACT tutoring a waste?

Applying Test-optional

I could be wrong, of course, but I think that test-optional admissions will be very detrimental to Samantha. With her grades and extracurricular activities, she will very likely get into a competitive college. But here’s the thing: her ACT score is accurate. While it’s true that a small percentage of test takers do not execute well on test day (typically because of anxiety) and thus cannot accurately demonstrate their knowledge and skills to colleges with the SAT and ACT, this is not the case for Samantha. She still struggles with questions of medium difficulty on grammar, rhetorical skills, mathematics, reading comprehension, data analysis, etc. How does she do well in school? She is a hard worker, and her teachers make it almost impossible for hard workers to do poorly by giving students extra credit, paper rewrites, etc.

I don’t really blame her teachers though. If you knew Samantha’s parents, you would also understand why a teacher would be even more inclined to give Samantha A’s: her parents will litigate (metaphorically, not literally) every B that she is given. More importantly, however, all good teachers want their students to do well – especially students who are hard workers. I don’t see an inherent problem with rewarding dedicated students with A’s.

Unless colleges are only using grades to evaluate academic preparedness.

If grades are supposed to be objective measures by which we can equally evaluate all students at all schools around the country and the world, then Samantha needs to be getting C’s or D’s. She has a very low retention rate for knowledge and profoundly struggles to understand abstract or complex concepts and operations. Her grades do not accurately represent her knowledge and skills. I know this personally. Although she is in Honors Precalculus, she struggles with Algebra of medium difficulty. Although she is in AP English Language and Composition, she still struggles to understand complex sentences with numerous dependent clauses.

Her teachers are rewarding her for her effort (which I think they are entitled to do) and relying upon the SAT or ACT to give colleges the rest of the picture. Together, her high GPA and low ACT score much more accurately portray her as a student: a hard worker who cares about doing well but, unfortunately, still lacks a lot of the knowledge and skills that would equip her to succeed at a highly competitive college.

So, on the surface, test-optional admissions will really help Samantha. She looks fantastic on paper: a near-perfect GPA and tons of extracurricular activities. She will, no doubt, have fantastic college essays (either highly edited or entirely written by a college admission professional). She’ll be a full-pay student with great credentials, i.e. among the most sought-after students for most colleges. She will likely gain admittance to a highly competitive college.

But that will likely be to her detriment. Samantha will very likely struggle significantly at a competitive college, underperform relative to her more academically prepared peers, and possibly even become part of the 37% of college students who do not graduate within 6 years.[i] Thus, test-optional might help her get admitted, but I doubt that it will help her succeed or graduate. That’s not good for Samantha, for the college, or for a better academically prepared student whose admission spot was taken by Samantha.

Was her tutoring a waste?

I don’t think so. Feel free to be skeptical, of course. But she went from the 30th percentile on the ACT to the 60th percentile (from a score of 16 to 21).[ii] She literally doubled her percentile, and she should be incredibly proud of that (which I convey to her as well). It was a struggle for her, and she still struggles with some pretty basic content. But that struggle does not take anything away from her massive improvement. And why is it important that she improved even if she will not use the score? Because now she knows how to differentiate a full sentence from a fragment, how to use pronouns correctly, how to keep verbs in the same tense, how to do basic Algebra and computations that are useful for life (averages, percentages, etc), how to formulate the main idea of a reading passage, how to understand the structure of a passage and why details and examples were included, how to read graphs and tables in scientific experiments and understand the basics of the scientific method, etc, etc, etc.

She has learned so much. And she is much, much better equipped to do better in college and in life because of her ACT tutoring. There is a reason that the SAT and ACT help predict how well a student will do in college: they test students on the foundational content needed to do well.[iii]

Even if she applies test-optional, Samantha is now much better equipped to succeed and has a much better academic foundation than she did before.

Integrity

Most SAT and ACT tutors do not need to be tutors. We did well in high school and in college, and that success equipped us to do any number of things (for instance, I was hired out of college to work for the CIA as a Leadership Analyst focused on Pakistan). We don’t advocate for the use of SAT and ACT testing in college admissions because SAT and ACT tutoring is our profession. Instead, we are SAT and ACT professionals because we love helping people and teaching students fundamental content needed to succeed. We see firsthand how the content that we teach helps students in high school and in college.

We see that the alternative to SAT and ACT scores is far worse: parents having a permanently distorted view of their children’s educations on account of massive grade inflation, even more pressure on teachers to give out A’s because there are no outside scores by which students will be evaluated, talented students at less well-known schools without grade inflation being overlooked because their GPA is lower than that of other applicants even though the SAT and ACT would have shown that they are likely prepared to compete at a highly selective college, colleges admitting students who are less likely to succeed, and students being more likely to drop out of college with debt but no diploma.[iv] Because SAT and ACT tutoring is our profession, we understand the value of the content tested on these exams and how the tests can help people. And thus, because of their value, we advocate for the appropriate use of the tests.

I think anyone truly committed to the truth and to helping students as much as possible would want to understand the perspective of tutors.


Works Cited

[i] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40

[ii] https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/MultipleChoiceStemComposite.pdf

[iii] Sackett, P. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2018). Eight myths about standardized admissions testing. In Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions (p.16). Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iv] https://davidblobaum.com/broken-dreams-college-access-and-outcomes/

1966-2019 “The American Freshman” Survey Results
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