What is the Impact of College’s Desire for Ever Increasing SAT and ACT Scores?

Colleges and universities each year brag about the qualities of their incoming freshman class.  Today Ohio State released its annual report on the type of students who enrolled there.  OSU, like most selective colleges and universities, trumpeted the achievements of its entering class and like many other schools bragged that it has been ever more selective by bringing in applicants with ever higher SAT and ACT scores.  The report caused me to stop and ask myself the question, “Is there a downside to the desire by colleges to focus on continually boosting the credentials of the incoming freshman class?”

OSU is clearly making it harder to be accepted to the main Columbus campus.  Below are two graphs taken from the second page of the enrollment report.  They show that from mid 1990s until 2015 both the ACT and SAT scores have risen dramatically.  In just the last ten years SAT scores have risen about 80 points and ACT scores have gone up 2.6 points.  The linear trend shown in the graph clearly cannot continue forever.  If the trends keep up at this rate every accepted student at OSU’s Columbus campus will have a perfect ACT score of 36 in just 22 years or a perfect 1600 SAT score in 32 years.  Perfect scores are not possible for every entering OSU student since only a few thousand people in the entire world get a perfect ACT or SAT score each year.  The combined total of people with perfect scores is a much smaller number than OSU’s yearly 7,000+ entering class.OSU_SAT_ScoresMore importantly, the drive for continually higher standardized test scores has fundamentally changed most teenagers’ life experiences.  When I went to high school in the late 1970s,  most of my friends and I worked after school.  I spent weekday afternoons selling film (back when cameras were not digital) and photo processing in a small kiosk located at the edge of a large supermarket’s parking lot.  During my high school years I managed to get almost a dozen friends hired to work for the same chain.

Today, none of my children worked a formal job after school and I cannot think of a single one of their friends in high school who worked during the school year either.  Instead of working, many people in my children’s cohort have spent their time in test prep schools or doing extracurricular activities, like math or music school.

National data from the US government show the same trends I have witnessed.  Below is a graph of the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who are employed from the time I was in high school until today.  In the late 1970s almost half of all older teenagers were employed.  Today, it is only slightly more than one-quarter of older teenagers who are employed.

Percentage of 16 to 19 year olds employed.

Percentage of 16 to 19 year olds employed.

There are many impacts caused by colleges’ desire for people with ever higher test scores.  There is a strong relationship between IQ and test scores.  Getting students with higher scores means more intelligent students in every classroom.  I have found that smarter students are more fun to teach than dumber ones.  They ask interesting questions that keep me on my toes and help me think about my lecture material in new ways.

However, there is a significant downside to bringing in students who have spent their teenage year preparing to do well on standardized tests instead of experiencing the working world.  These students have no real world experience and cannot personally relate to much of my classes’ material on economics.

For example, students who have tried and failed to find a job are typically very interested when I discuss unemployment.  Those students who have never searched for work typically tune out quickly during the same lecture.  Students who have earned a paycheck are very attentive when I lecture on taxes and government spending.  Those who have never looked at a paycheck’s various deductions are rarely interested.

There is a serious impact in colleges’ race for ever increasing SAT and ACT scores.  The impact is a loss of real world experience that hinders my students from making the connection between what they are learning in class and what happens outside the lecture hall.  I urge the administration to drop the annual graphs showing trends in standardized tests and replace them with graphs showing the percentage of entering freshman who have received a W-2 form, traveled outside the USA or had other real world experiences outside of school.

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