What do ACT/SAT scores mean? Story of two students who overcame their standardized testing hardships (Part Two)
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By Jeff Lee

In their junior year, N.S. and J.L. managed to score 27 and 28 on the official test. Now, these scores could mean different things depending on one’s perspective. As an optimistic-realist, I concentrate on the 9-point increase from their starting scores, which is an immense improvement that deserves compliment. But what do these scores actually mean?

Percentiles vary depending on the subject, year, and test form. A score of 27 placed N.S. around the 85th percentile, meaning that he scored the same or higher than 85% of all the students who took the same test. J.L.’s 28 placed him near the 90th percentile. In reality, this is really good, but the colleges N.S. and J.L. were aiming for seemed to require at least 30 (closer
to the 95th percentile) to have a decent chance of gaining acceptance. More than anything else, test scores effectively bring misery and feelings of inadequacy to countless students across the world. N.S. and J.L. decided to take a break from the ACT,
contemplating whether they should bother trying again to take ACT for higher scores. And thus, their junior years came to an end.

How the ACT and SAT are Designed

As norm-referenced tests, standardized assessments like the ACT and SAT measure each student’s relative performance in comparison to every student who took the same test. Essentially, a student’s test score indicates whether they are performing at, above, or below average when compared to the performance of other students. What students and parents often
fail to realize is that by design, these tests ensure that half of all test takers will receive the average score, and the majority of students will score closer to the average score.

Based on the data provided by the ACT and CollegeBoard, the national average (50th percentile) for the ACT is around 20, and for the SAT it is between 1010 and 1060. Of course, to even be considered for the most competitive colleges, students may have to score in the 90th, 95th, or 99th percentiles as a minimum requirement. Students can research online the average
test scores of college freshmen who were admitted into their universities of choice.

High school students who take AP Statistics or AP Psychology learn about the normal curve, which directly applies to how the ACT and SAT are designed. The norm-referenced design of the ACT/SAT ensures that only an extremely small number of students are able to receive the highest scores. As opposed to criterion-referenced tests, which are designed on a pass-fail system, there really is no “passing” or “failing” score for the ACT and SAT. A student who states she “failed” the SAT because she scored 1500 instead of 1580 is simply being snarky and perhaps a little obnoxious. At the same time, we must acknowledge that there are plenty of high-performing students who, or whose parents, hold the mindset that anything less than a perfect or near-perfect score is unacceptable. For some people, it is simply not good enough to score in the top 10%, the top 5%, or even the top 1%.

The 99th percentile for the ACT and SAT is around 33 and 1500 respectively. When aiming for a 35 or 1540+, a student has to score within less than the top 1%. I’ve encountered students and parents who would settle for nothing less.

This is our current educational climate, one marked by extremely high standards thanks to the prevalence of standardized testing and increased competition when applying for college. Hyper-competitive, to say the least.

Immigrant students are automatically at a disadvantage for the reading and grammar-based sections of the ACT/SAT. Another factor that contributes to students’ low performance on these tests include the disconnect between the test content and how these subjects are actually taught and learned at school. For example, in English class, students typically read books, write essays, and have discussions focused on their personal responses and interpretations. This is drastically different from the reading questions on the ACT/SAT, which require students to identify the “best” or “most correct” answer as determined by the test-makers. Many high school English teachers may not dedicate extensive class time to reviewing grammar, whereas
the ACT and SAT include sections that specifically focus on the correct applications of Standardized American English. When we also factor in students’ difficulties with time management, concentration, and motivation, there is nearly absolute certainty that the test-taking experience is torturous hell.