As you probably know, The College Board (creators of the SAT test) and ACT, Inc. (creators of the ACT test) both now have “benchmarks.” These benchmarks are reported to serve as predictors of college and career performance, based entirely on how students score on the tests.

There has been some form of “college readiness benchmark” for the ACT since 2005, with SAT benchmarks finally appearing in 2011. The ACT benchmarks are subject area specific, whereas the SAT benchmark is based on a single, aggregate score.

What exactly are the “benchmarks?” For the SAT, the fundamental guideline is that a student scoring a 1550 combined total across Math, Writing and Critical Reading is said to have a 65% chance of obtaining a B- average or better in his or her freshman year of college. For the ACT, the following benchmark scores predict that a student has a 50% chance of earning a B or better, and a 75% chance of a C or better, in college courses in the subject area: Math, 22; Reading, 21; English, 18; Science, 24.

What are these benchmarks all about, and what should tutors know and be ready to share with students about them? Here are four thoughts on the matter:

1) The SAT and ACT benchmarks have very different scopes and purposes.

What are the ACT and SAT benchmarks for? According to their providers, their purposes are very different. The ACT’s College Readiness Standards “offer learning strategies that are likely to help students meet state standards and acquire the more advanced concepts associated with … increased college readiness. In other words, they’re intended to provide more context and meaning to a student’s ACT scores: a score in a given range ostensibly correlates to a specific level of learning in that subject, from which follows suggestions for further “learning experiences” paving the way to college.

The new SAT Benchmark, meanwhile, “…provides administrators, educators and policymakers a simple, powerful way to evaluate and improve academic programs that prepare students for success after high school.” In other words, SAT benchmark data is meant to be interpreted based on the aggregate scores of many students – and not as a way to make meaning out of the scores of individual students. This is very different from what the ACT benchmark data intends.

2) These benchmarks should not be used to assess the college preparedness of individual kids, or to discourage kids from going to college.

The College Board is clear in its guidelines for the benchmark that college success is predicated on a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills, as well as behavioral choices. Further, its benchmarks are meant to be applied in the aggregate, not to individuals. Even the ACT benchmark data, which intends to guide future learning paths for individuals, is nowhere near a good enough predictor of college readiness to be heavily weighted in high-stakes decisions about college admissions.

3) These benchmarks aren’t meant to predict how well a kid will do at a specific school.

Both these benchmarks are national in scope. They are based on data gleaned from a wide spectrum of different schools, and hence (according to the SAT) “are an indication of readiness at a typical college.” The ACT benchmark, moreover, seems to focus on college preparatory guidance, not post-college predictions. A given student might have greater success at one institution versus another, but the benchmarks don’t purport to predict this – they are too highly generalized.

4) Benchmarks are great – but academic preparation is still what really matters.

From the perspective of students taking these standardized tests, what do the benchmarks mean? At face value, these benchmarks are guidelines that could indicate potential for college success – if the student applies himself or herself.

On another level, these benchmarks might not mean even that much. For example, in 2011 only 25% of students taking the ACT met all four of its college readiness benchmarks – yet far more than 25% of those students are likely to succeed in college! 43% of its 2011 test-takers met the SAT benchmark, but that doesn’t validate the numbers.

In the final analysis, it’s widely agreed by college admissions counselors and other professionals that the best predictor of success in college is earning good grades in challenging high school courses. Learning and practicing good study habits is also vital.

Are you familiar with the ACT and/or the SAT benchmark? How have you used it? Please comment on your thoughts and experiences around these tools.

Featured image courtesy of Bruce Berrien.

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