Why are tests like the SAT such a big deal?

Jun 16, 2019 | 0 comments

Taking tests is stressful, difficult, and the benefits of testing are questionable at best. Still, students around the world take any number of exams in their classes so their governments can assess their progress, and so they can enter higher levels of academia. For better or worse, testing is an integral part of education systems worldwide, but students and parents still have a hard time understanding why they are important and how to best approach them.

This guide will help readers better appreciate the idea of testing, especially in terms of college entrance exams like the SAT, college credit tests like Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or English proficiency exams like the TOEFL.

Whatever your questions or concerns with tests are, Englist is here to help.

What they are

Standardized tests exist to establish a number of things. Some tests, like the SAT and ACT, exist to determine whether students are ready for college, and if so, to what degree. Other tests, like AP and IB exams, gauge student capabilities across a range of subjects. Another important format of exam tests students on their language abilities; in English some of the biggest assessments are the TOEFL and IELTS exams.

It is important to note that most standardized exams are not run by teachers or administrators, but rather are products of private companies. The SAT and Advanced Placement program are owned by a non-profit corporation called College Board. The TOEFL and TOEIC exams are offered by the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, another non-profit corporation. While these companies have “non-profit” status, they are massive organizations with robust budgets.

These companies are charged with promoting college preparedness or with other academic goals, but they have also been criticized for being high-earning multinational companies even though they are labeled as “non-profits”. They earn their income from test fees, study materials (e.g., The Official SAT Study Guide), and from official test prep courses.

Still, in order to both meet their mandate and continue to earn strong incomes, these organizations must develop accurate, effective, and useful products. As such, most western universities rely on some form of independent testing service to gauge student readiness.

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The tests

There are more tests and testing organizations than we can count, so we have selected some of the most popular and most asked about. They are:

AP (Advanced Placement)

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is owned and operated by the aforementioned College Board and is designed to teach college-level curricula to high school students. AP classes are concluded with a test and graded on a score from 1 to 5. For most tests, receiving a score of “3” is generally considered passing, with universities awarding college credit for passing scores. Keep in mind that some universities only accept 4s and 5s for some subjects.

The AP exams are structured according to their topics, but for many, there is a multiple choice, short answer, and a written component. On the AP US History exam, there is a long multiple choice section, short answer section, written document analysis, and finally a long essay.

IB (International Baccalaureate)

International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are a bit more complicated than their AP counterparts. IB is an independent organization that develops college-level curricula like AP, but rather than an all-or-nothing exam at the end of the year, different programs are structured relative to their topics, and subjects are structured beyond just a single year.

For example, in the IB Diploma Program, students are tested only after their second year. Tests are also mostly writing-based and there is no multiple choice. For the IB Psychology Diploma Program, on the Standard Level exam, students are asked to respond to three short answer questions and to compose a full essay. For High Level students, there is significantly more writing. As you may have heard us say many times by now, writing and critical thinking go hand-in-hand, which is one of the specific skills the IP paradigm hopes to cultivate in students.

Most IB classes also factor in student performance during internal assessments of their final scores, and some classes – like IB Psych – require students to complete a project or experiment that can last for months.

SAT

The SAT (which used to stand for Standardized Assessment Test but now is officially just the acronym) is the most famous college assessment exam in the United States. As mentioned, the SAT is owned by College Board (but actually managed and operated by ETS, the organization that owns the TOEFL exam).

The SAT is meant to gauge a student’s readiness for university, specifically in terms of verbal reasoning and mathematics. The test consists of three portions: the reading test, the “writing and language” test, and the mathematics portion.

SAT scores are calculated into two categories: “Mathematics” and “Evidence-based Reading and Writing”. There are 800 points possible in each section, with a maximum combined score of 1600.

Reading

For the reading test, students have 65 minutes to answer 52 multiple choice questions related to various texts that students must comprehend and analyze. There are five reading passages, as well as charts and graphs, but no math is necessary.

Writing and Language

The writing and language test is also multiple choice, but instead of asking test-takers to evaluate and comprehend passages, they must judge the style and strategy of the texts and suggest improvements. This section gauges both student structure and style knowledge, as well as mechanical knowledge (like grammar and punctuation).

Math

The math section is split into two parts – with and without a calculator. They are all multiple choice, grid-in style questions.

PSAT

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) functions as a practice test for the SAT. This test is shorter and colleges do not look at it, but it can help gauge future SAT performance.

SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II)

The SAT Subject Tests are much less widely taken than the SAT, but many students still do so.

First, some universities ask that students demonstrate adequate knowledge of a particular subject, thus students take these exams at the behest of colleges and universities.

Next, some students find that SAT Subject Tests can help highlight proficiency in a given subject, thus increasing the chances for admission to certain schools under certain majors.

The Subject Tests include exams on literature, math, science, history, and foreign languages.

ACT

Originally an acronym for American College Testing, the ACT is a competitor to the SAT. It is owned by a non-profit organization of the same name.

As it is a test that gauges college readiness, it functions in a similar fashion to the SAT, although its format and scoring method is significantly different.

There are four required sections to the ACT: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Reasoning. There is also an optional writing section.

Each section is graded on a scale of 1-36, and the composite score is not a sum, but an average of all four required sections. The writing section is graded on a 1-12 point scale.

ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam)

The Independent School Entrance Exam is a test students must take to enter independent or magnet schools in the United States. Many international schools with a western focus, outside of the United States, also use this exam to gauge potential students’ abilities.

It is owned and operated by another non-profit organization called the Educational Records Bureau (ERB).

The ISEE has four levels:

  • Primary: grades 2-4
  • Lower: 5-6
  • Middle: 7-8
  • Upper: 9-12

Each level of ISEE has five sections:

  • Mathematics Achievement
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • a 30 minute essay portion

IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

IELTS is one of the most popular English proficiency exams for second-language learners of English. It is the preferred English exam for most British, Canadian, Australian, Irish, and New Zealand academic institutions. It is accepted by a substantial number of American schools and is a required test for second-language speakers who wish to join a tremendous number of companies and professions around the world.

The IELTS is developed and managed by three separate organizations: The British Council, Cambridge Assessment English, and IDP Education.

IELTS is graded on a 9-point scale, but with .5 scores possible as well (so participants receive scores of 6, 6.5, etc.). Test-takers receiving a 9 are considered “expert” English users, while those receiving a 4.5 are considered “limited users”.

Most academic institutions require an IELTS score of at least 6.5 or 7.

There are two formats of the IELTS: the Academic Module for students, and the General Training Module for professionally-minded test-takers. The test takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete and consists of four sections:

Listening

Test takers must listen to pre-recorded conversations and single speakers. Half of the listening sections are based on day-to-day conversation and topics, while the other half are more academic in nature. Students then provide a written answer for each listening section, with points deducted for mechanical errors.

Reading

The reading section consists of three texts and a range of question types, including multiple choice and short answer.

The types of texts depend on the test format. For the academic format, all of the texts are academic in nature, but for the General Training Module, texts consist of day-to-day topics, workplace or professional concerns, and general interest pieces.

Writing

The writing section consists of two “tasks”. The first task requires writers compose a 150-word passage in 20 minutes, with the second task requiring 250 words in 40 minutes.

Like the reading section, the written portion is different depending on the module. The Academic Module must describe a figure like a graph or a chart in Task 1, then discuss an argument or point of view in Task 2. General Training Module test-takers are judged based on day-to-day situation writing as well as general interest topics.

Speaking

The speaking section is the same regardless of module. Students are paired with a native English-speaking examiner who will assess listening and speaking skills in the context of an interview and conversation. There are three sections for the speaking portion of the test:

  • Section 1 (4-5 minutes): Introduction and interview – the examiner asks basic information and your reasons for wanting to take the IELTS, along with other casual, basic topics.
  • Section 2 (3-4 minutes): Long turn – students are given a card with a topic and a range of related points. They are then asked to speak about the topic and explain the points in a 2-minute talk.
  • Section 3 (4-5 minutes): Discussion – students and the examiner have a conversation, often based on what the student was speaking about in section 2.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

TOEFL is a competitor to IELTS and gauges roughly the same skills. However, while IELTS tends to be preferred in Britain, Europe, and Commonwealth members, TOEFL is generally preferred by American institutions.

It is owned by ETS, along with TOEIC and the GRE (a proficiency test for people looking to attend graduate school).

Like the IELTS, TOEFL is made up of four sections: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Most tests are done online now (the internet based test, or iBT), while paper tests are still offered in some areas.

The TOEFL is scored on a 120 point scale, with each section being worth 30 points. The test itself can take over four hours.

Writing

There are two writing “tasks” for this section.

First, participants are asked to read a passage, and then hear another passage read out loud. They then must summarize the spoken passage and discuss how it relates to the written piece they read.

Next, participants must write a persuasive essay on a given topic.

Reading

This section is conducted similarly to reading sections on the SAT and IELTS. Test takers are given 3-4 passages that assess comprehension and critical thinking. Having prior knowledge of the subjects of a passage is not necessary.

Speaking

This section is broken up into six total “tasks”. In two of the tasks, participants are asked their opinion on common knowledge topics.

In the remainder of the tasks, students need to either read passages or listen to conversations or speeches about academic or campus life related topics.

These sections are testing for being able to speak naturally and for clarity, as well as participant ability to explain what they have read or heard.

Listening

This section also includes passages, but instead of written passages, students must listen to them and answer questions about them. In other words, it is very similar to the reading section, but for listening as opposed to reading.

The topics can vary, but are usually academic in nature. Some of them are more conversational or back-and-forth discussions between professors and students.

Participants are not required to have prior knowledge of the topics they are tasked with listening to.

TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication)

The TOEIC is the sister exam of TOEFL, also owned by ETS. Where TOEFL is for testing English capacity at the university level, TOEIC is used to gauge English proficiency in a professional setting.

In other words, if you are applying for a job in the U.S. and they require a proficiency test, you’ll need to take the TOEIC, but if you are applying to a university it will be the TOEFL.

Technically, there are two TOEIC exams – the TOEIC Listening and Reading exam, and the TOEIC Speaking and Writing exam.

TOEIC Listening and Reading

The Listening and Reading Exam lasts for two hours, with most time spent on the reading portion.

Each section, reading and listening, is worth up to 495 points and is in a multiple choice format. The scores of the sections are combined into 990 point scale.

TOEIC Speaking and Writing

Similar to the Listening and Reading Exam, the Speaking and Writing test is split into two sections – speaking and, of course, writing. In total it only takes about 1.5 hours.

Each section is worth up to 200 points, which are not combined. Also, test takers can opt to only take one section or the other.

This test is gauging participant capacity to speak and write in a professional setting rather than an academic one, so questions are related to workplace concerns.

GEPT (General English Proficiency Test)

The GEPT is a test taken exclusively in Taiwan. It was developed by NTUs Language Training and Testing Center (LTTC) and is a popular English proficiency exam in Taiwan.

GEPT scores are not accepted overseas, but are only used in Taiwan for academic and professional programs that require English proficiency.

The test is split into two sections, a listening and reading section and a speaking and writing section. The length and difficulty of the test depends on the level taken. The levels are:

  • Elementary – 2.5 hours
  • Intermediate – 3 hours
  • High Intermediate – 3 hours
  • Advanced – 3.5 hours

Hopefully we all agree on the importance of social skills, but that still begs the question of how Englist helps. It’s an academic writing service, not a social club, right? True, but as we’ve touched on, there is a lot Englist provides in terms of socialization.

The purpose of standardized testing

As mentioned, the outward purpose of these tests is to assess the ability of the test takers and to determine if they have what it takes to participate at a certain university, company, program, or field. Proficiency levels need to be understood to the most accurate degree possible, so these exams are extremely detailed and many universities, companies, and other institutions rely on them to provide the best insight possible.

With that said, it isn’t a stretch to see standardized testing as less than magnanimous – sometimes the test is about the test. Or, in other words, it can be about making money for their companies. With the sheer number of students taking the exams, organizations like ETS and College Board are billion dollar companies. They offer physical and online test prep courses, study guides and practice tests, and have massive marketing departments to make sure as many people purchase their products and services as possible.

The reason we mention this is that it is, by some measures, a conflict of interest: the more effort and time and practice test takers put into the exams, the more money these organizations make, so of course they would want you to take their test as seriously as possible.

While the SAT and TOEFL can be very important, they are not as important as a student’s overall academic growth. While standardized testing has its place, it is also a money-making enterprise, so you should avoid being suckered.

What are standardized tests looking for?

The short answer to this question – what tests like the SAT are looking for – is that they are on the lookout for what universities, colleges, and companies are looking for. However, that begs the question: what are those institutions looking for?

On one hand, it depends on the test. The TOEFL is looking for proficiency in English from non-native speakers, while the SAT is examining student readiness for university and to what degree. Interestingly though, they both are looking for similar attributes (at least in the language-based sections).

In many exams, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, and many APs, are looking for critical thinking and analytical skills. These skills are the core of Englist’s educational philosophy. Reading comprehension sections ask students to read passages, then answer questions based on them. Almost all of those questions are analysis-based.

In other words, standardized tests are asking whether or not the test-taker is an independent, critical, and analytical thinker, and to what degree. At Englist, we are in the business of training students to be independent, critical, and analytical thinkers.

Still, these exams are looking for other skills as well, although the secondary skills are all related to first order analysis and critical reasoning. They include:

  • Fluency
  • Comprehension
  • General knowledge
  • Specific knowledge on a given topic

How to approach major standardized tests

There are a few strategies for approaching major tests like TOEFL or the SAT, and some are better than others:

Cramming and test prep

This approach seems like the most responsible and in a lot of ways, it is. By cramming, students are learning and getting as much information into their brains as possible.

Furthermore, the “test prep” method is highly targeted at a specific test, so that students will feel comfortable answering questions in a given way, especially if they have been cramming test-specific information.

There are a few drawbacks however. Cramming can be hugely inefficient – students can either learn more than they need, information they don’t need, or neglect to pick up specific information that is critical to the exam. It’s just very hard to tell what exactly will be on a given test, and cramming usually means a short period of practice just before the test. We think there is a better way.

There are a number of schools that specialize in “test prep” and while they often help improve test scores, the knowledge gained is rather fleeting and they are extremely expensive.

Test can be stressful

Learning the “tricks”

Related to test prep is the idea of learning the “tricks” of a given test. These are often helpful to learn; things like reading answers in reverse order, or choosing “C” if you don’t know the answer to a multiple question test, or simply just reading questions and answers before tackling a reading passage can all be helpful strategies.

However, some people confuse the tricks for actual knowledge. You can have as many test-taking strategies as possible crammed in your head, but if you don’t understand the information, it isn’t going to matter how familiar you are with test format or how to game the system.

Some test prep schools advertise that they have “the actual SAT/TOEFL/IELTS” or whatever test, and thus show students how to take it specifically. Know that this is either extremely unethical, probably illegal, and almost certainly untrue. Usually what they mean is they have a copy of last year’s test, which is just as good as buying an official study guide with practice questions.

These programs then spend most of their time trying to teach students how to beat the system of the test, rather than excel at what the test is examining. These programs are often inexpensive as they are stuffing 100 or more students into “classrooms”, and usually aren’t worth your time. Just take an online prep course instead.

There are no good tricks

Years of sustained learning and practice accumulating into expertise, A.K.A. learning

The most honest way of preparing for standardized tests is simply to be good at what they are testing for.

If you want to get a good score on the reading portion of the SAT, you should have been reading advanced materials for a while, been an active and eager participant in English courses, and you should have developed an appreciation for reading and the capacity for analyzing texts.

If you want to get a good score on the TOEFL exam, you should have been studying English from a young age, enjoy reading books in English, and have experience interacting with native English speakers.

In short, this is what Englist is trying to do: teach students the skills colleges and careers demand, which standardized tests are evaluating. These skills include the basics like reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but also analysis, communication strategy, critical thinking, independence of thought, imagination, creativity, confidence, and focused opinion development and expression.

A combination

Don’t get us wrong, while doing things the hard way by taking classes at a place like Englist is the best long-term strategy, there is a place for knowing some tricks and preparing for a specific test.

As such, for our students, we recommend they read something in English daily, for at least 20 minutes. They should also attend Englist class for five hours per week, for a few years at least. Then, we offer test prep classes and tutoring geared to specific tests, using the official study tools licensed by the testing organizations like College Board and ETS.

How Englist can help

We’ve spent a lot of time covering the tests, why they are important, and what they are looking for, but you are probably wondering how to put yourself or your child into the best position to perform well on these exams. Obviously, Englist is here to help.

How Englist can help

Englist teaches what tests like the SAT, TOEFL, IELTS, and AP Exams are looking for

As we have mentioned, we believe the best way to pass these exams are not to understand how they are constructed or to learn how to outsmart them, but to have the skills they are trying to assess. This is what Englist does, and we specialize in instilling the following skills in our students:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Analysis
  • Communication Strategy
  • Critical Thinking
  • Independent Thought
  • Imagination
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Focused Opinion Development and Expression
Time spent at Englist will make students stronger writers, but the skills learned in that process are all-encompassing and are critical for careers of the future.

Englist specializes in teaching students to write

Have we mentioned we teach writing? Part of our philosophy is that writing is the crossroads of all of the fundamental language skills, and many of the core academic skills in general. In other words, writing is thinking, and we teach students how to organize their thoughts in such a manner as to make them coherent and convincing.

While we like to wax philosophical about the importance of writing in terms of instilling soft skills, it is also directly applicable to day-to-day student life, especially as kids advance in their academic careers. For example, they will need to write extensively in the following contexts:

  • High school courses, including English, literature, and social studies
  • High school extracurriculars like Model UN, speech and debate, student government, and internships
  • College courses, including anything related to English, language, or literature, any humanities course, any social science course, and most science courses
  • College extracurriculars of almost any variety
  • In business, writing emails, memos, reports, press releases, and presentations
  • On standardized test writing exams, including SAT, ACT, IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, AP / IB, and more.

Because writing is such a wide-spread feature of academia and industry, simply knowing how to do it decently will be a tremendous boon to anyone hoping for any modicum of academic or career success.

Reading comprehension

We do more than just writing. Englist also places heavy emphasis on reading, especially as an independent activity or in our Fundamentals classes.

However, most of our courses feature some degree of reading, whether it be novels, short stories, or even just the textbooks we use as a group.

Reading and writing cannot be separated from each other, and if anyone aspires to be a quality writer, they must first be an avid reader.

Beyond just reading, however, we also focus on comprehension of texts using a technique called “guided reading”. With guided reading, a class reads along with an instructor, usually something slightly beyond their comfortable reading level. They get to borrow the comprehension, analysis, and critical thinking skills of the teacher to understand a text, and thus comprehend it themselves.

This process, along with large amounts of independent reading, pushes reading comprehension to higher levels.

Yes, Englist does teach test prep

While we remain critical of some test prep programs and a propensity for cramming and knowing the tricks of the trade, we do see the value in preparing for specific tests like the SAT, TOEFL, and AP exams. As such, we offer both one-on-one and custom test prep classes.

These courses employ officially licensed and professionally curated tools, and all of our instructors are familiar with testing regimes and processes.

If you are looking to set up one-on-one test prep courses, or would like to help us put together a custom test prep class for a group of students, please contact us today.

Testing is, for better or worse, a huge deal for students, and this trend looks like it will only continue to entrench itself in academic and professional certification systems.

By some measures, this can be seen as a problematic development. However, one can also frame these exams in a more positive light by acknowledging that they test fundamental skills that will help students navigate university life and their future careers.

In order to best pass these exams, in order to acquire the important skills they are trying to assess, students need focus, effort, and plenty of practice. At Englist, we’re confident that we can help them.

Interested in enrolling with Englist?
Feel free to reach out to us through the channels below, or simply fill out this form and a representative will be in touch.

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