College Entrance Exams Research Paper Starter

College Entrance Exams

(Research Starters)

College-entrance examinations (CEEs), also known as college-admissions tests, are standardized achievement and aptitude tests used to predict high-school graduates' potential for academic success in college and to either accept or deny their entry. Students' CEE scores are a main determinant of college admissions, particularly at more selective and elite colleges and universities, though the predictive validity of the tests as measurements of future college academic success is questionable. Research indicates that the tests demonstrate performance gaps between males and females as well as between ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Because of these flaws, the tests have received much criticism, with some critics calling for their abolishment.

Keywords Achievement Tests; Aptitude Tests; College Admissions Tests; College Board; College Entrance Examinations; Composite Score; Content Validity; Correlations; Criterion-Referenced Test; Norm-Referenced Test; Predictive Validity; Profile Reports; Standard Error of Measurement; Standardized Tests; Test Battery; Test Reliability



College-entrance examinations (CEEs) are taken by most public and private high-school students, primarily juniors and seniors, during their secondary education. They are one of the many national standardized tests used by states and local school districts to measure aptitude or achievement. Two best known CEEs—the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT)—are offered by private corporations (Bishop, 2005; Cavanaugh, 2005; Weber, 1991).

Most colleges and universities require their applicants to take a CEE and meet or surpass a minimum score in order to be considered for admission. It is generally recommended that the exams be initially taken in the spring of the high school students' junior years. This gives students ample time to retake the exam and try to improve their scores. In fact, large numbers of students do take a "preliminary" or "trial" CEE. Half of SAT examinees, for example, take the test twice or more. Portions of the exam can be taken over a period of two weeks or longer. All students generally take exams in a few core-area fields and other elective subject-area exams (Angoff, 1991; Bishop, 2005).


During the period from 1946 to 1961, testing programs administered by the CEEB were expanded in the post-World War II measurement renaissance. The CEEB turned over the SAT to the Educational Testing Service or ETS when it was created in 1947 (, 2007; Karmel & Karmel, 1978). Today, the Princeton, NJ-based Educational Testing Service or ETS develops, conducts, administers and scores the SAT college-admissions tests for the College Board (Bradley, 2005;, 2007; ETS, 2007; Webb, Metha, & Jordan, 1992).


The SAT was developed in the 1920s as a successor to the National Intelligence Test (NIT) (Saretzky, 1982). Carl Campbell Brigham, the creator of both the NIT and the SAT, was skeptical that the tests measured intelligence. The SAT was originally developed, at least in part, to promote equity and to expand the pool of students eligible for elite Eastern colleges and universities (Wiggins, 1998). The SAT was probably sought and used by socially selective schools to evaluate borderline candidates who were unable to otherwise demonstrate their qualifications. Based on its origin and history, Saretzky (1982) concluded that it was doubtful that the SAT was developed as an instrument of prejudice.

In 1926, the objective SAT was used for the first time. It was initially dubbed an 'aptitude' test, not an 'achievement' test. With the advent of the SAT program, students no longer had to travel to each college or university they wanted to attend and take each school's individual admissions. It did not take long for the SAT to become a household name for aspiring college students (Hubin, 1997; Karmel & Karmel, 1978; Popham, 2006; Wiggins, 1998).

The SAT has now existed for more than three-quarters of a century. The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), or College Board, is the original developer and the continuing sponsor of the SAT—the oldest and best known of the college-admissions testing programs. The test measures verbal and quantitative aptitudes, including critical reading, writing and mathematics skills. Most items on the SAT are multiple-choice, but the test also includes a timed essay. The SAT itself is timed at three hours and 45 minutes (ETS, 2007; Karmel & Karmel, 1978; Popham, 2006). In 2013, the College Board announced that the SAT would again be redesigned, this time to be in line with the Common Core Standards (ADAMS, 2013).

The SAT subject tests are one-hour long, multiple-choice exams which measure students' knowledge of specific subjects and their ability to apply that knowledge. Many colleges now typically also require or recommend one or more SAT subject-area tests for admission (ETS, 2007).


ACT Incorporated of Iowa City, Iowa directs the American College Testing or ACT Program, and develops and produces the ACT CEEs (Bradley, 2005). The ACT program was founded in 1959 and its objectives were similar to the College Board's SAT program (Bishop, 2005; Karmel & Karmel, 1978). Approximately 925,000 high-school graduates took the ACT in 1996. This figure encompassed approximately 60 percent of the nation's entering college freshmen. The national average composite score was 20.9 in 1996, increasing from 20.8 in 1995 (ACT Inc., 1996).

The ACT assesses high-school students' general educational development and ability to complete college-level work (ACT, 2007). The ACT is measures skills and knowledge more closely related to the traditional disciplines than the SAT. Its battery of multiple-choice tests covers skills in English, reading, mathematics and science. ACT academic subject-area tests are about three-hours long (ACT, 2007; Bishop, 2005). The ACT Writing Test is an optional exam which measures students' skill in planning and writing a short essay (ACT, 2007).

Declining Test Scores

Average SAT scores declined consistently from the mid-1960s through the 1990s. SAT scores in the late 1980s were substantially lower than they were in the early 1960s and below the levels of 1970 (Cavazos, 1989; Cetron & Gayle, 1991; Kifer, 2001; Martz, 1992; Stevens & Wood, 1987). Trends from CEEs during the late 1990s indicate that scores were lagging or stagnating on at least certain core exams or exam sections. It appeared that the most talented students were losing ground. Top students of the early 1990s, for example, were not scoring as high as top students of the 1960s. The College Board has asserted that the decline of scores of U.S. students on CEEs was due to lapses in high-school instruction (Cavanaugh, 2002; Martz, 1992).

Recent Changes

Beginning in the mid-1980s and extending through the mid-1990s, a research and development program was in place to evaluate and change the SAT program. The College Board actually changed parts of the test as a result of these efforts to make the content and objectives of the SAT more closely align with the ACT. The SAT was historically a general test of intellectual skill and was not coupled to particular courses of study as was the ACT. The SAT now also offers subject-area tests similar to those offered by the ACT. In 2003, ACT Inc. made the ACT's written essay optional. Timed-essay exams were incorporated into the SAT in the spring of 2005 and into the ACT in the Fall of 2004 (Cavanaugh, 2005; Matzen & Hoyt, 2004; Minke, 1996; Wiggins, 1998).

Recent years have seen the usefulness of standardized CEEs brought into question. While some have suggested that admissions tests be de-valued in determining the qualifications of college applicants, others have proposed that CEEs be eliminated altogether as measures of admission to colleges and universities (Dennis, 2001; Olson, 2007).

Further Insights

College-Preparatory Curricula

There has been an increasing level of focus on college-entrance standards in recent years. Most students are not well prepared to take college-entrance exams, let alone to enter and compete effectively in higher education. Lack of academic preparation is the chief reason for college failure. It has been estimated that only one-third of college-bound students are academically prepared for college and that over three-quarters of students will struggle in algebra, biology and writing (Carris, 1995; Cavanaugh, 2004; Krause, 2005; Schmoker, 2006). Minority students are generally not as well-prepared for the academic rigors of college as whites (Brown, 1997; Clayton, 2001).

College-bound students are not enrolling in the rigorous, college-preparatory classes necessary to prepare them for higher education. Nor are students taking sufficiently challenging secondary math courses, such as Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry and Trigonometry, which are needed to succeed on the mathematics sections of CEEs and later on in college mathematics classes (Bouris, Creel, & Stortz, 1998; Cavanaugh, 2002; Devarics, 2005). Although the SAT and the ACT are national tests unrelated to a particular curriculum, they are related to college readiness and preparation in subject-area courses (Kifer, 2001).

Test Preparation

Research has also found that reviewing test materials and developing a familiarity with test formats can improve student performance on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT (Gage & Berliner, 1988). Significant improvements result from small amounts of coaching time; in some estimates the correlation between time spent being coached and score improvement is as high as .70.

Test-preparation programs which teach students test-taking strategies can help improve their scores on CEEs (Borja, 2003; Schwartz, 2004). A wide variety of products are available, including:

• Test-prep books which are available from a number of publishers like Kaplan and the Princeton Review

• Computer programs which use games and tutorials to familiarize students with test material and teach test strategies.

• Multimedia materials like CDs and DVDs which teach test-taking strategies (Agency Group 09, 2007; Grimes, 2004; Ritter & Salpeter, 1988).

• Online tutorials and test demonstrations (Borja, 2003)

High schools are also taking a direct hand in helping to prepare their students for the tests. Some schools now offer test-prep programs and courses, and may even have a test-prep teacher. Other schools may incorporate test-taking practices into students' everyday coursework or hold test-preparation clinics to coach students for the exams. High school counselors or principals can also provide information about CEEs and available school-based test-prep programs (Borja, 2003; Carris, 1995; Cole, 1987).

College Admissions

Students have their SAT or ACT results sent directly to the colleges or universities to which they are applying. Colleges and universities then use applicants' CEE scores along with other application materials to assess students' overall academic capability and their desirability for admission, as well as suitability for scholarships. Most institutions require SAT or ACT scores of all applicants and set minimum composite scores for admission. These minimums vary depending on the selectivity of the school. Some colleges also set minimum scores for specific subjects tests (Stephen, 2003).

The importance of CEE scores is commensurately higher at more selective colleges and universities: one way elite schools preserve their status is by demanding high test scores. However, some top schools are becoming wary of applicants with perfect test scores. Extremely high test scores can indicate that an applicant may feel excessive pressure to succeed, a state that can lead to psychological problems and eventual burnout. To gain a more holistic picture of student aptitude, admissions officers will also look at students' grade point averages, essays, and extracurricular activities (Fruen, 1978; Micceri, 2007; Stephen, 2003).

At their discretion, some colleges and universities may give advance-placement credit for superior scores on the SAT or ACT assessments. Scores may exempt a student from certain introductory college courses such as English composition. To apply toward a course requirement, first-time freshmen...

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