Standardized tests may have never been more important - in Tennessee they help determine student grades, teacher evaluations, and in some cases, even teacher pay. But testing isn't everything, even when it comes to college admissions.
One testing official says college admissions offices are looking for more than just a high score on the ACT or SAT.
"Test scores were never intended to be a sole source or a sole predictor of student success," said Carl Forbes, an Atlanta-based account manager with the testing giant ACT.
Forbes spoke to parents and school counselors here this week as part of the Public Education Foundation's College Knowledge series. The best predictor of students' success in college is found on their transcripts -- in their grades and in the rigor of the courses taken during high school. Tests like the ACT just supplement that prediction, he said.
That means parents shouldn't spend so much energy and money on test prep classes, books and guides. Test prep usually isn't very effective, he said. The best way to boost an ACT score is by taking tougher classes and reading more -- for school and for fun.
"A student should always take the strongest program that's available to him or her. That's always the best way to prepare," Forbes said. "Admission offices are looking for the students who are showing that they can compete -- that they can survive and thrive in that competitive college environment."
More than 1,000 colleges have testing-optional policies, meaning students can be admitted without submitting test scores. But even those schools may require scores for placement or scholarships.
Educators agree that college-bound students should pay attention to test scores, but also maintain high GPAs and take rigorous courses.
"They look closely at your transcript, they look at your recommendations and they look at your essays," said Stacy Lightfoot, vice president of college and career success at the Public Education Foundation.
That means students should take as many advanced placement and honors courses as possible. Colleges know how many of such courses each high school offers, Lightfoot said, so students who don't have as much access aren't penalized.
"So when Vanderbilt gets an application from Baylor or McCallie, they realize Baylor or McCallie may have 30 advanced classes. And when they get an application from Howard, they see that Howard may offer two AP classes or two honors classes," Lightfoot said. "They won't judge a student because of what their high school does or doesn't offer."
While educators say grades and course selection are key, there's no questioning that college entrance exams are fundamental. All Tennessee students are required to take the ACT their junior year. Last year, nearly 70,000 Tennesseans took the test, compared with about 5,300 students who took the SAT.
Soddy-Daisy High School college and career adviser Cindy Adamz said about a third of students score better on the ACT than the SAT; another third score better on the SAT and a third score about the same on both.
Adamz urges students to prepare specifically for the test. They should take a practice test, time it like the real test and see which questions they miss. Aside from the actual content, she said it's important to study the way the test is given. That can easily be done with paper practice tests or online test prep sites.
"They need to get on there and understand the questions," she said. "Because they're not going to ask them in the traditional way."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.