After over 25 years of trying to explain what complex standardized instruments like the SAT or ACT are meant to test, I still find the general explanation of “math, verbal, and test taking skills” woefully inadequate. Just as frustrating is the disconnect between the way these skills are tests in school as opposed to the exams themselves. Why is SAT math, for example, so different from school math, even though the discrete subject matter overlaps entirely?
A recent comment from deep thinker Shane Parrish of Farnam Street helped me wrap my head around why the conventional view of what is tested fails to describe how multifarious and sophisticated those skills are:
We tend to think of meta skills as the skill. For example, we default to thinking that reading is a skill. But there is really no skill called reading. Reading is the meta-skill that results when you alloy other skills together. You need to know the alphabet, how letter form words, how words have meaning, how words together have meaning, and so on. So often we focus on the meta-skill and not the sub-skills.
The SAT and ACT, like virtually every other standardized admissions exam, test reading. But reading encompasses a huge number of tasks and proficiencies. The fundamental ability to recognize words on a page represents only the smallest part of what the exams mean to assess, which explains why students who can know how to read still bomb the tests. Instead, the meta-skill of reading tested by these exams is described in better detail by ACT reporting categories and SAT subscores and cross-test scores.
A helpful way to define meta-skills is as higher-order skills that allow us to engage with functional expertise more effectively. They not only serve as catalysts for learning, but facilitate further skill-building and mastery. The difference between basic reading and ACT reading is like the difference between two dimensions and 3-D.
What meta-skills do tests like the SAT and ACT assess?
— including comprehension, inferential reading, and analysis
— including grammar, structure, style, vocabulary, and the application of effective written English
— including interpretation, logic, creativity, and heuristics
MATH CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING
— including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and statistics
— including working memory, mental flexibility, self-control, and grit
These meta-skills overlap substantially as tested on the SAT and ACT. For example, the grammar sections always include questions that assess reading skills, and vice versa. Problem solving and math conceptual understanding go hand in hand in the math sections, but problem solving ability is tested throughout. And everyone who truly understands these exams recognizes how much higher level executive functioning contributes to test success.
Taken altogether, these and other meta-skills matter not just on test day but in higher education and beyond. Exams like the SAT and ACT seem superficially simple but have been carefully calibrated over decades to assess the ineffable meta-skills that connect to college success. Grades in school do a mostly exceptional job in describing discrete subject mastery but don’t always depict more fundamental abilities. Taking grades and test scores together, however, highlights both skills and meta-skills, which paints a much richer portrait of a prospective learner.