Our year of 14 standardized tests

I don’t believe standardized tests are an accurate measure of learning. In fact, one of the reasons I encourage students to extract themselves from high school is because it means leaving behind a culture where education is gauged by letter grades and multiple choice exams.

But I’m also strategic. If colleges want to award you a semester’s worth of credit in exchange for a one-hour, $100 test? Why argue?

In the first year after my daughter quit high school, she took 14 standardized tests. This felt absurd even as it was happening. I’d supported her leaving high school so that she could skip the busywork and have more time for authentic learning experiences, yet here we were, purchasing SAT and ACT preparation books, which she studied in lieu of actual literature.

But I don’t regret it, and here’s why. There is substantial overlap between the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. If you’ve already mastered this content, there’s no reason to start all over again taking Composition 101 your freshman year. Testing out of elementary college classes lets you take more interesting, engaging classes beginning with your very first semester. It lets you graduate sooner, it gives you more flexibility if you want to study abroad or do a double major or take a year off, and it can potentially save you thousands of dollars. Test out of your freshman year and your total college costs go down by 1/4. Depending on your tuition, your expected family contribution, and your total student loan debt, that can be a savings of twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars or more.

So what exams did she take?

CLEP tests

CLEP tests might be colleges’ best-kept secret. Most schools accept CLEP credit, but very few students have heard of this option. You can use CLEP exams to test out of many introductory classes, including College Composition, American history and American government, French, Spanish, and German, Western Civilization, first-year biology and chemistry, math through calculus, and other subjects. CLEP tests are easier than AP and SAT-II exams, but offer the same amount of credit. Each test takes about an hour and costs about $100 — far less than taking the class itself, even paying in-state tuition at a community college.

The first month she dropped rose out of high school, my daughter took 3 CLEP tests, for which she earned 24 hours of college credit, the equivalent of almost a year of college. The College Composition test allowed her to skip two semesters of Freshman English, and she tested out of her general education requirements in literature by passing the Analyzing Literature CLEP exam. She also tested out of her foreign language requirement by earning a full four semestersof German credit through a one-hour CLEP exam. Thanks in part to CLEP tests, she went from being a high school sophomore to a college sophomore in the space of one summer, while she was still sixteen.

SAT subject tests

Most selective schools recommend submitting at least two, and sometimes three, SAT subject tests (also called SAT-II tests). But strong SAT-II scores not only boost your admissions chances: at many schools, you can test out of basic requirements by scoring well on these exams. Consider taking some SAT-II subject tests even if your intended college does not require them.

While CLEP tests have very flexible scheduling — at Bunker Hill, you can take them on a drop-in basis — the SAT-IIs are only offered on certain days each year. Make sure you get the schedule and register in advance. Also be aware that some schools only accept foreign language SAT-II credit if it comes with a listening component. This test might be offered only one day a year. Deadlines are important!


The PSAT is billed as a “practice” SAT exam, but it is much more than that. High PSAT scores might help you qualify as a National Merit Scholar, which makes you very desirable to colleges and usually comes with scholarship money. And the mere fact that you’ve taken the PSAT at all alerts colleges to your existence; it’s usually at this point that your family will be inundated with letters and e-mail from schools. The PSAT must be taken in the fall of 11th grade. Contact the College Board to register.


Everyone’s heard of the SAT, which is standard at most East and West Coast schools. The ACTis more popular in the Midwest. But most schools will accept either.

I strongly believe that most students should take both, since most do better on one test than the other. Once you receive your scores, submit the one with the highest overall percentile rank. You can take both tests multiple times, and only need submit your best scores.

NOTE: Sometimes schools will say that SAT/ACT scores are optional. If you’ve scored highly on these exams you should always submit them, even if they’re not required.

BDEA placement exam and the MCAS

Students who want to direct their own education but still want a high school diploma might consider enrolling in the Boston Day and Evening Academy, an alternative high school that awards credit by mastery over material, rather than “seat time” in traditional classes. My daughter enrolled in BDEA as a distance learning student. Although she didn’t take classes there, being a BDEA student allowed her to take advantage of their phenomenal personal support and guidance counseling.

She began her BDEA journey by taking a placement exam. She was given high school credit for work she’d already done; then worked out a plan to complete her remaining coursework at a community college. In order to earn a diploma from this public high school, she also needed to pass the MCAS.

Homeschooled students do not need a diploma to go to college, nor do they need to take the MCAS. However, there are many advantages to going this route.


Many colleges allow high school-age students to enroll in individual courses as what’s called a “non-degree student.” As soon as she left high school, my daughter signed up for summer courses in College Algebra and Intro to Sociology at a community college. In order to be admitted, she had to first take the Accuplacer, a standardized test that measures college readiness in reading, writing, and math. Your Accuplacer score won’t earn you college credit, but it can earn you a place in a higher-level course, thus jumping over elementary requirements.

You’ll probably be told that this is just a placement exam, so there’s no point in studying for it. I disagree. It’s hard to raise your English score, but there’s a good chance you have all kinds of obscure math formulas floating around in your head, only half-remembered. Spend a week or two refreshing things like elementary algebraic formulas, the PEMDAS rule, and how to multiply fractions, and chances are you’ll test out of some remedial no-credit classes.


Two other options of credit by exam are AP tests and DSST (formerly DANTES) tests. Traditionally, high school students taking AP exams have spent a year studying the subject in school, but this is not a requirement to register for the test. All things being equal, I’d recommend CLEP or SAT-II tests over the AP test, only because the AP test is very specific in both content and format. But some colleges that don’t accept CLEP or SAT-II credit do accept AP scores, so you should be aware of this option. DSST tests were designed for military personnel, but can be taken by anyone. They offer a wider range of subjects than the other options listed here.

My daughter didn’t take AP or DSST exams, but I’d be interested in hearing about the experiences of those who did.

Some general advice:

1. Not all colleges accept the same types of credit. Bunker Hill Community College, where my daughter got her AA, accepted up to 12 hours of CLEP credit in foreign languages, but didn’t accept any SAT-II credit. UMass-Amherst, on the other hand, where she’s now pursuing her BA, accepts up to 6 hours of SAT-II credit for each foreign language, but doesn’t accept any CLEP credit. And while both schools accept credit for German, only UMass-Amherst accepts credit for Latin. By taking the CLEP test in German, the SAT-II test in German with Listening, and the SAT-II test in Latin, she covered all her bases: earning 12 hours of credit at each institution, and passing out of her foreign language requirement entirely at both schools.

Knowing which schools accept which types of exam credit should be part of your college exploration process. For my daughter, it proved crucial: she was accepted at more than one school, but only UMass-Amherst accepted all of her exam credit, which allowed her to enter as a junior at age eighteen. Had she gone to one of the other schools that accepted her, she would have had to enter as a sophomore. Skipping an entire year of college leads to enormous cost savings, and was one of the key factors she took into account when she was deciding which college to attend.

2. It’s best to use credit by exam for subjects you already know, or subjects you don’t know but are enthusiastic about pursuing. If you already speak Spanish, preparing for the exam won’t require much time, so you can get your credit quickly and then move on to other things. On the flip side, say you’ve never studied American literature but you’re passionate about the subject and want to spend a year delving into books and designing your own curriculum. Great! Do that, and at the end of the year use an exam to get credit for your efforts. Chances are the exam will only ask you about a fraction of the knowledge you’ve acquired, but that’s fine: it was the intellectual journey you were after; college credit is just icing on that cake.

But if it’s a subject you don’t already know and you’re not especially interested in it — yet it’s required for college admittance or for college graduation — then you’re better off taking a regular class, either through an online high school program or a community college. Yes, it’s true you could buy a couple of prep books, study only the things they predict you’ll need to know, and try to game the system that way. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to jump through hoops like that, but really, is that the best use of your time? The hours you spend trying to second-guess the test could be spent in a real college class, where the curriculum is already developed for you and an instructor is there to answer all your questions.

3. At no point do you have to subscribe to the view that standardized tests are awesome. I know some folks — homeschooling parents especially — who foam at the mouth at the suggestion that standardized tests measure anything of value. Sure, they’ll say, this whole credit-by-exam scheme might be fine for drones, who believe testing is equivalent to learning. I get it. And yet I’d ask them, who’s the drone? Personally, I think it’s the college student who spends a year or two taking elementary survey classes — studying books she’s already read, math facts she’s already mastered, and foreign languages she already understands — and then spends another ten years working off the student loan debt for that experience. That’s the route I took myself, because I had no idea there were alternatives.

I hate standardized tests. I do. But until we have a more holistic system that allows students to get credit for independent study, this is an option that students can use to their own advantage.