Last week, three leaders within the largest state college system in the country came out against the SAT and ACT, the two tests most associated with college admissions, as being a discriminatory barrier to higher education. At a University of California, Berkeley forum, the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ, and the UC system’s chief academic officer both said that students’ scores on the tests were too closely linked to disparities aligned with their race, family income, and educational level to be truly useful. “They really contribute to the inequities of our system,” Christ said.
The same day, the chancellor of UC Santa Cruz told the Los Angeles Times that she agreed students’ complex background and potential “cannot be simply reduced to a number.”
Disillusion with the SAT and ACT is not limited to the UC system. According to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, 40 percent of all four-year colleges and universities are now “test-optional,” including more than half of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 liberal arts colleges.
That rising sense of disenchantment is justified. Today, there are better ways to decide which children to admit to which colleges, particularly when it comes to low-income students and people of color.
The central argument in college admissions revolves around how to best predict if a child will be successful in university. Defenders of the SAT and ACT note that there is some correlation between how someone performs on the tests and how they do in college. But, as the Los Angeles Times notes, research shows “high school grades”—not the SATs or ACTs—“are the strongest single predictor of student success.” The University of California has been starting to work through what role, if any, the tests should have in their own college admission process. At the behest of UC President Janet Napolitano, the university system has been undergoing an in-depth review of research into whether SAT and ACT test scores accurately predict success.
The chair of the UC’s powerful board of regents, John Pérez, has already indicated that he is skeptical of whether they do.
“The initial information that I’ve seen shows that the highest predictive value of an SAT [score] isn’t in how well a student will do in school, but how well they were able to avail themselves of prep material,” Pérez recently told The Times.
Eliminating the SAT and ACT would likely help students of color hoping to attend a school within the powerful and sprawling University of California system, which receives north of 200,000 applications every year. After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, ending affirmative action in the state, Saul Geiser served as the university system’s director of admissions research to help create a new admissions policy. Two years ago, he published a paper arguing for the elimination of the SAT and ACT as a result of what he uncovered in his research. “The effect of socioeconomic background on test scores has grown substantially at University of California over the past two decades, and tests have become more of a barrier to admission of disadvantaged students,” Geiser wrote.
Geiser argued that the “predictive value” of the SAT and ACT had declined when compared to a more “holistic review” of a student’s application, making the tests “largely redundant.” Moreover, race had statistically become just as important as family income or parents’ education in explaining disparate test scores. “Using the SAT and ACT under the constraints of Proposition 209 means accepting adverse impacts on underrepresented minority applicants beyond what can be justified by the limited predictive value of the tests. If UC cannot legally consider race as a socioeconomic disadvantage in admissions, neither should it consider scores on nationally normed tests,” Geiser wrote.
When schools schools opt not to make the SAT or ACT mandatory, they typically experience an uptick in the number of black and Latinx students who both apply and get accepted, according to past research. After the University of Chicago made the SAT and ACT optional last year, the school experienced a 20 percent jump among low-income and first-generation students who committed.
Much has been made about salacious allegations involving Felicity Huffman and the rest of those involved in the college admissions bribery scandal this year. Much less about rich parents who throw as much as $10,000 in perfectly legal money at SAT test prep. Examination prep services are big business, now making up 25 percent of the $1.1 billion tutoring and test preparation industry, according to a recent IBISWorld report. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal investigation found kids in wealthy areas more often obtain “special allowances” that give them “extra time or another special accommodation when they take an exam to get into college,” shining a light on less obvious tips and tricks of the wealthy.
How much these tactics help solve mediocre rich kids’ SAT woes is a matter of staunch debate. Those behind the SAT and ACT contend that their tests are fair and not easily gamed, and only reflect the inequities of the real world. “Any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system,” multiple spokespeople for the College Board, which administers the SAT, have said. The College Board has started to admit that a free coaching program can help boost scores. One study found “modest” benefits of prep courses. Another found that “only one form of test prep—taking a private SAT course—was linked with significantly higher scores.”
But the argument over whether test prep works, or how much it works, is almost beside the point. The reality is that while there is no truly “objective measure of student achievement” in such an unequal world, there are certainly better measures than either test. To their credit, the College Board and ACT has consistently worked to make sure the test is as fair as it can be. Just this year, the College Board announced it would start to send college admissions officials what some called “adversity score,” meant to sum up a child’s school quality and the poverty and crime rates where they live. “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given. It helps colleges see students who may not have scored as high, but when you look at the environment that they have emerged from, it is amazing,” College Board CEO David Coleman told The New York Times.
But even as the College Board tinkers, the “score gaps” between the demographic groups who typically perform well and poorly on the test got even worse this year, according to a FairTest analysis. “Whether broken down by test-takers' race, parental education or household income, average SAT scores of students from historically disenfranchised groups fell further behind their classmates from more privileged families,” said Robert Schaeffer, FairTest’s Public Education Director. “The SAT remains a more accurate measure of a test-taker's family background than of an applicant's capacity to do college- level work.”
The College Board has published research finding that SAT tests are highly correlated with grades during freshman year of college, which may be true. Students who didn’t submit their test scores at test-optional schools also sometimes fare worse during freshman year than those who did. However, they mostly end up graduating at similar and sometimes even higher rates. Overall, Geiser has said that test-optional schools mostly see “little if any change in college outcomes such as grades and graduation rates.” (The College Board and ACT have taken issue with some of the above assertions.)
Last month, a coalition of groups and students that included the Compton Unified School District sent a letter to the regents of the University of California regents saying they were ready to file a lawsuit if the school system did not move away from the “discriminatory practice” of requiring the SAT and ACT. In the letter, the coalition took on some of the College Board’s arguments head on, calling the organization's argument about first-year grades “faulty” since it overlooked socioeconomic status.
“The fact that SAT and ACT scores measure socioeconomic status and race—rather than ability or mastery of curriculum—results in part from biases built into the development of the exams themselves,” the coalition wrote. “Ultimately, SAT and ACT scores are but a proxy for socioeconomic status and race,” they added.
The College Board and ACT both take great issue with any allegation that their tests are “discriminatory.” “Blaming standardized tests for differences in educational quality and opportunities that exist will not improve educational outcomes,” ACT spokesperson Ed Colby wrote in response to the coalition. But the coalition also noted that UC admissions officers would still have a wealth of information to consider in the admissions process without the tests.
“Putting more weight on quantitative metrics such as high school grade point average and qualitative evaluations by counselors and teachers is a far less discriminatory way to select students who are likely to succeed in college and enrich a college environment,” they wrote.
The coalition is right. For all the efforts of both the SAT and ACT to make their tests as fair as they can be, there are better ways today to decide which kids should get into which colleges.
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