In recent news, UW-Madison announced the decision to make college admissions tests like the SAT and the ACT optional through Summer 2023, placing an even greater emphasis on holistic admissions.
While this decision was a direct consequence of the ongoing global pandemic, a departure from standardized testing for college admissions has been trending in recent years, even pre-pandemic. The University of Chicago was probably the first high-profile university to go test-optional in 2018. They are certainly not the only major university to have taken such an approach. Some universities have taken a test-flexible approach, with NYU standing out as most prominent. Even the University of California system voted early this year to phase out such tests over the next five years.
All things considered, all colleges should look at gradually phasing out standardized testing and adopting a test-optional approach on a permanent basis. The pandemic provides an opportunity to test such a scenario.
In order to make a case for going test-optional, it is necessary to understand the shortcomings of standardized testing.
Test scores are not an effective measure of a student’s intellectual ability. For instance, the effectiveness of the SAT essay section is increasingly being questioned, because the testing environment is simply not representative of a student’s writing ability. Students must analyze a short reading and respond to a prompt on a topic they’re likely not familiar with, in the form of an essay, while being timed. Students are unlikely to encounter such a situation on a regular basis in their college careers, thus resulting in universities like Harvard and Yale dropping the requirement altogether.
Such tests are not even as great a predictor of college success as they are touted to be, as they seem to only predict how well students can test — basically, how well they can game the system — and not how much they really know. A report by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute shows that the effect test scores have on a student’s performances in college coursework is not much. Conversely, high school grades have greater correlation with college performance. Students with a mediocre SAT score — 900-990 on a 1600 point scale — but near perfect GPA were found to have a 62 percent graduation rate, whereas students with scores greater than 1100 but a GPA lower than 2.67 were found to have only a 35 percent graduation rate. While high school grades vary widely from school to school — nationally and around the world — they seem to merit consideration far more than test scores. A holistic approach — considering grades in conjunction with activities, personal essays, etc. — seems to be the right approach.
Standardized tests also fail to account for students facing test anxiety, with about two-thirds of high school students facing uncomfortable levels of such anxiety. The tests seem to unfairly penalise students for their mental health instead of gaps in knowledge, straying far from the selling point of such tests.
Arguably the most compelling case against standardized tests is the fact that such tests do not offer a level playing field, thus making them far from “standardized.” Retaking these tests has often resulted in a marked increase in scores. For instance, a study found that on average, retaking the SAT resulted in a 90 point increase on a 2400 point scale. This clearly makes taking standardized tests multiple times a lucrative option. However, such an opportunity is open only to students who can afford it — with the SAT costing $52-$68 and the ACT costing $55-$70 per sitting — thus putting socio-economically disadvantaged students on the back foot. Not to mention the fact that students coming from affluent backgrounds can afford coaching and higher quality schooling as well, which further helps in attaining desirable scores. This only emboldens socio-economic disparity, while pushing the tests towards gatekeeping education and further away from testing aptitude — their intended purpose.
A study by UC Berkeley suggests that there's a very strong correlation between a student’s SAT score variance and their socioeconomic background, with race proving to be the most telling factor. The average scores for Blacks and Latinos on the SAT Math section is lower than the average for Whites and Asians, likely a result of racial income disparity and the handicap it presents. This disparity in scores has remained largely unchanged for the last 15 years or so. Seeing such tests form part of admissions criteria in universities around the United States is problematic, as it only serves to inhibit any potential escape from an otherwise potentially endless cycle of poverty and disparity. It is inherently unfair for someone to be placed at a disadvantage by virtue of things they cannot control, but which affect opportunities and scores — like parental education, familial wealth or race. Several large and reputed flagship universities like our own are not as racially diverse as they should be. Perhaps the weightage of standardized test scores acts as a roadblock towards achieving greater diversity.
Education is meant to be an openly accessible driver of empowerment that enables the disadvantaged to challenge the status quo and do better for themselves and their future. The use of standardized testing as a factor in college admissions only maintains the status quo. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce told CNBC Make It that “to succeed in America, it’s better to be rich than smart”, which is a gloomy reality of this country and not the American Dream that Americans brag about. A country that prides itself in the idea of the American Dream must set aside the need for flawed standardized testing for admissions, in order to keep the Dream alive. In a time where serious questions are being asked about intersectionality and racial equality, the gateway to higher education cannot continue to be part of the problem.
Greater emphasis on holistic admissions should be the order of the day, especially for universities that usually give greater importance to test scores. A look into an applicant’s GPA, personal statements, activities, socio-economic background and available opportunities and resources paints a near-perfect picture of the applicant for strangers in the admissions office who evaluate applicants. Applications that take years to craft should not be thrown out because of a number — i.e. test score — that is intrinsically flawed. Colleges that have made a move to test-optional policies have seen positive results with regards to diversity, whilst retaining similar graduation rates.
In order for American higher education to remain at the pinnacle, a move away from mandatory standardized testing seems like a step in the right direction. Simply put, the tests are not effective in what they are meant to do and only exacerbate the divides that must be done away with, to make significant strides towards a better future for everyone that sees a future on American soil.
Anupras is a Sophomore studying Computer Science. Do you think college admissions tests should be made optional? Send all comments to email@example.com