Last Updated On: January 22nd, 2024
The NY Times recently published an article about the growing pushback to the move away from the SAT among colleges. A combination of pandemic-induced logistical issues and research finding widespread income and race-based disparities in test scores has caused many schools to move away from standardized test scores as a major factor in admissions. However, recently, as the article explains, there has been pushback from researchers and many elite schools as schools have struggled with admissions without the aid of test scores and as research has shown that test scores correlate strongly with college grades and post-collegiate outcomes.
While we might quibble with elements of the article’s argument and some of the research cited, the findings do gel with our general understanding of standardized tests from our years of working with students of all abilities and backgrounds, as well as some of the issues we’ve seen with schools relying on other elements of an application besides test scores.
The Traditional Critique of Standardized Tests
The traditional critique of standardized testing has relied on two main arguments: that testing favors richer applicants and that high school grades are a stronger indicator of college success. That richer students consistently score higher on standardized tests is borne out by the data fairly conclusively. The question of whether grades or test scores are more indicative of college performance is more contested; indeed, the recent article in the Times presents research that disputes it. By the most conservative estimate, however, grades are still an extremely significant indicator of future success, even without test scores as a supplement so, the argument goes, why not forgo this frequently-stressful and expensive process and allow students to simply submit their grades. Indeed, many schools have found success using this model, which is popular with students upon whom standardized testing is an unwanted burden. In terms of the tests favoring the wealthy, study upon study has shown that wealthier students score higher on standardized tests even when controlling for grades or other factors. The tests then, critics say, simply serve as a means to reinforce privilege or exclude perfectly qualified students from poorer backgrounds.
There have also been allegations that the SAT is biased against students from different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds. Vocabulary used or subjects chosen for passages in reading sections have at times been seen to favor students from wealthier backgrounds. In one particularly notorious example, an SAT test question hinged on whether or not students knew the sailing term ‘regatta’, surely an easier vocabulary word for students from backgrounds where people have money and access to boats.
These critiques clearly have some merit. Wealthier students do have more access to SAT tutoring, grades are another excellent way to determine college readiness, and, while the SAT and ACT have made a concerted effort to revise their questions to avoid similar issues to their regatta question debacle, some biases inherent in the tests may linger. However, these critiques fail to take into account three issues: problems with other factors in college admissions, a misunderstanding of what test preparation actually consists of, and a naive set of expectations about the behaviors and desires of colleges in the admissions process.
Issues with Other Metrics Used in the Admissions Process
While many of the issues raised about the SAT have merit, in our experience these issues and disparities exist just as much, if not more so with other aspects of the admissions process. Eliminating standardized tests by necessity means that other aspects of a student’s application take on more weight. This would be fine if every other aspect of the application were fair and immune to the issues raised with standardized tests, but that is clearly not the case.
Test scores can be impacted by tutoring, but so can grades. Additionally, students with more resources are more likely to attend more rigorous high schools offering more AP, IB, or honors courses that will count more for colleges. Taking away the SAT or ACT eliminates another chance with students from less demanding high schools to make up the gap. An ‘A’ in algebra is not going to count as much as an ‘A’ in calculus, but some students will be attending high schools that don’t offer calculus.
Essays and extracurricular activities are also subject to the same issues. A student with parents with higher education levels and greater income will have more access to potential essay editors, writing tutors, and savvy editors with experience dealing with admissions to selective colleges who can help refine their writing. Their private or magnet public high school will most likely offer more extracurricular activities with which they can pad their resumes or develop skills or talents that colleges are looking for, skills that will carry more weight in the absence of an SAT score.
Finally, eliminating testing requirements, while obviating students of the need to prepare for, pay for, and take a test, does not make the admissions process easier overall. With GPAs frequently clustered in similar ranges for students applying to selective colleges, students frequently have trouble figuring out which colleges are realistic targets, especially when their family may lack experience with the college process or their school’s guidance counselor is responsible for hundreds of students. Knowledge and savvy about the admissions process are also not equally distributed, and the more opaque a college’s admissions process the more likely it is to deter first generation or otherwise disadvantaged students from applying. Many of these students may settle for worse schools or smaller financial aid packages than they would have received had they known their true chances. Or, in the opposite scenario, we have had students who, not having taken the SAT and with parents without experience with the American college process, had unrealistic expectations about what schools were reasonable targets and were determined to apply solely to schools that were not likely to admit them, test scores or not. A realistic, easily digestible benchmark would only help these types of students apply to college more successfully.
Misunderstanding of What Tutoring Does
Another issue we have with critics of standardized testing is their perception of test preparation. Picture two students who both take the SAT with no preparation and score 500s in math. Now, say one of those students studies for six months and retakes the test and scores a 600 in math. That second student would now be more attractive to colleges, even though their initial score was the same as the other student.
Obviously those two students have similar inherent ability, but is one readier for college than the other? The traditional critique of standardized testing would argue that no, that student isn’t any more prepared for college math, they just had access to tutoring or other resources to help them pick up test-taking tricks and are more likely to be wealthy. This attitude has some merit: the student who has the money and time to take the test again and the resources to pay for tutoring is more likely to come from means.
However, what opponents of testing fail to take into account is what SAT tutoring actually consists of. While, of course, it is true that some amount of time is spent on familiarizing the student with test-specific strategies that will have little to no bearing on their college experience, the bulk of test prep will consist of developing skills, knowledge bases, and confidence that are directly related to college material. Let’s say this student who raised their score 100 points did so with the help of a tutor. They likely had 30 hours of one-on-one training with a skilled math teacher who could identify their weaknesses and reteach any concepts they had failed to understand when they were presented in class. They also would have completed multiple hours of practice problems and tests on their own. A significant amount of focused math study will improve your math SAT scores because it will make you better at math, and this improvement will be reflected on your testing. It is reasonable to believe that a student who has spent hours working on their understanding of probability and completing probability problem sets is better prepared for a college statistics class than a student with an equal baseline ability who did not do similar preparation, and it is reasonable for colleges to view them as a stronger applicant.
Of course, tutoring is expensive, and many students who would do well in a college setting will not have access to the tutoring that will help them reflect that ability on their standardized tests. This is unfortunate and unfair, and we should work to rectify this as much as possible. However, there are free resources for test preparation that are widely available, students can prepare on their own, and some schools or districts have instituted test prep classes as part of their public school curricula. However, the fact remains that test scores (taken in conjunction with grades) are a reflection of academic preparedness and do correlate to success in a college setting.
Colleges’ Goals and Requirements From the Application Process
Another frustration we have with these traditional critiques of the application process is that they frequently misinterpret or misrepresent colleges’ role in the process. Colleges like to portray themselves as eager to admit meritorious students from disadvantaged backgrounds only to be stymied by evil standardized tests. While this may be true in some scenarios, and we do not wish to be too cynical about the admissions process, it ignores a number of important factors. Most colleges do want to be vehicles to reduce inequality and admit a socioeconomically diverse set of students. However, they also want enough tuition fees to keep the lights on, a successful golf team (surely comprised mainly of wealthier students who had access to golf lessons), and a student whose parents might later feel motivated to donate money to construct a new dormitory. All of these are other factors that might lead to a school admitting wealthier students more often.
These factors won’t disappear in the absence of standardized test scores, and indeed in many cases the absence of test scores only provides colleges with more opportunities to admit students over more qualified applicants. A mediocre student who is attractive to the college for other reasons, be they athletic or financial, might have been rejected previously had their test scores (which, again, are going to be largely reflective of their academic preparation and abilities) threatened the school’s US News and World Report rankings. What is to stop test-optional schools from admitting that student now?
What this Means for You:
Now, what does this debate mean for you as a student or parent? The first thing to recognize is that, at present, schools are going to be split between those that use standardized tests as part of the admissions process and those that don’t. This means that your performance on tests may dictate which schools you should apply to, but also that your college list may also dictate if you have to take a test at all. If you know your dream schools all require test scores, then you should plan on preparing for the SAT or ACT, whereas if you are dead set on a group of schools that don’t take test scores (such as the UC system in California) then your time is better spent working on shoring up your grades or application essays. For most students, however, it will probably make the most sense to apply to some schools that require test scores and some that don’t. This will still probably require test prep, but it will still present opportunities for students who struggle more in test situations as some excellent schools have still chosen to eschew standardized tests altogether.
Finally, if you are the parent of a younger student, be aware that the debate over the best way to have a fair college admissions process continues to rage and we expect many colleges to change their requirements in one or the other over the next few years. The standardized test companies have also adjusted their testing formats and styles in order to adapt to the new reality, another trend that we expect to continue. The best way to stay prepared for these developments is to expose your child to as rigorous an educational curriculum as possible, stay abreast of any relevant changes, and remain flexible.