How COVID-19 could doom the SAT and ACT
One of the most wide-ranging consequences of the COVID-19 crisis may be the demise of college admissions tests, a striking development that would help close the wide opportunity gaps in a key sector of American life.
While pressure to make the SAT and the ACT optional had been building before campuses closed early this spring due to the coronavirus crisis, the tests remained deeply embedded in the nation’s college-going culture, due in no small part to intensive lobbying by both ACT and the College Board, which sponsor the exams.
Now, the pandemic may finally signal the beginning of the end of mandatory admissions testing, which would be a big step in the right direction. Moving the SAT and the ACT away from the center of the admissions stage would encourage colleges and universities to engage more deeply with their applicants and to value a wider range of talents. It would also help make the nation’s selective college campuses look more like the nation itself, an important step toward racial and economic equity.
More than half of all four-year colleges and universities in the country have temporarily waived test requirements for applicants since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, including the sprawling 23-campus, 480,000-student California State University system, the entire Ivy League and other prominent private institutions like Duke, Amherst, Stanford and Williams.
One of the nation’s most prestigious public university systems, the University of California, educating nearly 300,000 students, went further. The UC’s Board of Regents recently approved a plan to phase-out admissions testing by 2025. The system had spent two years studying the role of standardized tests in admissions, and it announced the pandemic, “has provided an opportunity in the coming years for UC to pause and analyze additional, real-time data on the impacts of test-optional and test-blind admissions.”
The tests’ makers contend that the SAT and the ACT help colleges and universities admit the most capable students — that test scores and a high school GPA combined are better at predicting a student’s academic success in college than GPA alone. Meaning, the grades from some schools reflect much greater rigor than from others.
They argue that the tests help identify talented students in lesser-known high schools and that they level the playing field for disadvantaged students because grade inflation is more common at high schools serving affluent students.
But critics of the SAT and the ACT say that making the tests optional — or eliminating them altogether — would result in more low-income, African American and Latinx students (who have consistently scored lower than white and Asians) attending selective colleges without lowering standards.
Studies repeatedly show that taken separately, a student’s high school GPA is a better indicator of success than the SAT or ACT score. Research by Elaine Allensworth and Kallie Clark of the University of Chicago revealed a student’s GPA was five times stronger than an ACT score in predicting college graduation.
The College Board’s own research also demonstrates that when there is a discrepancy between GPA and SAT score, it is the male, white and well-off students that tend to have low GPAs and high test scores, while female, Blacks, Latinos and poorer students have high GPAs and low SAT scores.
A study, “Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works,” found that smart test-optional policies increased applications from first-generation and low-income students by encouraging students to apply who otherwise might hesitate because of low test scores. Even more importantly, the researchers found that students who didn’t submit tests scores ultimately graduated at the same or higher rates as applicants who did supply scores.
The move to end mandatory admissions testing has the backing of the new leader of the college admissions community, Angel Pérez, the incoming chief executive of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, an organization representing college admissions officers, high-school guidance counselors and non-profit organizations.
In 2015, Perez, who came from Trinity College, recommended that the school end standardized testing to make it more socioeconomically diverse and “academically elite.”
Ironically, the SAT was designed to have exactly the opposite impact on college admissions than it has had. It was created within the Ivy League in the 1920s and 1930s as a way to expand the range of students attending selective colleges by providing an objective measure of students’ academic ability, irrespective of where they lived or the schools they attended.
But this allegedly neutral quality never existed, and the correlation between income and higher scores became increasingly apparent over the years.
Now, of course, a vast test-prep industry exists to help mainly affluent students score as high as possible on the SAT or ACT.
After decades of denying that any correlation existed between income and SAT scores, the College Board pivoted to contending that the answer is not to end the test, but to provide support so poorer kids can do as well as richer kids. Among other initiatives, it now offers free tutoring for the test through the online Khan Academy, though there’s evidence that the tutoring helps wealthy students more than their less-advantaged peers.
Admissions testing isn’t likely to disappear completely.
The College Board and ACT will certainly put up a fight to protect their products — and not just because they believe in the value of information their tests’ produce. Though technically non-profit, the College Board’s net assets were $1 billion in 2018 and like any business of that size, it works hard to guard market share. In the wake of lobbying by both the College Board and the ACT in recent years, nearly half the states now require their high school students to take the ACT or SAT at taxpayers’ expense.
Importantly, diminishing admission testing’s hegemony over entrance to the upper echelons of higher education won’t alter the need to address American high schools’ woeful preparation of many disadvantaged students and students of color or to help them pay increasingly prohibitive college costs. Taking test scores out of the admissions mix represents no small administrative burden for big systems like UC that receive tens of thousands of applications annually.
But mandatory college admissions tests have proven to be a significant barrier to building the more inclusive society we need. That the tests aren’t necessary to effective college admissions makes their outsized influence on many campuses even more problematic.
Thomas Toch is the director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.