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Bring back standardized tests — for fairness

Bring back standardized tests — for fairness
© Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Several months ago, the call went out from Harvard: They needed every former admissions officer possibly available to help read an overwhelming flood of applications. The reason? There seems to be only one reason for anything these days: COVID-19. 

Across the nation, and even in Cambridge, Mass., the past school year had been pretty much of a disaster. Most colleges imposed regimes of dorm room quarantines and online-only classes. Many later changed their rules and protocols, often illogically. A few schools even took the drastic step of offering families rebates, however small, in consideration of what now passes for “the college experience.”

But there was hope that something closer to normal would be possible for the 2021-2022 school year. And that meant selecting a new freshman class. Deans at most of the top U.S. schools then made a change to their admissions procedures that had an outsized impact: They eliminated the need for high school students to submit standardized test scores from the often-dreaded SAT or ACT. College applications soared.

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MIT had a 66 percent increase in the number of applications, and Harvard received more than 57,000 submissions, an increase of 42 percent. The University of Pennsylvania saw its largest applicant pool ever — 56,333, a 34 percent increase over the previous year — and Brown received more than 46,000 applications, an increase of 27 percent. Even New York University, whose downtown Manhattan location is overwhelmed by boarded-up, out-of-business storefronts, received more than 100,000 applications, up 20 percent from the year before. (NYU reports its numbers include applications for its Abu Dhabi and Shanghai campuses.) One outlier was the New York State University system, which reported a 20 percent drop in applications.

Colleges traditionally publish the test scores of the previous year’s admitted class. Although they don’t acknowledge it, most selective schools also use an unofficial cutoff score of 1400 on the SAT or 34 on the ACT. Potential applicants thus know if their scores are above the mean and whether they have a reasonable chance of admission. (The score ranges, and unofficial requirements for minorities and recruited athletes may be different, as a recent lawsuit against Harvard claimed. A federal judge ruled in 2019 that Harvard did not discriminate against Asian American students in its admissions, but the case may be headed to the Supreme Court.) 

This year, students who had solid academic records and interesting extracurricular activities, but didn’t score above the unofficial test-score cutoff, decided to submit applications to their dream or “reach” schools, since they didn’t have to submit test scores. Some may have been encouraged by overly optimistic parents who see the genius and wonderfulness in their kids and hoped an admissions office would too. But most kids are more realistic; they took a lottery-like approach: “Hey, you never know…”   

Though  COVID-19 has turned out to be a great stimulus to the college admissions business, in the absence of standardized test scores, admissions officers have had to work harder to determine whether students have the academic chops to survive selective colleges’ rigor. (High school grades are notoriously inflated, and assessing the quality of a high school’s curriculum and grading policy is a time-consuming job.) Standardized tests provide both a common denominator and an easy triage tool to streamline the admissions process. Without them, every application must be read more closely; hence, the call for retired admissions officers to return as application readers.

As applications soared, so did selectivity. Harvard’s overall admission rate was just 3.4 percent; Princeton’s, 4 percent; Yale’s, 4.6 percent; Brown’s, 5.4 percent; and the University of Pennsylvania’s, 5.7 percent. These are some of the lowest acceptance rates ever reported by the schools. Of course, those acceptance rates are a bit misleading since they don’t break out favored students — recruited athletes, “development prospects” (children of large donors), and others who serve some special niche desired by the schools. So kids who are part of the regular pool of applicants had an even worse chance of getting in. At Brown, the regular-decision acceptance rate was just 3.5 percent.

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On the surface, the shift to test-optional might seem to be a commonsense accommodation to the exigencies of the pandemic. But cynics see something far more cunning: By not requiring the one metric that was a common denominator among all students, colleges may be less susceptible to charges of discrimination. Remember, in the lawsuit against Harvard by Asian American students, the data about disparities in SAT scores among racial groups was the most damning evidence. Eliminating standardized tests does away with potentially incriminating data.

In their news releases announcing their recent admissions statistics, colleges boast about the diversity of their newly admitted class. Princeton says that 68 percent are “U.S. citizens or permanent residents who self-identify as people of color” and 22 percent will be first-generation college students. Harvard says its entering class will be 20.7 percent first-gen students, 18 percent Black, and 13 percent Latinx (27 percent will be Asian-American). At Brown, 55 percent self-identify as people of color, and 17 percent will be first-gen. 

There is nothing wrong with these colleges wanting to open up their ivy-covered campuses to students whose families may not have attended college, those who come from poor backgrounds, or those who have overcome exceptional challenges. Demonstrated grit should be one of the most important criteria in college admissions. 

But not requiring standardized test scores does a disservice to everyone. Students who really have very little chance of getting into a highly selective school will waste time, money and emotional energy thinking they have a shot. It’s equally unfair to highly qualified students: By not requiring and publishing the average tests scores of those admitted, such students are forced to compete on a playing field that is not only not level, but obscured in fog.

College admissions may never be truly fair, but the process doesn’t need to be quite so calculatedly impenetrable. With the elimination of standardized tests, admissions policies have become more subjective and less transparent — in short, less fair. We expect the young people applying to college to behave honorably. Should we not expect the same of the schools that are judging them for an education?

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP and a co-author of “Getting In!,” a guide to college admissions and financial aid first published in 1983.