Two front-page news stories in 2020 could jointly speed the demise of standardized testing, long the gold standard for college admissions in the U.S. The coronavirus pandemic, by forcing the cancellation of in-person test-taking, prompted elite universities including Harvard, Yale and the University of California system to join, at least temporarily, the list of schools that aren’t requiring the ACT and SAT entrance exams. In the meantime, protests over historically unfair and unequal treatment of Black Americans are drawing new attention to large racial gaps in SAT scores, which have been blamed for unequal educational opportunity for non-Whites.

1. What are the SAT and ACT?

The SAT, administered by the New York-based College Board, and the Iowa City-based ACT have been used for decades as screening tools for admission to U.S. colleges. Both are written exams focusing primarily on math and reading, mostly multiple choice but with an optional essay, taken by high school students typically in their junior year. The SAT was invented in the 1920s. Harvard University, in the early 1930s, was the first school to use the SAT as an instument in admissions decisions, initially to determine recipients of one small scholarship program, according to Nicholas Lemann, author of “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” The College Board, an association of educational institutions, adopted the SAT to replace a battery of college-admissions essay tests during World War II, a change billed as temporary that instead became permanent. After the war, the membership of the College Board expanded greatly and the SAT became a mass-administered exam, Lemann said. The ACT emerged in the late 1950s as a competitor.

2. How important are they?

In a 2008 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, six in 10 colleges said the test scores had “considerable importance” in deciding which students to accept. (The scores are also considered for scholarships, an important means of tuition support for many students.) Before this year, many of the more than 2,300 four-year degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S., including most large public university systems, still required SAT or ACT scores from applicants. But their ranks are narrowing.

3. Who has moved away from the tests?

More than 1,300 schools have made them an optional part of a student’s application; of those, more than one-third made the switch during the last 10 years, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a nonprofit that has led the “test-optional” movement for 30 years. Big-name schools that have gone test-optional include Indiana University, Brandeis University and the University of Chicago, which said its move, enacted in 2018, “levels the playing field, allowing first-generation and low-income students to use technology and other resources to present themselves as well as any other college applicant.” In 2020 alone, more than 300 schools have gone testing-optional, albeit temporarily, as the coronavirus has forced the closure of testing centers, many of which are located at high schools.

4. Will schools require testing again after the pandemic?

Many schools that have gone test-optional in the past months said they will reconsider their stance once the pandemic is over. Lemann said he wouldn’t be surprised if many continue without the testing requirement. “This is obviously driven in the primary sense by coronavirus, but the current moment of racial crisis is not irrelevant to what’s going on.”

5. What’s the concern about racial disparities in testing?

“The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in his bestselling book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, said standardized tests are good at measuring “accumulated opportunity” but less effective when used “to predict future academic success.” He added, “Kids who start life behind the eight ball can catch up in college. But if you rely on the test score, you don’t give them a chance to succeed.” In the most recent score report for the class of 2019, the mean total score SAT was 933 for Black students and 1,114 for White students. A perfect score is 1,600.

6. What explains the disparity in scores?

A variety of factors, according to experts. For one thing, wealthier families can afford to send their high schoolers to test-preparedness courses that teach strategies for excelling on written exams. Wealth also influences the quality of schooling a given child receives. William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., says Black students “are less likely to be in schools where there are advanced math courses,” such as calculus, for instance.

7. What alternatives are there?

Bowdoin College, which led the way by making admission tests optional starting in 1969, considers what courses were available at an applicant’s high school, whether the student chose the most challenging or easiest courses and how the person performed relative to peers, said Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and financial aid. About two-thirds of applicants to Bowdoin choose to include their scores. “If the testing is present, it can add to the assessment” of the applicant, Soule said, but there’s no “void that needs to be filled” if an applicant chooses not to submit test scores.

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