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Why U.S. Colleges Are Rethinking Standardized Tests

PEMBROKE PINES, FL - MARCH 06: Suzane Nazir uses a Princeton Review SAT Preparation book to study for the test on March 6, 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Yesterday, the College Board announced the second redesign of the SAT this century, it is scheduled to take effect in early 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PEMBROKE PINES, FL - MARCH 06: Suzane Nazir uses a Princeton Review SAT Preparation book to study for the test on March 6, 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Yesterday, the College Board announced the second redesign of the SAT this century, it is scheduled to take effect in early 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America)
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The pandemic forced a pause on colleges requiring standardized testing, long the gold standard for admissions in the U.S. As Covid-19 restrictions ease, widespread mandatory reliance on the ACT and SAT entrance exams isn’t springing back as quickly. One reason is that schools anticipate more Covid disruptions and want to provide predictability to applicants. Another is concern over large race-related gaps in SAT scores, which have been blamed for unequal educational opportunity for non-White students. 

1. What are the SAT and ACT?

The SAT, administered by the New York-based College Board, and the Iowa City-based ACT are decades-old screening tools for U.S. college admission. Both are multiple-choice, written exams heavy on math and reading, taken by high school students typically in their junior year, sometimes senior. The SAT was invented in the 1920s. Harvard University, in the early 1930s, was the first school to use the SAT as an instrument 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 essay tests during World War II, a change billed as temporary that instead proved lasting. Lemann said. College Board membership expanded greatly after the war, and the SAT became a mass-administered exam. The ACT emerged in the late 1950s as a competitor.

2. How important are they?

In a 2018 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, nearly half of colleges said they gave “considerable importance” to ACT and SAT test scores in deciding which applicants to accept, down from 60% in 2004. The scores are also considered for scholarships, an important means of tuition support for many students. Some large public systems such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida still require them. “A high score on the SAT or ACT will not compensate for a non-competitive” grade point average in high school, the University of Georgia says on its website. “Your record of three to three-and-a-half years’ worth of rigorous academic work in the classroom will be the primary focus of any admission decision.”

3. Who has moved away from the tests?

The Common Application, the nonprofit behind the standardized application form, said only 5% of about 850 member schools are requesting scores in 2021-2022, compared to 55% in 2019. The University of Chicago and Brandeis University were among schools that had stopped requiring testing before Covid-19. The pandemic, by forcing the cancellation of most in-person testing, accelerated the reconsideration of standardized tests. All eight Ivy League schools have made them optional for current high school juniors. Harvard has suspended it for students as young as current 8th graders, and Cornell, for some of its undergraduate schools, won’t even accept scores. The University of California system abolished testing requirements. “Test-optional admission is the new normal,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, a nonprofit that has led the “test-optional” movement for 30 years. “These schools aren’t going to go back even if they want to in most cases.” The College Board in 2021 also eliminated the essay section from the SAT.

4. Who’s still taking the tests and sending scores?

Even though many colleges aren’t mandating scores, at least one group of students are still sending them: wealthier ones. In the current application cycle for current high school seniors, 52% of students in the wealthiest households submitted scores this school year, according to data from the Common Application through February. Only 39% of the poorest did so. Applications among first-generation students -- those whose parents didn’t receive bachelor’s degrees -- grew by 21% from two years prior. Only 37% of underrepresented minorities sent in scores in 2021-22, compared to 52% of non-unrepresented minorities. It’s not clear how schools are evaluating students without testing.

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 wrote in his bestselling book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” In the most recent report for the class of 2021, the mean score was 1,112 for White students and 934 for Black students. (The overall mean score was 1,060. 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-prep 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. Priscilla Rodriguez, a vice president at the College Board, said the SAT is not a racist instrument. “Every question is rigorously reviewed for evidence of bias and any question that could favor one group over another is discarded,” she said. “Further, changes made to the test over its 100-year history have removed all vestiges of an aptitude or ‘IQ’ test.”

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 or least challenging and how the person performed relative to peers. James Nondorf, vice president for enrollment at the University of Chicago, said students can show their strengths in competitions such as chess, debate or math. (About 68% of applicants to Chicago chose to apply with test scores this year, down from 75% in 2021.) “I love entrepreneurship competitions, hack-a-thons, coding competitions,” Nondorf said. “In some ways it’s better than testing. It showcases a particular skill as opposed to testing, where you’re seeing a whole set of things measured.”

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