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Is it finally time to get rid of the SAT and ACT college admissions tests?

(Seth Perlman/AP)
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Is it finally time for colleges and universities to stop requiring applicants to take the SAT and ACT college admissions exams?

The question, long asked by testing critics, is being revived with new urgency amid the explosive college admissions bribery scandal rocking the world of higher education. As part of an investigation they called Operation Varsity Blues, federal prosecutors last week charged some 50 people, including famous Hollywood actresses and wealthy financiers. The alleged schemes included hiring impostors to take SAT and ACT exams, or rigging the test by asking for additional time to take it even when that wasn’t necessary.

As high-profile as Varsity Blues is, it is just the latest issue facing the College Board, which owns the SAT, and ACT Inc. — including repeated cheating scandals and fundamental questions about the value of the scores. Now, the testing giants find themselves again defending the integrity of their exams.

Colleges admissions tests have for decades played an important — and sometimes decisive — role at colleges and universities as they choose who to admit and who to reject. Millions of students take one of the two exams each year, earning millions of dollars for the nonprofit organizations that own them. Schools like to use the scores as a concrete data point to compare thousands or even tens of thousands of applicants.

The College Board and ACT say their tests are objective. The College Board said in a new statement, “Without an objective measure like the SAT, gaming the system to gain access to higher ed through wealth and connections would be much more common." They both say their tests help predict how well students will perform in part or all of college, and even perhaps beyond.

But critics say SAT and ACT results follow a pattern of all standardized test scores: Kids from poor families do worse than kids with more money. Wealthy parents can provide benefits that many poor families can’t, such as tutors, learning opportunities, the best medical care and schools with ample resources.

The rich have always had a leg up in college admissions. How different, then, is this new scandal?

The College Board and ACT have repeatedly defended their exams and the way they administer them and report the results — and did so again in the wake of Varsity Blues.

The College Board said in a statement:

The arrests resulting from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts send a clear message that those who facilitate cheating on the SAT — regardless of their income or status — will be held accountable. The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and as part of that effort we work closely with law enforcement, as we did in this investigation. We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test takers who are honest and play by the rules.

And ACT said:

ACT is committed to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned in school through their hard work. No student should have an unfair advantage over any other. The integrity of the ACT scores that we send to colleges and scholarship agencies is of critical importance to students and their parents. ACT works hard to ensure that the ACT scores we report to colleges are fairly earned.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of a nonprofit organization called FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said some of those charged in Varsity Blues were alleged to have engaged in at least four different test-cheating techniques. Those alleged schemes included hiring impersonators to take the exams; making phony “disability” claims to gain extra test-taking time; paying to change wrong answers or fill in missing responses; and bribing proctors and test-site supervisors to ignore these illegal acts.

This comes on top of repeated SAT and ACT cheating scandals in the United States and abroad. The SAT in recent years has become the target of a sophisticated cheating system in Asia made possible in part because the College Board reuses questions.

In some cases, test administration in an entire country has had to be canceled at the last minute because of credible cheating allegations. In 2017, the International Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents nearly 3,000 school counselors in 100 countries, issued a statement saying it had lost confidence in the College Board and ACT.

College Board sued over allegedly recycled SAT test questions

For years, questions have been raised about the validity and value of SAT and ACT scores in college admissions. The College Board has paid for research touting the “predictive value” of SAT scores in forecasting how students will do in college and beyond, but critics have questioned the research.

“We know what the best predictor of college performance is high-school performance — not the SAT,” George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc said in a 2018 interview. In 2015, GWU went test-optional, leaving it to applicants to decide whether to include SAT and ACT results in an application. LeBlanc said the school has seen a more diversified pool of applicants, as other schools have reported: “We see the world more broadly.”

Questions about whether the test scores reveal much about an applicant’s ability or future performance have been part of the reason more schools are going test-optional. "Test flexible” policies allow students to choose the test scores they provide in an application, letting them, for example, use exams other than the SAT and ACT, such as Advanced Placement tests.

According to FairTest, which warns about the misuse and overuse of standardized tests, more than 1,000 accredited schools have relaxed their admissions testing policies. Those include elite institutions such as the University of Chicago, which announced the change last summer. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, said in an interview last week that she created a task force last year to review the use of test scores in admissions.

A shake-up in elite admissions: U-Chicago drops SAT/ACT testing requirement

Said FairTest’s Schaeffer: “Combined with the University of Chicago’s decision to go test-optional . . . and the University of California’s review of its use of the ACT/SAT, there’s no question that the still-unfolding scandal will lead more higher education institutions to drop their ACT/SAT testing requirements.”

“How," he asked, “can any college admissions office tell whether the ACT/SAT score they receive reflects an applicant’s actual test-taking skills or whether it was inflated by test-coaching ‘steroids’ (legal, even if ethically questionable) or, worse, was manipulated through any of the illegal techniques disclosed” in Operation Varsity Blues? The test scores, he said, are not “valid” or “credible.”

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago, which is test-optional, wrote in an e-mail:

“Scandal or no scandal, colleges have an obligation to do research on the efficacy of standardized tests, and to consider the value of them in the admissions process. If tests are valuable and add something beyond what is already in the file, colleges should keep them, of course; but most research shows they add only the tiniest bit of predictive power as we attempt to figure out who is going to succeed in college."

There has been research done into what happens when schools adopt test-optional policies, or TOP.

A three-year study of colleges released in 2014 found only “trivial” difference in graduation rates and grade point averages between students who submitted standardized test results and those who didn’t. The study was titled “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions” and was released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It says:

With almost 123,000 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point, and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard, these are trivial differences.

In 2018, the organization released another such major study that looked at data from 28 four-year colleges and universities with test-optional policies and 955,774 applicants over a period of years. The data were compared to schools that require test scores. It concluded by saying that while “no research can provide definitive answers” about the impact of test-optional admissions policies, “our findings suggest that a TOP works well at a variety of institutions.”

Almost all institutions in our study increased enrollment of underserved populations, with many showing proportionate increases exceeding those found at test-requiring peer institutions. And, the policy transition occurred without any signs of academic slide: GPAs and graduation rates didn’t suffer, and according to reports from the Deans many faculty were very pleased with the quality and character of the incoming classes.
This success, however, appears to come with some degree of additional financial investment. The proportion of needy students rose at roughly half of our TOP institutions. Almost all the institutions saw an increase in the average demonstrated need from the pre-policy to the post-policy cohort years and increased the gift aid per capita. Most of our participating institutions appear to have provided less generous gift aid packages to Non-Submitters (both needy and no-need) than to their Submitters.

Boeckenstedt of DePaul University said in an email that his school’s test-optional policy has been “enormously successful.”

“Academic performance, as well as retention and graduation rates are almost identical when comparing test submitters and non-submitters, despite substantial differences in test scores (we collect them after admission is granted for research purposes), and despite the fact that test-optional students tend to be lower-income and from families where parents are not college-educated," he said.

In 2008, Wake Forest University announced it would go test-optional the next year, making it the first top-30 national university to do so, and it says it is “very glad" it made the move.

(Incidentally, Wake Forest was one of the schools caught up in Varsity Blues, with allegations that a volleyball coach accepted a bribe to help someone get off a waiting list by designating her as a volleyball player even though she wasn’t. The school released a statement saying it had placed the coach on administrative leave and retained legal counsel.)

It explains why it went test-optional on its website:

For the record, it’s not that we think standardized tests are evil. We just think that the measure of your intelligence and potential requires a deeper dive. It’s about life experience, aspiration, work ethic, engagement and all of what makes you who you are. That’s why we believe so strongly in the interview process. Numbers rarely tell the whole story.
In May of 2008, Wake Forest announced that it would no longer require applicants to submit scores in standardized tests such as the SAT or the ACT. The policy went into effect with the class that entered in the Fall of 2009, and we’re very glad we made the move. Ethnic diversity in the undergraduate population increased by 90 percent from Fall 2008, the final year in which scores were required, to the Fall of 2017. Furthermore, there has been no difference in academic achievement at Wake Forest between those who submitted scores and those who declined to do so.
Others are starting to take notice. In January 2016, the Harvard Graduate School expressed support for the test-optional concept by including it on a list of methods colleges should consider in the name of reducing test-related stress.
Again, numbers cannot tell the whole story, but they have provided hard evidence to support what our instincts originally told us: Making test scores optional would not compromise the academic quality of our institution, but it would make our university more diverse and intellectually stimulating.
It’s simple. If you think your scores are an accurate representation of your ability, feel free to submit them. If you feel they are not, don’t. You won’t be penalized.