While some schools have become more selective, removing testing requirements also has created unprecedented opportunities for students who might have been denied admission because of low scores. Only 43 percent of those applying to college in 2021 submitted test results, compared with 77 percent in 2020.
Initial survey findings indicate test-optional policies have increased applications from low-income students and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. But those increases have yet to translate into equally large boosts in enrollment. Despite modest gains, higher education has to go further than making admission tests optional to give students equal access to affordable degrees and free them from testing requirements.
That is especially true because “test optional” often really isn’t. Many students who opt out often discover too late that financial aid and merit scholarships are based on tests they chose not to take. As long as colleges use scores to award financial aid, admission exams will remain a reality for many students and serve as a barrier to affordable degrees.
At their creation nearly a century ago, boosters touted standardized admission tests as a way to establish a new, meritocratic elite based on intelligence rather than inherited wealth.
Originally the work of an ardent eugenicist, the College Board adopted the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926. The company then relied on two Harvard academics, James Conant and Henry Chauncey, to promote it as an intelligence rather than achievement test of learned knowledge. Marketing the SAT as an aptitude exam allowed the College Board to argue it was impossible for students to prepare for it.
While Conant privately fretted that the SAT tested achievement rather than intelligence, Chauncey sold it as a measure of innate and learned qualities. Any qualms the two felt about identifying America’s best and brightest based on the work of a eugenicist — who later recanted and opposed the SAT — were kept out of the public record. In reality, the exam’s questions were biased to favor White native-born English speakers over Black Americans and immigrants from Eastern European and Mediterranean countries.
The test also reinforced the bigoted admission policies that were common in this era. Elite universities used restrictive quotas to admit White Christian men, blocking access to college for women, students of color and Jewish applicants. This practice offended Stanley Kaplan.
The Jewish son of a Brooklyn plumber, Kaplan had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from City College in 1939, but all five New York medical schools rejected him after filling ethnic quotas. Denied a medical degree, Kaplan embraced standardized tests as a way to give students who scored well a chance to overcome the bias he had experienced. Dismissing the idea that the tests measured aptitude, Kaplan started a company to prepare students to ace the exams and force the college gates open.
Kaplan taught clients how to game the SAT by learning its tricks. He drilled students on test-taking strategies and alerted them to penalties assessed for guessing. “Acquiring test-taking skills is the same as learning to play the piano or ride a bicycle,” Kaplan wrote in his autobiography. “It requires practice, practice, practice. Repetition breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds confidence.”
In 1959, a University of Iowa professor developed the ACT, an achievement test designed to compete with the SAT. By then, the College Board had contracted with Chauncey’s company, the Educational Testing Service, to redesign the SAT. The College Board then sold and distributed the test to high school students, continuing to insist that studying for it produced no significant improvements.
Kaplan claimed otherwise, marketing test prep as a way to higher scores, and making him a self-described “thorn in the side” of the test makers.
The College Board attacked Kaplan’s claims and in 1975, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating him for false advertising. Four years later, however, the government “declared us the winner,” in Kaplan’s words, concluding that coaching students on the SAT improved results.
As a consequence, Kaplan’s business exploded. In 1984, he sold the company to The Washington Post Co. for $45 million, triggering a multibillion-dollar test prep industry that has benefited students from families who could afford to pay for tutoring. (The Washington Post no longer owns Kaplan. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Post in 2013, and Graham Holdings Company retained ownership of Kaplan. In 2017, it sold Kaplan University to Purdue University, while retaining the rest of Kaplan, including its test prep business.) While Kaplan saw test preparation as a leveler, its value helps explain why researchers have attacked standardized tests for worsening racial, gender and income inequality and blocking the path to affordable degrees.
The College Board and ACT Inc. have consistently denied their products are biased or discriminatory. The College Board’s executive director for communications, Zach Goldberg, argued in a statement that while the SAT reflected “real inequities” in education, the test itself “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.”
But despite the College Board’s consistent message that the SAT is impartial, civil rights leaders and education advocates created FairTest, an advocacy nonprofit, in 1985 to promote fairness and accuracy in standardized testing. And FairTest was an early proponent of making the SAT and ACT optional.
In the 1990s and 2000s, however, the opposite happened: Test scores became even more important. Cuts to tuition subsidies that started with Ronald Reagan worsened under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Average tuition skyrocketed as need-based financial aid decreased.
For admission to highly ranked colleges — those discounting tuition up to 90 percent for accepted students from families with incomes less than $200,000 — applicants needed ever-higher test scores. Less-selective colleges and universities also began using test scores to award merit scholarships to students with little or no financial need, discounts that favored the affluent at wealthy high schools with money to pay professional tutors.
As the wealth gap widened, new research in the early 2000s confirmed that high school grades better predicted college success than test scores. Reformers began lobbying colleges to make the SAT and ACT optional, a movement that built slowly over two decades, boosted considerably in 2020 by the covid-19 pandemic.
The test-optional movement has produced small but significant gains for low-income students as well as those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. These are most apparent in the University of California system, which broke records after making tests optional in 2020. This year, the University of California admitted the greatest number of incoming first year students from underrepresented groups in its history: 43 percent, up from 42 percent the previous year. Going forward, the University of California will refuse to consider test scores for admission to any of its campuses, a policy the California State University System also has adopted. The latest available research conducted before the pandemic indicated test-optional admission policies led to a 1 percent increase in the share of Black, Latino and Native American students at the colleges studied.
And yet, making testing optional has not broken the link between financial aid and test scores at many public and private colleges and universities. The Florida Board of Governors, for example, required applicants to Florida’s public universities to take the ACT or SAT during the pandemic, stating publicly that the decision stemmed from concern about eligibility requirements for Florida’s Bright Futures merit scholarship. (Georgia went even further, reinstating testing for students applying for admission next year.) FairTest’s executive director, Robert Schaeffer, called Florida’s practice of taking money generated by lotteries that poor people play and giving “it to upper-income kids who score high on the SAT,” a “reverse Robin Hood.”
While separating scores from admissions may start leveling the playing field by removing the advantages test preparation services provide, unless they are also decoupled from financial aid, standardized tests will remain a barrier to affordable degrees for applicants from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged students of all races.