Taking standardized tests like the SAT and ACT can be one of the most stressful parts of the college application process.
Now, due to the pandemic, many colleges and universities are not requiring high school applicants to submit standardized test scores with their applications, and these new policies may do more than just alleviate stress for students. They may have the additional benefit of increasing access to some of the top colleges and universities.
In order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the SAT and ACT have cancelled some test dates, and the majority of high schools in the country have been shuttered for the remainder of the school year. Because of these disruptions, and to decrease stress, some prestigious colleges and universities like Amherst, Williams, Vassar, Tufts, Pomona, Haverford and the University of California have joined a growing list of 1130 schools that have become test-optional, at least for the upcoming admissions cycle. Under test-optional admissions policies, students may submit test scores if they wish, but it’s not required. Amherst posted, “We hope this information will add some clarity in these unpredictable times and make this one part of life a little less stressful for admitted students and prospective applicants, as well as their parents and guardians.”
Biases in Standardized Testing
Prior to the pandemic, many had been calling for universities to cease considering these tests in admissions because they favor certain demographic groups. Lawsuits filed in December demanded that the University of California eliminate their testing requirement because the plaintiffs claim it illegally gives preference to wealthy students and discriminates against certain racial groups. As evidence for these claims, in 2018, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students averaged over 1100, while all other groups averaged below 1000. With regard to income, a 2015 analysis found that students with family income less than $20,000 scored an average of 433 on the reading section. Those with family income above $200,000 averaged a much higher 570.
Much of this differential in scores is attributed to the fact that families with higher incomes have access to better schools and test preparation. Even the College Board, has recently admitted to the benefits of test prep and have partnered with Kahn Academy to help level the playing field by offering free on-line coaching for the exam.
Paul Tough, author of The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, discussed how some universities may also use test scores to justify admitting privileged students who need less financial aid. He writes, “It’s hard to feel good about choosing an academically undeserving rich kid over a striving and ambitious poor kid with better high school grades. But if the rich student you’re admitting has a higher SAT score than the poor student you’re rejecting, you can tell yourself that your decision was based on ‘college readiness’ rather than ability to pay.”
In addition to boosting diversity, colleges have an additional incentive to adopt test-optional admissions policies—a likely boost in their national rankings. As the university gets more applications, their acceptance rate decreases, which, in turn, improves their ranking. Also, since below-average test-scorers are less likely to report their test grades, the school’s average test scores increase, improving the ranking even more.
Despite the test-optional status, strong test scores can still be a help. Paul Siemens, director of Advantage Testing, Los Angeles, a tutoring and test prep company says, “In the admissions process, colleges have always weighed students’ accomplishments against their perceived opportunities. While it’s not an exact science, it is a reasonable and meritocratic approach to an intensely competitive process. The most competitive colleges will have very high expectations of a student who has grown up with many privileges, and modified expectations of students with perceived disadvantages.” In general, he thinks that the privileged students are generally expected to be able to score well on tests such as the ACT or SAT. He adds, “we have traditionally counseled students from independent or well-resourced schools to apply to test-optional colleges with test scores unless they have a very good reason not to.” But this year, since colleges are going the extra mile to demonstrate empathy and flexibility he believes they will likely take into account that students may have many reasons for not submitting test scores. “Nonetheless, it would still seem inevitable that students who do submit strong test scores in this landscape will be rewarded,” he says.
Benefits Of Standardized Testing
Despite the pitfalls of standardized testing, Siemens says the original reason for standardized testing was to give talented students of underrepresented backgrounds an opportunity to earn admission to top colleges. “And there can be little doubt that standardized tests made the Ivy League much more accessible to students of Asian and Jewish backgrounds. Now, of course, the conversation has evolved to consider those students for whom standardized tests remain a barrier to entry. One thing we have certainly discovered in the public service programs we offer through the Advantage Testing Foundation is that when students of underrepresented backgrounds are able to achieve high scores on standardized tests, the sky is truly the limit,” he says.
ACT CEO Marten Roorda feels the ACT can still play a role in helping underprivileged students. At an online conference last week, Roorda said, “Research has shown that [testing] really plays a role in offering opportunities to underserved students. If we do away with it, the privileged students and parents will have more opportunities to game the system and to push for higher grades… So I think standardized testing is playing an important role right now in society.” The research Roorda mentioned is from the University of California Standardized Testing Task Force which found that standardized test scores helped some underprivileged students gain entrance through the UC’s statewide guarantee of admission. These students would not have qualified for the guaranteed admission on the basis of their high school grades alone.
Will colleges and universities remain test-optional post-pandemic?
Although more colleges are joining the test-optional ranks each week, it’s unclear if this shift to test-optional admissions will remain after the pandemic subsides. Many of the colleges and universities are only adopting this policy for the next admissions cycle, while others see it as a pilot project for the future. Vassar, for example, posted, “The college will evaluate the pilot after the close of the admissions cycle in 2021, and determine whether to make it an ongoing policy.”
As for the pandemic, there are too many unknowns to predict how coronavirus will impact the diversity in our colleges and universities. Yet, many of us are looking for any glimmer of good news these days—the elusive silver lining. One consolation is there’s a chance that underprivileged students may gain greater opportunities to attend some of the nation’s best colleges and universities.
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