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October 9, 2019, Hechinger Report

SATs. The mere mention of the standardized test for college-bound students can strike fear in the hearts of high school juniors and seniors across the country. However, that time-honored stressor before college is becoming less important than it used to be.

One in four institutions of higher learning have now opted out of the requirement that applying students take the SAT or ACT—41 schools in the past year alone. Michael Nietzel, president emeritus of Missouri State University, lists for Alina Tugend, who writes for the Hechinger Report, several things that “pose a significant threat to standardized admissions tests,” which Nietzel says, have “lost their luster.”

Opponents of the tests have argued for some time that they measure how wealthy a student is, rather than actual skill. The exposure of certain parents cheating and paying to get their children into their chosen universities has spotlighted the distinct advantage the wealthy have, along with access to high-cost tutoring and extra time spent to improve student standing. This idea seems to be borne out by the benefits some colleges that have made the tests optional have seen. Although the results are mixed, some institutions report an uptick in diversity. The University of Chicago says it has seen record enrollment this semester among veterans, first-generation students, and low-income and rural students.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce released a report in June that concluded that if SAT and ACT scores were the sole basis for admission decision, more than half of students would not have been accepted. The 200 most selective schools already use the tests as one piece of a comprehensive review of the applicants.

A resolution currently in the California legislature would have the public University of California system and the California State University system, the largest in the nation, study the effectiveness and fairness of standardized tests for those who apply. Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit FairTest, which concentrates on overuse and misuse of standardized tests, said it would be “the grand prize” if California determined the tests were optional.

On the other side of the argument, one finds the industry that produces and supports standardized tests. The SAT is managed by a nonprofit, The College Board, which takes in $1 billion in annual revenue for administering the test. In order to dilute the argument of lack of fiscal diversity, at the very least, among accepted students, the organization created a dashboard that compensates for differences in socioeconomic level and race:

The average ACT composite score was 23.6 for higher income students and 19.5 for lower income ones in 2016, the last year for which the figures are available, according to the ACT’s own research.

The College Board last year stopped asking test-takers about their parents’ income, but answers from previous years showed scores going up as family income increases; scores overall were also lower on average for black and [Latinx] students than for whites and Asians.

The National Association of College Admission Counseling released a report last year that found, after looking at 28 four-year public and private nonprofit degree-granting institutions that are test-optional, that a “well-executed test-optional admission policy” increases general applications and increases the amount of low-income and first-generation students.

Conversely, another study last year refuted reports that optional standardized tests add to diversity:

“We found instead, that it increased selectivity,” meaning the reported SAT or ACT scores of students who were enrolled in schools with test-optional policies were higher than for than those that weren’t, said Kelly Ochs Rosinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University and a co-author of one of the studies, which examined 180 liberal arts colleges.

It’s worth noting that this study included two editors connected to The College Board, and Rosinger did say better data was needed. (For example, students with lower test scores naturally don’t report them.) While this one study did not show an increase in diversity from the typical campus population, newer information could provide a better picture.

“There is no clear, easy solution to expand access to higher education,” Rosinger says. “There are so many barriers beyond test scores.”

Meanwhile, The College Board continues to adapt, dropping the idea of a single score for socioeconomic level with neighborhood and school information, renaming the environmental context dashboard Landscape, and including, among other aspects, “the number of children eligible at the student’s school for free or reduced-price lunches; average number of seniors taking AP [advanced placement] courses; and average AP score at that school. Landscape will also evaluate neighborhood factors such as median family income; number of single-parent households; vacancy rates; and typical educational attainment.” Of course, Nietzel says that lumping all students under the Landscape disguises individual differences.

Steve Bumbaugh, senior vice president for college and career access at The College Board, who has written for the Hechinger Report and others, says the answer is not to remove standardized tests, but that “the poor kids need what the rich kids have.” Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at the University of Michigan School of Education, a researcher in this area, and a paid consultant to The College Board on the dashboard, said making the test optional is not the answer to diversity without increasing financial aid to poorer students and supplying other support. Toward that end, along with going test-optional, the University of Chicago announced financial assistance with new scholarships and a program that can provide full tuition for families with annual income of less than $125,000.

That is what it boils down to: an avenue to make getting into a college an even playing field. The College Board has also attempted to address the inequality of opportunity due to income with several initiatives, like free test review with the online Khan Academy.

Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s dean of admissions, thinks the time spent on the tests could be spent on other things, calling studying for the ACT or SAT a distortion “of two years of your life during high school.”

“You could be spending that 60 hours or more doing test prep doing other, more meaningful things that actually are more productive for your life in the long run,” Burdick says.—Marian Conway