The SAT, a fixture of the American education system, is diminishing its role post-pandemic.
The SAT, a fixture of the American education system, is diminishing its role post-pandemic.
Michael Hum

We Shouldn’t Do Away with Standardized Testing Just Yet

In recent years, many U.S. colleges have been moving towards “test-optional” policies. Some colleges have even implemented “test-blind” policies that completely disregard standardized testing, such as the SAT or the ACT. These policies supposedly make college admissions more fair and equitable for everyone, with the belief that standardized testing is a flawed system of measuring students’ abilities influenced by socioeconomic factors. Yet, are these policies really justified? I would argue the opposite. I believe taking away the importance of standardized testing in college applications hurts more applicants than it helps.

According to the report “A Brief History of the Test-Optional Movement in Higher Education” by DePaul University, there were two watershed events that launched the test-optional movement: the University of California (UC)’s suggestion to improve standardized testing, and a report by Bates College advocating for test-optional policies.

In 2001, Richard Atkinson, the president of the UC system, recommended that colleges stop using the SAT and use tests more closely related to the high school curriculum. Due to the UCs’ high number of students, Atkinson’s suggestion generated much interest from testing companies and encouraged further research into the effectiveness of standardized tests. Then in 2004, Bates College presented data on their test-optional experience. Being a highly selective liberal arts college, their presentation revived interest in test-optional policies and inspired many to adopt those policies. Having been test-optional since 1984, Bates College revealed the result of going test-optional in the 2004 National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) conference, showing that the “graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters varied by only 0.1%, and average Bates’ GPAs varied by only 0.05%.”

Bates College’s report seems to prove that test-optional systems have negligible impact on student success in college with boosting applications. But if this observation is factual, then why is it that colleges have become much more selective in recent years despite adopting measures, like test-optional or test-blindness, that supposedly help students with their applications? A report by comparing the admission rates of the top 51 colleges as ranked by US News back in 2006 with their admission rates in 2018 found that “it’s much harder to get into a top school today than it was in 2006, and admissions rates have plummeted across the board. The average admissions rate was 35.9% in 2006. By 2018, the admissions rate had plummeted to 22.6% (a drop of 37%).” 

The most commonly cited reason for this drastic drop in admissions rates is due to the increase in college applications overall. Kim et al. reported that the average number of applications per applicant has been growing as “in 2013-14, just 0.4% of applicants applied 20 times, and only 7% applied more than ten times, while in 2021-22, these figures had increased to 1.8% and 17%, respectively.” What then could be influencing this growth in application numbers? The report found that high-volume applicants (applicants applying to more than ten colleges on Common App) are “about eight times as likely to be applicants who selectively include test scores depending on where they are applying.” Furthermore, they tend to “apply to selective, private colleges.” The effect of test optional and test-blind policies are also recognized by U.S. News as contributing to increasing the number of applications along with “individual students applying to more schools” and “intentional recruitment efforts by the universities.” This indicates testing policies have massively increased the number of applicants for selective colleges overall.

One could make the argument that testing policies have given more students the confidence to apply to selective colleges even if they do not have the best standardized test scores. But this increase in confidence is only beneficial for the colleges, not the students. The data presented by Bates College has found that the SAT scores of non-submitters were 160 points lower than scores of submitters. While Bates College has found that this discrepancy in SAT scores may not have a significant impact on a student’s success in college, it certainly affects how a college can present its exclusivity.

Logically, those who do well on standardized testing will likely submit their high scores, while those who did not do well will likely not. Thus, students with high standardized test scores are overrepresented in the overall pool of applicants which causes a misleading increase in the average test score per college. Colleges then use this misleading data to make themselves appear more prestigious and more selective. This is not only dishonest, but has negative consequences for admission rates.Testing policies are ineffective at helping students with their admission chances because they were never designed to help the students. If anything, these policies actively work against the student by allowing selective colleges to make themselves more exclusive and help them maintain a superficial image of prestige.

Testing policies are flawed in other ways as well. Without standardized testing, colleges place more focus on a student’s extracurriculars and recommendation letters. Are extracurriculars a fairer metric of students of all economic levels? No. Not at all. Research by Park et al. has shown that non fee-waiver students who use Common App report an average of “55.9% more top-level leadership roles across all activities” Moreover, “private school students listed an average of 17.3% more activities than public school students, including 35.8% more athletics activities.” The importance of leadership roles and athletics in students’ college applications only underline the fact that sadly and unsurprisingly, wealthy and privileged people are at an advantage in almost everything.

Compared to extracurriculars, standardized testing provides disadvantaged students with a way to stand alongside those who have more privilege and opportunity than them. Is it fair that disadvantaged students have to do more work just to keep up with those who have more resources and can pay for advantages such as private tutoring? Obviously, no. But compared to the extracurricular system colleges are now adopting, standardized testing offers disadvantaged students an opportunity where effort can compensate for financial differences. Free resources such as Khan Academy, SAT tutoring on Schoolhouse, previous SAT tests published by CollegeBoard, and SAT fee waivers can assist these students in preparation. The point is, getting rid of standardized testing won’t help disadvantaged students. It won’t bridge the gap between the wealthy and the less fortunate, it won’t make the privilege less of a factor, and it won’t improve disadvantaged students’ applications.

Finally, without standardized testing, there are also, surprisingly, no common standards to judge an applicant’s academic competence by. Standards like grades or GPAs aren’t more reliable measures of a student’s academic success. Research by Foothill College Biology Professor Jeffrey Schinske and San Francisco State University Biology Professor Kimberly Tanner revealed that “Grades awarded can be inconsistent both for a single instructor and among different instructors for reasons that have little to do with a students’ content knowledge or learning advances. Even multiple-choice tests, which can be graded with great consistency, have the potential to provide misleading information on student knowledge.” Even here at Arcadia High School, every teacher has their own unique grading system. If we can’t even get a unified system of grading within one school, how can we expect grades to be a reliable and consistent metric across the entire United States? 

Is standardized testing perfect? No. But it is fairer than other standards colleges are now moving towards. And despite what colleges claim, they consider high scores on standardized tests to be just as important as having good grades and good extracurriculars. Getting rid of standardized testing and deemphasizing its importance benefits the colleges and privileged students rather than the disadvantaged student. Let’s stop the lie about how testing doesn’t matter and bubble in the correct choices for our future by taking these exams seriously.

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