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Keep the Tests

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Keep the Tests

Critics overstate the flaws of the SAT and ACT—and understate their merits. June 9, 2021
Education
The Social Order

The standardized test has slowly lost its pride of place in college admissions over the past decade. By 2019, the number of schools going test-optional had risen to 1,050. The pandemic has catalyzed this trend, with at least 1,400 colleges in 2021 making the move to test-optional. College systems around the country are now permanently eliminating the requirement for the SAT and ACT; the University of California system is doing away with the tests altogether.

Critics argue that standardized tests are really “wealth tests” that measure affluence more than achievement. They propose a more “holistic” admissions process—assessing prospective students as persons rather than as a compilation of numbers. But the purported flaws of the SAT and ACT are overstated—often vastly so.

It’s true that test scores are positively correlated with socioeconomic status. This also holds true, however, for two “holistic” alternatives: grades and personal essays. High school grade inflation is more common in schools with affluent student bodies, and research indicates that the content of applicants’ personal essays is even more positively correlated with income than standardized tests.

Moreover, tests may be harder for the affluent to game than grades and personal essays. Wealthy students have greater access to tutors and test-prep classes to boost scores, but much of the literature shows only modest gain from these efforts; one study showed a benefit of only 10 to 20 points (out of 1,600) for the SAT, and only a single point (out of 36) for the ACT. For most test takers, this difference probably isn’t large enough to affect their admissions. (However, a 2008 NACAC survey suggests that test prep and tutoring has a greater effect for the highest-scoring test-takers.)

Wealth clearly confers advantages for some students, but these benefits extend across all admissions categories, not just test prep. Affluent students enjoy an edge in academic preparation and in teacher quality. Students at elite private schools and high-performing public schools are also likelier to benefit from more direct help from counselors and more interest from college recruiters.

Yes, colleges should judge students as more than just a compilation of numbers, but research shows that those numbers still matter a great deal. Test scores predict not only college GPA but also a student’s choice of major and future career accomplishments. The gradual shift away from meritocracy is likely to weaken confidence in the integrity of the admissions process by making acceptance to a school seem even more dependent on the subjective opinions of admissions officers—working against the stated goals of holistic admissions advocates, ironically, by further depersonalizing applicants.

A shared understanding of merit is necessary to ensure fairness and transparency in the college admissions system. Standardized tests are one of the closest approximations we have to a uniform metric. Devaluing them or getting rid of them entirely will make college admissions more, not less, obscure.

Photo by Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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