Why Testing is Not the Golden Standard


Photo courtesy of Brookings.

(Above) Colleges are left with an important decision: require standardized testing or allow slight decreases in GPA performance in exchange for greater diversity and socioeconomic access. Increasing diversity is crucial to opening students to different intellectual and cultural perspectives.

Santiago Calderon, Editor-in-Chief

(Above) Standardized testing played a role in the 2019 college admissions bribery investigation, highlighting elitism in college admissions. William Singer connected wealthy parents with testing proctors whom filled out students’ answer sheets with correct answers, increasing their scores. (Photo courtesy of USA Today.)
(Above) In the 2019-2020 school year, Juniors’ standardized testing schedules were completely thrown off, decreasing their scores, especially in urban areas. Before mask-mandated test locations re-opened, COVID-19 had students driving hours only to have their test canceled. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)
Graphic courtesy of  The Wall Street Journal.

If you aren’t currently a Senior, how’s that SAT and ACT prep going? If that just caused a brief sense of anxiety, that’s indicative of a genuine problem in America’s system in applying to higher education. Many students have extreme pressure to succeed on these standardized tests because of their significant perceived weight on admissions to selective colleges and universities. But, could recent development in the college application process alleviate this stress among future applicants? 

As of January of this year, the College Board announced that, starting in 2024, the SAT will shift towards a completely digital format that is an hour shorter, has a reduced length of reading passages, and will ultimately be easier to take and give. This isn’t anything new, as the College Board has discontinued it’s essay SAT component and subject tests across all areas, showing a downtrend in the need for standardized testing. These gradual reductions in standardized testing  for college admissions has become a growing trend, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Per the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 1,800 US colleges will be standardized test-optional in the fall of 2022 admissions cycle, with at least 1,400 extending this policy to fall of 2023. Notably, after a lawsuit over standardized testing’s discrimination of applicants on race and wealth, the University of California has permanently removed testing from the admissions process and consideration.  

COVID-19 had a role in this, as it has made it highly difficult for students across the United States to access testing sites. Could this have sparked standardized testing’s insolvency? I think not. Students are still worrying about standardized testing impacting their college admissions decisions and rushing to prepare for them months in advance, despite colleges not requiring them. Why? There’s no need nor justification for students to take such exams under rigid time constraints, but they are done so to most easily create a bell-shaped curve, essentially ranking students. The Pacific Standard indicates that this bell-shaped curve expresses economic status and not genuine ability. Indeed, having the option to submit standardized tests isn’t so optional, as they note people who opt out of these exams, “Place themselves at a competitive disadvantage with respect to admission or financial aid… [by signaling] an applicant’s scores are way below the median for that university’s applicant pool.” If anything, colleges have the incentive to keep standardized testing in admissions consideration because scores are a part of ranking systems like the U.S. News and World Report’s that maintain the prestige of large universities. 

Many proponents of the SAT and other standardized tests argue that they are necessary for comparing students across different school districts and states, as well as offer a flat metric to measure how ready prospective students are for college—a better one than high school grades. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley analyzed 80,000 students admitted to the University of California and found that high school GPA is, “Consistently the strongest predictor of four-year college outcomes for all academic disciplines” such as grades and graduation. This is because, compared to standardized tests, high school grades give students more time, flexibility, and freedom to pursue their academic strengths and develop effective studying habits. In fact, these researchers regarded standardized admissions tests as more adversely affecting underrepresented minority students, many of which come from disadvantaged backgrounds, than high school GPA. 

According to The Washington Post, students from families earning over $200,000 annually average around a 1714 (around a 1230 in today’s metric), meanwhile this number drops to 1326 (around a 980) for families earning under $20,000. Per the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, this has historically resulted in the doors of America’s selective colleges, “Open wider to White students,” leaving the vast majority of minority students enrolling in overcrowded and underfunded open-access colleges. This essentially is a gilded mask, painted with the term “quantitative” and “fair,” when, in reality, these tests are a reflection of students with a discrepancy of upbringings not given an equal shot at the higher education institutions America prides itself on. It’s thus no wonder that a report by The Common App found that standardized test reporting was far higher amongst more affluent communities and lower among underrepresented, minority students.

On top of that, standardized tests force students to learn for the sole purpose of getting the highest score possible, ignoring the deep curiosity and critical thinking that lies in genuine learning. That’s why Dr. Iain Harlow from the University of Edinburgh notes that approaches like cramming and re-reading that contribute to poor retention are extremely prevalent in the SAT and ACT. 

When a college can review an applicant’s essays, interviews, recommendations, community engagement, and entrepreneurial spirit, they can better understand the world a student comes from, as well as their intangible qualities that are more important than a standardized number. A student’s leadership, intellectual curiosity, ability to self-reflect, and perseverance amidst adversity are all characteristics that contribute to life, learning, and success more than a reading passage. When Hampshire College went test-blind, they saw, “Remarkable admissions results… Without the scores, every other detail of the student’s application became more vivid.” Hampshire College’s yield—meaning the percentage of students who accepted their offer of admission—increased by 8% and class diversity increased by 10%. Hopefully, with colleges moving towards being test-optional, admissions committees can take a deeper look at what makes each student unique and push for a decreased importance for consideration.