In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the University recently announced that it will not require standardized test scores for students applying for the 2020-2021 application cycle. Not only does this choice undoubtedly ease concerns for students unable to access testing due to physical or financial constraints, but it also provides an important opportunity to show the viability of a vital next step — going test-optional permanently. There is ample evidence that standardized tests are not particularly helpful in predicting college success compared to other factors, and their continued use in college admissions only works to perpetuate cycles of inequality that keep low-income students from accessing “elite” institutions of higher education. With this in mind, the University should permanently remove standardized test requirements and even consider abandoning the use of test scores entirely.
The fundamental issue with standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT is not just that they sharply correlate with race and wealth, but that they do not correlate to college success significantly when compared to other predictors, such as grades. Using property taxes to fund public schools all but ensures that low-income students attending under-funded schools are less likely to do well in certain metrics of academic achievement. Test scores are in fact correlated on economic lines. If these test scores also were correlated to college success, then we could assume that the problem was with the quality of education low-income students were receiving, not with the test itself. However, with standardized tests, this is not the case.
The strongest predictor of college success is high school grades — in fact, a recent study found that the correlation between SAT score and family income is three times stronger than the relationship between test score and high school GPA. Therefore, while the inherent inequalities of American secondary education will still create a slight correlation between income and college success, using SAT and ACT scores as that metric ends up far exaggerating this difference. Thus, typical low-income students disproportionately underprepared for college than a wealthy student with the same high school GPA.
Some opponents to going test-optional argue that test scores can be helpful for students in underfunded districts, and that good test scores can give them a competitive advantage that allows them to showcase their abilities. However, this is incredibly difficult for many capable students. Not only is taking standardized tests often financially prohibitive for low-income students, but under-resourced schools often lack the resources to offer prep programs and classes, or provide basic college counseling which would include recommendations for standardized test taking. Further, as previously discussed, high school grades are the greatest predictor of college successes, not test scores. In fact, according to the College Board’s own research, students with high grades but low test scores end up doing slightly better in college than students with low grades, but high test scores.
All of these factors are of course with the added reality that good test scores can effectively be bought. While a low-income student might not be able to access prep classes or materials and can only afford to take the test once, a wealthy student can take expensive classes and take the tests as many times as necessary to get the desired result. Wealth can buy a competitive edge in college admissions, no illegal dealings required.
Thus, the SAT and ACT cannot be used to measure college preparedness. Instead, such tests measure standardized test preparedness, something much more likely to depend on the prep classes and expensive practice tests parents can purchase for their children. Intuitively, this idea makes basic sense. When was the last time a college-level assessment resembled the SAT? When was the last time an ENWR professor asked its students to write a paper in the format of the ACT essay section. While college and high school have clear gaps, the basic format of a high school class resembles college courses far more than the repetition and cold memorization required to do well on standardized tests.
While the University cannot solve the unequal systems that affected their applicants’ educations, they can — and should — seek to mitigate these effects whenever possible. A simple and effective way to do is to follow in the footsteps of other Universities, like the University of California system, and go test optional permanently. If the University truly wants to be “great and good,” that starts with making admissions as equitable as possible.
Emma Camp is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.