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Should Colleges Still Require the SAT/ACT?

For decades, taking the SAT or the ACT has been a rite of passage for American high school students. Last year, about 4 million students took one of the two standardized tests that are required as part of the admissions process at many U.S. colleges. But there have long been complaints that the tests are biased, and a recent college admissions scandal included allegations of cheating on the tests.

Representatives of a standardized testing company and an organization that advocates for test fairness face off about whether colleges should require these tests.

Colleges make admission decisions based on a variety of factors, almost all of which are subjective or variable. Grades? Grade inflation is rampant. Courses taken? Rigor can vary dramatically from one school to another, which also affects grades. Class rank? It depends on a school’s size and quality. Personal essays? Letters of recommendation? Interviews? All highly subjective.

The only factor that allows colleges to compare the readiness of any two students on the same scale is standardized test scores.

Your ACT/SAT scores mean the same thing regardless of your background, gender, race, or how much money your parents make. They allow colleges to compare students who attend different schools, live in different states, take different courses, and earn different grades from different teachers on an apples-to-apples basis. No other admission factor can do that.

More information is always better than less information when making important decisions. And ACT/SAT scores, used as one of many pieces of information, help colleges make better, fairer decisions. Research consistently shows that using multiple measures, such as GPA and standardized test scores in combination, results in better predictions.

Standardized test scores help colleges make better, fairer decisions.

Your test scores reflect what you’ve learned through your hard work in school. Let’s say you and another student both took a precalculus course in high school, and you both earned an A. But the course you took was more rigorous, and you had to work a lot harder to earn that grade. So you actually learned significantly more—and are better prepared to succeed in a college-level math course—than the other student, even though your transcripts look identical. But how do colleges know this? Your standardized test scores can tell that story.

The ultimate goal of admission criteria should be to ensure that students land where they have the best chance to succeed. Standardized test scores clearly help accomplish this goal.


—WAYNE CAMARA

Horace Mann Research Chair, ACT

Test-optional admissions policies are a win-win for both colleges and high school students. Both groups would be well served if more schools stopped requiring the SAT or the ACT. 

More than 1,000 U.S. schools that grant bachelor’s degrees currently make admissions decisions about most applicants without regard to ACT or SAT scores. Test-optional institutions range from huge multicampus state schools, such as the University of Texas, to many smaller, private colleges.

These tests are not a level playing field for all students. In fact, research has long shown that both tests have built-in biases that favor white students from more-affluent families. Many minority groups tend to score lower, in part because of test bias. 

The multimillion-dollar test prep industry has exacerbated this problem. It’s common for students from wealthy or even middle-class families to take courses from companies like Princeton Review to improve their scores. But students who grow up in low-income households can’t afford expensive test prep classes. That’s why scores often reveal more about an applicant’s socioeconomic background than his or her potential for success in college or life.

The ACT and SAT have built-in biases that favor white, affluent students.

In addition, test-optional policies strongly appeal to high school students. Having grown up taking standardized tests constantly, many teens appreciate being treated as “more than a score.” They’d rather be judged on academic performance—grades and course rigor—not filling in multiple-choice bubbles.

On both sides of the admissions equation, test-optional policies make sense. Schools that drop ACT/SAT requirements attract more applicants who are more diverse. Two recent studies of about 30 schools found that students admitted without providing these test scores did as well in college as those who submitted them. That’s why the test-optional movement is growing so rapidly. In the past decade, nearly 200 schools have dropped ACT/SAT requirements. Many more should follow.

 

—BOB SCHAEFFER

Public Education Director, FairTest

By the Numbers

1.9 million

NUMBER of students in the Class of 2018 who took the ACT.

Source: ACT

2.1 million

NUMBER of students in the Class of 2018 who took the SAT.

Source: The CollegeBoard

1,048

NUMBER of bachelor’s degree granting colleges that have test-optional policies.

Source: FairTest, number as of Aug. 28, 2019.

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