College Entrance Exams: Keep Them or Quit Them?

Since their conception, the SAT and ACT have been required as part of undergraduate college admissions; high schoolers take the tests to prove their level of preparedness with college entrance exams. However, in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a nationwide pause on standardized testing. According to the Common Application, the nonprofit behind the standardized college admissions form of the same name, only 5% of about 850 member universities required scores in 2021­–2022, compared to 55% in 2019.

Now that the proverbial dust has settled, university administrations decide: do they reintroduce standardized testing requirements for college applications or put these tests aside for good?

The Equity Argument

One of the biggest arguments for getting rid of standardized tests is that studies have shown them to be biased toward affluent white and Asian-American students, while disadvantaging students who are poor, Black, and Hispanic. According to the College Board, 55% of Asian-American test takers and 45% of white test takers scored a 1200 or higher on the SAT in 2019, whereas only 12% of Hispanic test takers and 9% of Black test takers achieved the same result.

There are many factors that could contribute to such a disparity in scores. Wealth is a particularly notable factor. Family and community wealth influences the quality of schooling that a child receives, with minority students, especially Black students, less likely to be enrolled in schools with advanced and high-quality courses. Likewise, wealthier students—who are, again, less likely to be minority or first-generation students—are better able to afford the test books and prep courses that help ensure a successful score on the exam, as well as multiple attempts at the test itself.

Ultimately, the primary argument against requiring standardized tests for college admission emphasizes that the tests hurt the odds of select populations of students, including students whose first language is not English, whose parents didn’t go to college, who are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, and who come from poorer households.

However, getting rid of standardized tests would not get rid of the advantages of wealth and privilege, as these extend to other parts of the college application process, as well. Wealthy families can hire college admissions advisors to help their children craft stellar applications, as well as writing coaches to assist with application essays.

Colleges tend to prioritize applicants from alumni, again giving students from wealthy, privileged backgrounds an advantage. Even a process like asking for letters of recommendation can be fraught with biases, either in gendered differences in the writing of the letters or in differences in access to advantageous connections (i.e., who will write the letter).

Therefore, standardized tests might actually be an equalizer in the face of outsized wealth and privilege advantages. As Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of the College Board, the organization that develops the SAT, notes: “In contrast [to other parts of the admission process], the SAT is available to all students, free to practice for, and free to take for low-income students.”

Standardized Tests as Tools

Despite their complications, standardized tests are still incredibly important to universities. Universities want to ensure that the students they admit are the ones most likely to make it through to graduation. While many believe that test scores don’t predict a student’s success in college, there are some studies that claim otherwise. Yale University, for instance, found that higher scores on the SAT and ACT predicted better academic success, even when controlling for other factors.

Standardized tests have other benefits, as well. They can act as a broad yardstick to compare students across different states and countries, offering universities an easy way to sort through applicants to find top performers. They also offer a way for universities to identify talented students whose circumstances in high school negatively affected their grades. And if you work at a large university, getting rid of standardized testing can require a complete revamp of the college admissions process—retraining admissions officers, hiring and training more application readers, redoing the overall application, and more. It can even mean rethinking student recruitment strategies.

Historically, colleges and universities have also relied on purchasing lists of student data to supplement other recruiting strategies. These lists are sold at cost per name, many times from the SAT and ACT providers. However, with more schools eliminating standardized test requirements or moving to “test optional,” the efficacy of this practice has dwindled; fewer students today are taking the test, which means fewer names available for colleges.

To circumvent this issue, other services like College Matchmaking™ offer alternatives. With a flat-priced, student-driven solution that not only provides an alternative to SAT/ACT name-buys, this service eliminates the accompanying practice of blindly guessing at which student demographics to purchase.

Instead, when students register for a virtual or in-person college fair with GoToCollegeFairs, they select the attributes of the college experience they find desirable, and the student data is pushed to the College Matchmaking™ database (with student permission, of course). Colleges then subscribe to the list for the names of students who have already declared their institution to be a good fit, providing a hugely more qualified list of student candidates, and since this service is free to students, it falls on the right side of the equity argument.

Contradictory Research

There is considerably more work to be done before the standardized testing debate can be settled, as conflicting research abounds. Proponents of eliminating standardized testing have argued that doing away with the SAT and ACT will create more diverse campuses. Research on colleges that went “test-optional” years ago shows that students admitted without test scores came from more diverse backgrounds and did about as well in their college classes as peers who did submit test scores.

However, the opposite claim has been made, too. A University of California task force found that eliminating the standardized test requirement would deny automatic entry to 40% of African-American students and more than 25% of low-income and first-generation students who had been admitted.

Current State of Affairs

For now, universities have taken different stances on the usefulness of standardized testing. Even after their 2020 investigation found issues with eliminating the tests, the University of California became one of the biggest and most well-known institutions to stop requiring SAT and ACT tests for admissions, and all eight Ivy League schools have made the tests optional for prospective students. On the other hand, MIT made headlines for its announcement that it will once again start requiring test scores as a part of applications. Some universities are even considering developing their own test to replace the ACT and SAT.

Regardless of which side your university takes on this debate, keep in mind that the goal is to provide equity to students while maintaining a rigorous, robust, and useful application system. Watch this space as more solutions and research come to light—things will no doubt be changing quickly in years to come.