College admissions move away from standardized testing

April 29, 2021

Often considered an integral part of a student’s path, going to college is a common milestone in the experience of those deemed as ‘successful young adults.’ For decades, a crucial component of the college admissions process has been standardized exams like the SAT and ACT.

However, these tests have served as significant and disproportionate barriers in the college application process. Despite the inequities in these tests, many colleges have historically required and relied heavily on standardized test scores when evaluating whether students would be able to succeed at their college.

Senior Emelia Gauch said that in her experience, getting a good standardized test score has a lot to do with wealth. As someone who has gone through the college application process, Gauch said knowing the tricks and strategies for taking the SAT often makes a big difference in the score a student gets, but these important tricks and strategies are reserved for those who can afford SAT tutors or prep courses that can cost up to $6995.

The effect that wealth and access to tutor programs has on a student’s success on standardized tests is intertwined with the racial wealth gap and with other factors such as the stereotype threat and existing disparities in education. This combination of factors has led to Black, Hispanic and Latino, Pacific Islander and American Indian students performing less well on the SAT than White, Asian and Asian-American students.

In 2015, the mean score of white students on the SAT was 299 points higher than that of Black or African American students. SAT performance is also skewed by whether a student has dyslexia or not, their socioeconomic status and the education level of their parents.

Joan Casey, Founder and Lead Consultant at Educational Advocates College Consulting, said that having a poor SAT score has long been a substantial barrier for many students, prompting them to underestimate themselves and aim low.

“A student self-selects out if the school requires tests, and they look at the middle 50 percent, and they’re way below. They say, ‘I’m not going to apply there, I’m not going to get in,’” Casey said. “Whereas if the test is not an obstacle, and they have decent grades, they [can] qualify on other factors to apply to that school.”

The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB, now simply College Board) was founded in the 1920s in an effort to standardize the college admissions process. At the time, colleges were beginning to consider adapting intelligence tests being used in the military for their admissions process. The CEEB soon after developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT, to be used in college admissions.

Carl C. Brigham, the main designer of the SAT, viewed intelligence scores as proof of inferior intelligence among certain racial groups in his book, A Study of American Intelligence (1923). In reference to standardized tests, which were beginning to see more widespread use at this time, Brigham said, “(This) army data constitutes the first really significant contribution to the study of race differences in mental traits. They give us a scientific basis for our conclusions.” Brigham later renounced his claims when the College Entrance Examination Board made the SAT available in 1926.

Although its origins are steeped in explicit racism, the SAT has changed extensively since the 1920s to try and alleviate cultural biases that make it more white centric. In recent years, at least 12 professional test developers review each question and pretest it with a sample of students for fairness.

The purpose of this thorough research process for developing SAT questions is to ensure that colleges have a way of comparing students coming from vastly different high schools, Dean of Admissions and Enrollment at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) Lauren Wilshusen said.

“(It) was a way to level the playing field, acknowledging that students come from very different backgrounds. You have schools that are very rigorous, you have other schools that are less rigorous. Some students are taking APs, some students are taking honors. Perhaps the idea was if we have this standardized test, that’s a way for us to evaluate everyone on the same point,” Wilshusen said. “Knowing how your school grade is probably different then how my high school graded and every teacher might be nuanced in how they grade, so take all of that away and standardize it in a test.”

An important factor in many colleges’ application reviewing process is a students grade point average (GPA), as it allows them to quickly gain an overview of a prospective student. Relying heavily on a student’s GPA, however, is a challenge for college admissions because of the vastly different grading systems that high schools use, Assistant Head of School Hal Mason said.

“Grading systems are arbitrary. What a 3.7 means here is not the same thing that it means in Lexington or in Brighton high, so that part of the SAT is valuable,” Mason said.

However, according to Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) Program Coordinator, Amy Bayer, the “diamond in the rough” logic behind requiring standardized tests is flawed. Although standardized testing may seem like a good way for schools to find exceptional students in under-resourced areas, the test is too skewed by wealth and privilege to meaningfully provide any sort of equal playing field.

“What allowed a student to be able to do that kind of test well? There’s so many variables that go into that. Wealth is one of them, because if a student had the money to go to a Stanley Kaplan test prep course or (have) a tutor that specifically helped them learn test taking strategies, they’ve got an advantage that most kids don’t have,” Bayer said. “There’s just a lot of research that’s been done as to the nature of those tests not being particularly objective. There’s evidence that the way the questions are formed, that the language that’s used, there’s a lot of bias in who will do well. It’s troubling.”

Because of the substantial effect wealth and privilege have on standardized tests, Casey said that they are not a metric of how good a student is; instead they are an unnecessary and disproportionate barrier in college admissions.

“Many other schools that had gone test-optional realized it didn’t negatively impact the quality of the students that came to the school and how they did,” Casey said.

As schools began to realize this, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a slow-moving trend towards test optional admissions that was driven by data around standardized tests failing to predict student success in college.

“A lot of schools were test-optional before the pandemic. They all said that SATs and ACTs were not a good predictor of the students’ success in college, and that the best predictor there were the grades in high school,” Casey said.

In March of 2020, SAT and ACT tests were cancelled, students were stuck in their homes stressing over the unknown of what was next, and the world seemed to halt in almost every aspect. Standardized testing wasn’t available, and the burden of the pandemic seemed to be too much for schools to require submitting SAT or ACT scores. As a result, schools stopped requiring tests and what was a slow moving trend driven by equity, quickly exploded into a widespread change in college admissions prompted by immediate circumstance.

“Just to give you a sense, the year before the pandemic, 77 percent of students submitted test scores, and this year only 44 percent did overall (out of those) that use the Common Application,” Casey said.

College admissions post pandemic

As colleges and universities continue to be test optional in the wake of COVID-19, a question arises for prospective college students: will schools continue to be test optional, or is this only a reactive, short term change?

Casey said that most schools see the pandemic as an opportunity for reevaluating the value of standardized tests.

“A lot of (colleges) are pledging to stay that way, at least for this year, and some for next year too. I think some of them are seeing it as a pilot program to see if they’ll go test optional permanently, and then others have only committed to doing it for this year,” Casey said. “I think the test optional is here to stay. And so I think more and more schools will be test optional, and they’ll have the test-optional options permanent for the future.”

According to Wilshusen, colleges will have to consider many factors when deciding whether or not to remain test optional permanently. Changes to a college’s acceptance rate, yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who choose to commit to the college), and retention rate are all factors that will be closely monitored in the coming years, Wilshusen said. It will take time for any changes to become evident, so it will be difficult to know if going test optional has had any tangible impact on colleges in the near future.

Additionally, Mason said that colleges will have to rely more heavily on what they know about individual high schools when evaluating GPAs.

“They’re going to rely more on the reputation that schools have, based on the experience they have with students from that school,” Mason said.

Test blind schools, like MassArt where Wilshusen is the Dean of Admissions and Enrollment, do not factor in test scores at all when reviewing applications. Prior to that shift, they used standardized test scores along with a student’s GPA in their admissions process.

When converting to their current policy, Wilshusen said that those in admissions at MassArt had found that no longer including standardized test scores as a required component of applications did not cause a huge shift in how they viewed applicants. Wilshusen said one of the most interesting changes in admissions will be how the more selective universities will evaluate applicants if they don’t require standardized test scores.

“We thought that we’d really have to change how we evaluated students without having standardized test scores as one of the criteria. But we really didn’t,” Wilshusen said. “It was the same process. We took one of those criteria out, and it was something that was less important to us anyway, so we really didn’t have to change the way we made decisions. Our acceptance rate didn’t decline, our yield rate didn’t decline.”

An already visible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the college admissions process is the large increase in the number of applications schools are receiving. In a letter sent out on March 9, the Common App said that applications have increased 11 percent from the 2019-2020 school year, with over 6 million individual applications having been submitted through March 1.

Because more qualified candidates are now applying for the same number of spots, there has been a clear uptick in the use of waitlists and deferrals by colleges, college and guidance counselor Lenny Libenzon said.

“Schools are using the waitlist and deferrals a lot more than before,” Libenzon said. “They’re used to having 10,000 applicants (and) now it’s 20,000, so they’ll admit the same number as before and then they’ll place the remainder of the kids on the waitlist to see how many actually come.”

Libenzon also said that as more schools have gone test optional, guidance counselors have been able to advise students not to send scores if they are on the lower side, making it so that colleges will only be evaluating them on their grades.

A big reason many students choose not to submit test scores is because they feel as though their learning styles don’t necessarily lend themselves to the specific skills that standardized tests are designed to evaluate. For senior Niovi Rahme, it was reassuring when her guidance counselor said she could opt out of submitting test scores.

“I remember (talking to my guidance counselor),” Rahme said, “and I said, ‘I don’t think I can take (the SAT) and none of the schools I’m applying to are requiring it,’ and he said, ‘So why take it? There’s no reason to.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but-’ and he said ‘No. There’s no but. It’s going to put you through a ton of stress that you don’t need to go through unless you enjoy taking standardized tests, which you definitely don’t.’”

For guidance counselor Ellen Herz, the unpredictability caused by COVID-19 has led her to suggest that her students apply to more schools that they feel are less competitive and where students like them have historically gotten in.

“It’s just safer to make sure students have schools that they feel are not as competitive,” Herz said. “They have schools that they are happy with, but they just may not be as competitive. I always have done that in the past, but I’ve been much more vocal about it in the last year or so. I’ve been very pushy for students to get more on their lists.”

Regardless of whether colleges choose to remain test optional, the fate of standardized testing and the value that is placed on it remains in the hands of the consumers. While Bayer is doubtful that such a drastic shift in thinking is imminent in Brookline due to the immense pressure that is put upon students to do well on these tests, she hopes that the test optional shift due to COVID-19 will not be the end of the questioning of these exams.

“I just hope that this isn’t the end of the public, the consumers, wising up to it and questioning (standardized tests) more. (The end of them) looking at some of the inherent bias and racism in these tests and understanding how limited they are and how damaging they can be,” Bayer said.

Wilshusen echoed this sentiment, and hopes that colleges find that loosening the requirements of these tests open their communities to a wider range of students.

“I hope that institutions, even the really selective institutions, continue with being test optional,” Wilshusen said. “Schools like MassArt and other institutions that are test optional or test blind will tell you that you can evaluate students without it. You don’t need it to make a decision, and not requiring them and not looking at them in the process isn’t excluding anyone. It’s actually being more inclusive.”

Casey said that rethinking standardized testing in college admissions is a good start, but the inequalities in education run deeper than a biased test.

“I don’t think test optional alone is going to be the great equalizer to address inequities in our society about college access. I think it’s a little bit helpful, but I think we have a lot of work to do that would go way beyond test optional,” Casey said.

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