The University of Chicago’s recent decision to go test-optional got me thinking: what if Bob Shaeffer over at FairTest got his wish, and the SAT and ACT were not merely made optional but flat out abolished? Let’s assume – as seems reasonable – that the rest of the system would remain unchanged.
So picture it: a world in which every one of an elite college’s 50,000+ applicants (or more) would be judged entirely on his or her specific merits, as a totally unique and authentic individual, and given full and complete consideration unmarred by input from the ACT or the College Board.
Wouldn’t that the result be a better system, a fairer system, a system that no longer punished disadvantaged students who couldn’t afford expensive test prep classes?
Whatever merit anti-testing arguments may have, I confess that I don’t understand how an even more subjective admissions process could possibly produce greater equity on a systemic level. Socioeconomic factors underlie so many aspects of the admissions process that eliminating standardized testing would do little to eliminate wealthy students’ overall advantage. So when people call for the broad implementation of test-optional policies, if not the outright abolition of standardized tests, I wonder whether they’ve actually thought through what the consequences would look like, on a practical level.
It’s fair to assume, for example, that an admissions process devoid of SAT/ACT scores would be much more heavily reliant on transcripts. But here, too, well-off students are better off. Not only do they have access to more advanced classes, but they also have higher grades.
According to a 2017 College Board report:
The grade-point average of students at private high schools who took the SAT climbed between 1998 and 2016 from 3.25 to 3.51, or almost 8 percent…
In suburban public high schools it went from 3.25 to 3.36.
In city public schools, it hardly budged, moving from 3.26 to 3.28.
Now obviously, the College Board has a more than a small stake in ensuring colleges’ continued acceptance of the SAT, but that bias alone should not by itself invalidate the findings.
So if anti-testing logic is applied here, since grades correlate with income, does it then follow that grades should be abolished as well?
If private school students have higher GPAs than public school students, should private schools be abolished?
And if AP scores happen to correlate with income, does that mean AP tests should be eliminated as well?
Interestingly, I looked around, and I’ve actually been unable to find a general breakdown of scores by income level; the stats floating around focus on either access levels or passing levels; students with 3s, 4s, and 5s all get lumped together, perhaps so that the College Board can duck the sort of allegations that dog the SAT. Frankly, though, it would be astounding if there weren’t a direct correlation between income and actual scores. Now that’s a study I’d really like to see!
There’s also the fact that private schools are notorious for devising their own grading systems, in no small part to impede comparisons between their students to public school riffraff. Andover (which sent 16 students from the class of 2017 to Harvard) grades on a 1-6 scale, for example; St. Paul’s grades on a scale of 1-7; Kinkaid (Houston) grades on 1-11.
And let’s not even get into the proposed Mastery Transcript, which replaces letter/number grades with “competency-based” levels of proficiency, e.g., Analytical and Creative Thinking” and “Leadership and Teamwork.” This is the ultimate in replacing knowledge with “skills.” It was proposed by a group of…you guessed it, elite private schools.
One point that often gets overlooked is that high-priced tutoring is not limited to prep for required standardized tests. Private school students are also more likely to have access to high-priced general academic tutoring, as well as tutoring for AP exams. Even if the SAT and ACT were abolished, does anyone seriously think that students’ transcripts wouldn’t still benefit from $250/hr. help in calculus?
And what about parents who are able to tutor their children for physics class, or ones who can edit their papers to the point of perfection? Grades, unlike test-scores, can also be affected by purely subjective measures such as extra credit and parental willingness to lobby for things like test retakes and greater weight for class participation.
When I tutored, I actually encountered wealthy students who had been tutored in almost every subject for pretty much their entire school careers. In one truly over-the-top case, the parents hired tutors to simply sit and do the student’s homework for him. To be sure, these are isolated anecdotes, as well as very extreme examples (even by Manhattan standards), but students in that income bracket are also disproportionately represented in the applicant pools at top schools.
Then, of course, there’s the essay, perhaps the area most ripe for “help” that crosses a line. In the absence of test scores, it would undoubtedly take on additional weight. And no, regardless of what admissions officers claim, they cannot always tell when applicants’ work is not truly their own. The same goes for video-based projects a student might submit. (A friend mentioned to me that while out walking in her upper-middle-class neighborhood recently, she saw a company advertising video help for college applicants. As if no one saw that coming.)
Colleges also have their financial bottom line to consider: the reality is that all but the very wealthiest institutions are “need-aware,” giving an outright advantage to full-pay students as the number of places in the freshman class decreases. And let’s face it: almost no private college can afford to accept a class in which 90% of students require a full scholarship to attend. 15% is one thing; three-quarters or more is something very different.
In addition, the corollary to application inflation (which would undoubtedly increase yet further if scores were no longer requirement) is enrollment instability, and schools need to take steps to protect their yield.
One way that colleges accomplish this is to accept large percentages of their applicants Early Decision, a practice that by and large benefits advantaged applicants. Even if a college can commit to meeting full financial need, the reality is that to be competitive, ED applicants must essentially be “set” academically, extracurricularly, etc. by the beginning of senior year, which in turns tends to require strong advising – something that less privileged applicants are, on the whole, less likely to have access to.
In terms of yield, privileged applicants are also advantaged by attending schools that have a history sending students to a particular college, and where guidance counselors – who may even have worked as admissions officers at elite colleges – can ensure admissions offices that they will actively lobby for admits to attend. To me, the open circulation between college admissions offices and prep school counseling offices is one of the most scandalous aspects of the admissions process, but it is almost never mentioned.
On the flipside, a student with a similar profile – but no scores – from a school that rarely or never sends graduates to that college will be viewed as something of a wild card and may be less likely to gain admission.
Colleges barely have the capacity to manage the tens of thousands of applications they are already receiving – what would they do with twenty or thirty thousand more? Admissions officers are only human: they would take shortcuts and make snap judgments, and their biases would inevitably creep into the process even more so than they already do.
(As a side note, I think there’s a common assumption that top private schools give the biggest boost to kids applying to the most selective colleges, but I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate – some of those kids are such clear admits that they would get in to Harvard, Stanford, etc. regardless of where they went to high school. The real benefit is often for the kids below the very top, the ones who might get lost in a big public high school but whom a savvy counselor can help finagle into Hamilton or Lehigh or USC.)
Then there’s the demonstrated-interest factor, which also gives a lift to applicants who can do things like visit campus and sit in on classes. (More time on campus = more specific “why this school?” essays, which in turn signals likelihood of attendance, which becomes an advantage in terms of yield protection.) Plus recommendations, which are generally far more in-depth and personal for private-school applicants, who have smaller classes and more opportunities to develop strong relationships with teachers.
There are also sports such as fencing, squash, and crew, in which achievement – indeed, participation – is highly correlated with income. (A cursory glance at the varsity crew rosters at any Ivy reveals a disproportionate concentration of students from a small set of New England prep schools, along with select institutions in Canada and Australia.) Yet it’s pretty safe to assume that admissions committees aren’t sitting around worrying about the fact that some students’ athletic achievements might be in part due to the type of private coaching other students can’t afford. And no one would seriously propose that colleges halt athletic recruitment in high-income sports because the process penalizes disadvantaged applicants.
While the anti-testing crowd may like to cite a single infamous (and incredibly outdated) analogy question about regattas and oarsmen as proof of the SAT’s bias, the supreme irony is that every year, colleges continue to give a massive admissions tip to actual prep school rowers.
Oh, and what about legacy admissions? Presumably those will stick around too.
I could keep going on like this, but I think I’ve made my point.
These are all systemic disadvantages that permeate every aspect of the holistic admissions process. In this context, standardized test scores are only one piece of a much larger picture.
In contrast, required standardized testing is an easy scapegoat: it’s boring (arguably the most egregious sin in American culture); it is based on the assumption that applicants can be directly compared academically according to a single common metric, a notion that flies directly in the face of Romantic/progressive dogma; and it has an unfortunate tendency to expose the extent to which students’ grades have been inflated (although this is less true since the SAT redesign).
Thus, the fact that some students are able to raise their scores through expensive tutoring becomes justification for eliminating the sole more or less objective measure used in the entire application process, while ignoring the mountain of iniquities contained in its more subjective aspects – not to mention the reality that some disadvantaged students are able to achieve high test scores on their own.
To be clear, though: even if more schools do go test-optional – which, given the expected decline in the number of high school graduates, is probable – it is extraordinarily unlikely that the SAT and the ACT will disappear anytime soon. Too many universities use test scores as prerequisites for scholarships, and from a practical standpoint, colleges need some way of winnowing down all those tends of thousands of applicants. And to date, only one school has ever explicitly told applicants not to submit test scores (a policy that has since been reversed): tiny Sarah Lawrence College – not exactly a typical school.
The bottom line is that colleges will do what suits their needs. If they think that going test-optional will yield them the applicants they want, they will do so; and if they decide that there is some advantage in continuing to require particular exams from all applicants, then they will continue to do so as well. In other words, it’s about them – not you.