Don’t Abandon College Admissions Tests!
Sean-Michael Pigeon, an undergraduate at Yale University, caught my attention with a recent op-ed in USA Today. It’s titled “Don’t blame the tests: Getting rid of standardized testing means punishing poor students.” Pigeon argues that colleges should keep using tests like the SAT, ACT, and CLT. Because by providing an objective benchmark, these exams give lower-income students a chance to stand out and impress.
It’s a provocative piece because one of the main arguments for eliminating entrance exams is that scores are highly correlated with household income. Lower income kids are scrambling to earn money in the summer. Rich kids pay top dollar for test prep courses and private tutors. Or they can afford to take the exams multiple times. Or if you’re really connected, you bribe people to take the test for you!
The Case for Eliminating Entrance Exams
That’s not the only argument against testing. High school grade point average is a better predictor of college completion than your SAT score. Why wouldn’t it be? A GPA is earned over four years, through patterns of discipline, initiative, and effort. An SAT or ACT score can be earned by a few weeks of cramming followed by one good morning. Doesn’t mean that over 4-5 years as a young adult — away from the watchful eye of Mom and Dad — you’ll care enough to come to class, do your homework, and actually graduate?
Another argument is that tests like the SAT and ACT are racist — that race predicts SAT/ACT test scores better than household income. There’s also evidence that the SAT was born with racist intentions to, among other things, keep Jews out of Ivy League Schools.
Even before COVID, colleges and universities were moving away from requiring entrance exams. By the Fall of 2019, about one in four colleges had already gone test optional. Including the prestigious University of Chicago. When COVID came, nobody was prepared to give admissions exams in an online format. That accelerated the trend away from the tests. Since the tests are typically taken by high school juniors, colleges dropped the requirement for the 2021-2022 academic year. Many have since extended this by a year. At this time, over half (55%) of all bachelor-degree granting schools in the U.S. have announced that they will not require the ACT or SAT through at least Fall 2022.
So Why Go Back?
So, when we’re done with COVID, will the exams make a comeback? What’s the case for keeping the tests? Is this one of those times when “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17)? According to Mr. Pigeon, yes.
If we ditch the tests, two things happen. High school grades start to matter more. And extracurricular activities matter more. Who do these trends benefit?
Let’s start with grades. There’s been big-time grade inflation in high schools, which means that As and Bs don’t mean what they used to. In 1990, the average high school GPA for women was 2.77. By 2009, it was 3.10. It was about a similar increase for men (from 2.59 to 2.90). Today, we also have a weighted GPA scale, where an A in an honors or Advanced Placement course will get you a 5.0, not a 4.0. But here’s the point: If everyone is bunched at the top, it becomes more difficult to differentiate.
What drives grade inflation? High schools competing with each other to boost their college acceptance rate, or to boost the selectivity of the colleges their kids get into. Now imagine what happens if we ditch college entrance exams. GPA starts to matter more. That increases the incentive for high schools to drive up their grade point averages.
Don’t get me wrong: Working hard in high school matters. I’m the last guy who will say I don’t care what grades a student earned. But the grades need to be meaningful. Standardized college entrance exams create an incentive to boost academic standards. Teach with rigor and your students will do better. They provide a check-and-balance against GPA. If a high school’s students consistently have low SAT or ACT scores, but high GPAs, something’s fishy.
Worried about the SAT favoring the rich? A greater emphasis on GPA does too. Higher income families are often more stable, allowing the kids more time and a better environment for studying, along with the money to hire tutors. Oh, and the elite prep schools that feed into the Ivies? They are the most likely to be ripe with grade inflation.
How about the extracurricular activities? These would also carry more weight if we ditched testing. That really favors the rich.
Who can afford to get their kid a top-flight violin instructor for 10 years? Or private dance lessons, leading to years of expensive travel to state-wide competitions? Who has the money to send their kid to Rome for the summer to become fluent in Italian? Or to Africa as a volunteer with an NGO, helping to start an orphanage? The wealthy. Lower income teens are far more likely to be trying to make money with their spare time. There’s no way they compete in the race for splashy extracurriculars.
But they can go to the library, check out some test-prep books, and work their tail off to master the basic academic skills that are measured by the college entrance exams. The English and reading sections might have a cultural bias, but it’s the math section that students find the hardest. If you come from poverty, but score a 700 in math, colleges will notice. Assuming we haven’t killed the SAT.
I appreciate the impulse to level the playing field. But it’s doubtful that eliminating standardized tests would accomplish that.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).