There was a bit of good news for high school students across the country last month: The College Board announced that it plans to nix the SAT’s optional essay section and subject tests, which have long added fees and headaches for college applicants. The move comes amid a rapidly changing world of college admissions, as colleges have been rethinking the role of standardized tests in their applications — with some reducing the weight they carry and others scrapping them entirely. And, as a result of testing sites shutting down because of the pandemic, three-quarters of colleges chose to temporarily forgo testing requirements for this year’s admissions process.
The pandemic disruption, unwelcome as it may be for schools, creates the opportunity for colleges to run a natural experiment to learn how to make their admissions processes more fair and rigorous. They should carefully monitor how classes admitted without traditional testing do compared with other student cohorts, and use the results to inform decisions about their college admission practices in the future. By closely tracking the performance of their next few undergraduate classes, schools can see whether they can (or should) make standardized tests optional in their applications or remove them entirely.
Undergraduate colleges have been tinkering with their admissions systems for decades, trying to find the right combination of high school grades, test scores, and other traits to evaluate applicants. Although standardized tests like the AP and SAT can level the field in one respect — providing a way for the proverbial diamond in the rough to catch the attention of admissions officers — they skew it in other ways. SAT test scores for Black and Latino students, for example, often significantly trail those of white students — in some cases by nearly 100 points per section — and students from wealthier families tend to get the best results. A thriving test-prep industry helps those students who can afford the classes prepare for the tests. And though the College Board maintains that its tests are fair and that the score gap is reflective of an unequal society rather than the tests themselves, there is also some evidence that racial bias is baked into the test’s design.
SAT and ACT requirements may also be deterring some prospective students from applying to selective colleges. Many schools that dropped testing requirements this year, including competitive state colleges and elite private universities, saw an application surge. Cornell University, for example, had 17,000 more applicants than it did last year, which contributed to an uptick in applications from Black, Hispanic, low-income, and first-generation students.
This is not to say that there is no place for standardized tests when it comes to evaluating college applicants, or that what works for top-tier universities with huge admissions offices is necessarily feasible for every institution. As evidence produced in a recent lawsuit against Harvard showed, elite universities can and already do consider a huge range of factors, including subjective assessments of applicants’ characters. But not every university can bring those kinds of resources to bear on assessing students, and such determinations are also vulnerable to racial bias. And while competitive public and private colleges saw a rise in applications this year, small public and private schools with high acceptance rates experienced a slight dip in their total number of applicants.
Some schools, like UMass Amherst, are already going test-optional for at least three years. While the pandemic has imposed unprecedented challenges and financial hardships on institutions of higher education, its impact on admissions can quickly be turned into an opportunity to create fairer and more equitable campuses.
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