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Standardized Testing Isn’t What’s Wrong with College Admissions

“Standardized testing is a form of eugenics,” declared a classmate in my legal studies class. We had been discussing the legacies of eugenics in the United States and how these harmful, pseudoscientific beliefs permeate our lives today. In response to the statement, other students began pointing to popular criticisms of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, arguing that they are riddled with racial biases that disproportionately elevate wealthy white students, while they disproportionately harm poorer students of color. Similarly, in another class entitled “Issues in Higher Education,” students largely agreed with our guest speaker Olufemi Ogundele, UC Berkeley’s director of undergraduate admissions, when he provided similar talking points about how scores on these tests are racially biased, and thus should not be included in the admissions process. 

Today, as it has been for a while in progressive environments, it’s popular to question and stand against the status quo. The media knows that stirring up controversy means more clicks, and public figures know that contentious beliefs get people talking. This is a healthy practice. But, like anything in excess, it can be harmful. Over the pandemic, many universities took it upon themselves to make standardized tests optional in their application processes. At first, it appeared to be out of mere convenience, as the CollegeBoard and ACT were largely shut down, holding only a limited number of tests nationwide. It was rendered unfair to expect applicants to submit scores given the pandemic’s constraints. Although many experts expected testing requirements to return as the pandemic died down, many schools used the temporary change as an opportunity to do the opposite, and express their own forward-thinking beliefs—that standardized tests are obsolete, and that scores are ultimately dictated by student’s wealth and status.

All of these opinions were backed by purportedly damning evidence: students from richer families score better on the SAT and ACT.  Progressives argued that students from richer families—because they have access to better overall education and test prep resources—are overwhelmingly advantaged over poorer, minority students. They propose omitting the ACT from the college admission process and instead argue that grades should be used to determine admission along with several other important factors like diversity and quality of essays. And while it is true that students from richer families do perform better on the SAT and ACT, this alone does not explain the problem, nor does removing standardized testing remedy the situation.

Back in 2020, multiple social justice-oriented organizations sued the University of California over its  “unlawful” use of  “discriminatory and meaningless” standardized tests for admission. Contrarily, in a comprehensive report spanning 228 pages, a University of California task force found that, more than grades, “standardized tests are the best predictor of first-year success, retention, and graduation.” The report determined that the “value of admission test scores in predicting college success has increased since 2007, while the value of grades has decreased.”  This runs contrary to one of the common arguments against standardized tests—that they aren’t practical predictors of success, while grades are. The data from the report tracks thousands of students who graduated between 2010 and 2012 from University of California campuses. 

While a majority of US colleges, universities, and education experts have proposed removing the test altogether, it is clear that this won’t resolve the issue. The problem with the public’s obsession with tearing down standardized testing is that it is completely misunderstood. The test itself is neither “discriminatory” nor “meaningless.” In his book “How to Be Antiracist,” Ibrahim X. Kendi calls the use of  standardized testing to measure “aptitude and intelligence” one of the “most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade black minds and exclude black bodies.” The problem with these overgeneralized inflammatory statements—especially in today’s tense political atmosphere—is that they mislead people and redirect people’s political focus onto the wrong things. While Kendi’s statement may be fair about standardized tests of the past, such as historic literacy tests that prevented Black people from voting in the South, his assessment that standardized testing today is underpinned by racism is just plain false.

Neither the ACT nor the SAT is an aptitude test. They are tests that evaluate a student’s verbal and quantitative reasoning skills. They are tests of achievement, of a student’s aggregate knowledge and ability from school. It is true that these tests have biased, discriminatory, pasts connected to eugenics. But the SAT has been remade time and time again over its 100-year lifespan. It looks nothing like it did. It became a test where students, by their own volition, could find strategies to succeed. 

Another popular argument used to discredit standardized tests is that wealthier people can purchase test prep materials and tutoring, giving them a significant advantage over those who cannot afford these resources. However, multiple studies conducted over the years have demonstrated that, despite test prep companies’ impressive claims, student scores are not significantly impacted by the implementation of tutors and test prep regiments. These findings should be looked at in conjunction with the recent college admissions bribery scandal, where wealthy, high-profile parents paid large sums of money to have capable adults take SATs and ACTs in place of their children, or correct their mistakes after the test. This surely demonstrates that, although on average wealthier students perform better on standardized tests, when it comes to top selective universities, test prep resources offer a very limited margin of improvement.

Instead of focusing on how standardized tests impact outcomes for students applying to highly competitive colleges that require scores in the upper echelon of the distribution, academic institutions and experts alike should be focusing on how well these tests do the job that they were intended to do—predict the success of students in college. Because, as it stands, they are successful in fulfilling this task for students of all races, classes, and genders. The score disparities between richer and poorer students are not because the tests are biased. Rather, the SAT and ACT provide critical evidence for the fact that poorer, often minority students, lack access to the lifetime of material, social, and educational experiences of their richer counterparts. These are systemic issues that stretch far beyond the scope of these tests.  

Progressive critics of standardized testing who characterize it as a means of subjugation are missing the point—a trend that has become commonplace in left-wing politics. These people aim to abolish and tear down institutional and social structures that they perceive as racist or promoting inequality. While their intentions are good, the problem with calling out and disbanding standardized testing is that it doesn’t yield positive social and economic outcomes for marginalized populations, nor does it make admissions “fairer.” Removing standardized testing to combat racial bias is like putting a bandaid over an infected wound. It may hide the infection from common view, but it does not address the fact that the infection still exists and may worsen.

Trying to hide indicators like the SAT and ACT that reveal inequity is doing a disservice to the truth. People should know that richer white students do better on standardized tests. Making this known forces us to wrestle with reality. In fact, wealthier white students tend to outperform Black and Hispanic students in nearly every criterion of college admissions: grades, extracurriculars, and quality of essays. So no, the SAT and ACT are not eugenics, nor are they constructed to benefit rich white people. These tests are the best way, as of right now, to evaluate students irrespective of the hundreds of other variables (many of which often have to do with environment, wealth, and social background) that impact a high schooler’s college applications. These subjective components of the application are just as, if not more, susceptible to manipulation by applicants from richer backgrounds who have guidance from counselors who tell them what volunteering to do, what clubs to join, and what to write about in their essays. 

All else being equal, when a student sits down to take an SAT or ACT, it is just them and the test.  Students must use their qualitative and quantitative skills to answer questions in a fixed period. Each question goes through rigorous bias and fairness testing so that they don’t give students from particular demographic advantages over others. Meanwhile, there is no anti-bias testing or standardization when different school districts enact new or different grading procedures that create great discrepancies in grades. Additionally, studies have shown that teachers exhibit racial biases in the classroom, primarily against students of color who tend to be suspended or punished at much higher rates than their white peers. 

Luckily, though, researchers are beginning to pick up on the absurdity that is canceling standardized testing. In March, MIT announced that it would be reintroducing standardized testing requirements beginning in the 2023 admissions cycle. Relying on information from the 2018 University of California task force and its own admissions data, MIT found that standardized testing allowed MIT to “better identify students from less-advantaged” backgrounds. MIT found that, like a majority of highly competitive institutions in the United States, removing standardized testing dramatically increased the size of its applicant pools. Harvard, for example, saw a 42% increase in applications as a result of the implementation of test-optional policies. Without needing the scores to back up their academic performances, many students, primarily white, saw an opportunity to apply and potentially gain admission to schools that were previously out of reach due to their lackluster test scores.  Removing standardized testing requirements makes it more likely that less-advantaged but well-prepared minority students are not noticed in these overcrowded pools. 

It is important to acknowledge that college admissions are competitive. Schools cannot accept everyone. That’s why it is important to return to the foundational question: what is the aim of the college or university? I would argue that it is to develop the world’s brightest minds so that they can build solutions to the world’s array of problems. I would also argue that the university aims to advance equity and improve relations between people of different races and classes. There is tension between these two aims, and it is up to the admissions departments of these universities to ensure that they are achieving both. It is no easy task to reconcile merit and equality of opportunity, as historical realities have placed certain burdens on poorer people of color that make it extraordinarily challenging to achieve the same level of success (academically and otherwise) as their privileged counterparts. 

While I am all for prioritizing historically oppressed groups, admissions officers must not remove merit from their processes. It is demoralizing for a person who is disadvantaged to attend a university where they are not prepared to succeed, just as it is demoralizing for a person who is held back by their race and socioeconomic status to not get into their dream university. A person can only do so much to escape the circumstances of their birth, for better or for worse. That said, the only way to create the sort of society where people can be fairly evaluated on merit, for example on tests like the SAT and ACT, is if underlying issues are addressed. Black struggles, over the last 403 years, have been generated by slavery, and subsequent racist policies like Jim Crowe and redlining, and more. These struggles have manifested in a culture that, for good reasons, distrusts and retaliates against historically white-dominated institutions. 

However, instead of burning the house down, we can investigate the results of these tests, and use them to ask questions: how do we ensure that Black and other minority students perform better on standardized tests? How can we eliminate real-life educational and experiential barriers that make poorer students less qualified for university? How can we make sure that all students have access to the resources that wealthy, predominantly white students do when they apply to colleges? These are all questions worth asking because they are constructive. Declaring something as racist doesn’t change anything in the material world; instead, these ad hominem attacks instill people with fear and combativeness, making nearly any progress towards a more equitable world impossible. So let’s face the inequalities that produce the score disparities in the SAT And ACT. Pretending that they aren’t there serves no one. 

Featured Image Source: Ed Source


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