The Future of College Entrance Exams

The Future of College Entrance Exams
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on May 27, 2021

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A growing number of colleges will omit SAT and ACT testing from admission requirements. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions adopted a test-optional policy. Now, several colleges, including the large University of California system, plan to remove ACT and SAT scores from consideration in all admission and financial aid decisions.

The nearly 300,000 students enrolled at UC schools — one of the largest public university systems in the U.S. — represent the biggest pool of SAT/ACT test-takers. Like many colleges nationwide, the UC system decided to drop its testing requirement for fall 2020 to accommodate applicants whose exams were canceled due to COVID-19.

Now, in response to long-standing criticism of standardized testing, the UC system is making the change permanent. UC's decision comes as part of a legal settlement with students and advocacy groups who argue that standardized tests place an unfair disadvantage on already disadvantaged students.

More schools are following suit. A coalition of colleges in Washington state plan to go test-optional. The City University of New York won't require prospective students to take the SAT or ACT to be admitted through spring 2023. And the governor of Colorado just signed a law that prohibits public colleges and universities in the state from considering SAT/ACT scores for incoming first-year students.

Imperfect Solutions to Unfair College Admissions Tests

Critics of standardized testing say the practice puts low-income, Black, and Latino/a students at an even greater disadvantage in the college admissions process. Socioeconomic status is strongly correlated to test scores, which suggests that the SAT and ACT act as barriers to social mobility.

According to data from the College Board — the organization that administers the SAT — SAT scores are highest for white and Asian students and test-takers whose families make over $200,000 per year. Scores are lowest for Black, Native American, and Latino/a students, as well as for test-takers whose families make less than $20,000.

SAT scores are highest for white and Asian students, and lowest for Black, Native American, and Latino/a students.

In early 2019, the College Board announced it would add an "adversity score" to test-takers' SAT reports. Intended to account for educational and socioeconomic hardships, such as high crime rates and poverty levels in students' neighborhoods, the idea was ultimately scrapped after receiving harsh criticism.

Some feel the College Board's adversity score didn't address the real issue. Expensive test prep is a major factor in earning high scores, but so is feeling comfortable in exam settings. The prep for and delivery of existing college entrance exams disadvantage students of color, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities.

While first-year applicants at UC and other schools may not have to report SAT/ACT scores going forward, they may have other tests to take. UC plans to use the next few years to explore creating an original admissions test, slated for 2025. The College Board argues that school-specific testing would create an even greater barrier for applicants by requiring more labor per application, leading them to apply to fewer schools.

Pandemic Spurs an SAT Overhaul

The College Board has said it supports "introducing more flexibility and choice" in making the SAT and ACT optional, but contends that using SAT scores enables students to stand out and can increase diversity at institutions.

A UC-commissioned task force discovered that admissions tests provide another metric of merit, helping low-income and minority applicants who may be unable to get in on grades alone.

While standardized tests have drawn criticism for promoting class bias, research suggests written essays are where wealthy students get ahead in admissions. A study of 240,000 admissions essays compared students' essays, reported household incomes, and SAT scores, and found that essay content had a stronger correlation to income than test scores.

A study of 240,000 admissions essays found that essay content had a stronger correlation to income than SAT scores.

Citing the pandemic as a catalyst, the College Board announced major changes to the SAT, one of which addresses the issue of the essay. Starting this year, there will no longer be a 50-minute essay (made optional in 2016) or SAT Subject Tests. Additionally, a digital SAT, designed for flexibility and access, is in the works.

While SAT scores are strongly linked to income and race, they're also solid predictors of college success. A report on UC students found that "a student admitted with a low SAT score is between two and five times more likely to drop out after one year, and up to three times less likely to complete their degree compared to a student with a high score."


Feature Image: kali9 / E+ / Getty Images

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