How Standardized Testing Impacts Students of Color

Standardized tests are common factors in college admissions. Learn how standardized testing impacts students of color.

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.

Updated August 17, 2022

Reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

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How Standardized Testing Impacts Students of Color
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Statistically, students of color typically score lower than white students on standardized tests. Family income can impact a student's ability to afford tutoring support, purchase practice tests and study books, and pay to take standardized tests multiple times.

These preparatory resources play a major role in how students perform on standardized tests. Families of color average lower incomes than white families, highlighting the racial wealth gap that further impacts standardized testing scores.

Recent increases in the number of colleges and universities shifting their admissions process away from standardized test scores have opened up a more holistic approach to admissions.

The historically critical factor of standardized testing in college admissions has received pushback in recent years, particularly for its impact on students of color. How do race, income, and test scores affect college admissions for students of color?

Bias in Standardized Testing

Gabriel Gampala started his college admissions process in the months before his final year of high school.

Writing admissions essays and planning for standardized tests became a family endeavor. Both of Gampala's parents dove into the process with him, searching for the school that matched his higher education plans.

"As a purebred Indian, it was apparent that the odds were stacked against me in terms of competition," Gampala said, in regards to the college admissions process. "Most of my peers were part of a shared demographic so it was especially hard to stand out among the masses."

"As a purebred Indian, it was apparent that the odds were stacked against me in terms of competition."

The SAT and ACT are the most common standardized tests used for undergraduate college admissions in the U.S. The ACT is stated to measure knowledge, as compared to the SAT's focus on aptitude for learning.

Both the SAT and ACT have a history of scoring gaps based on race. Standardized tests, according to reports, were developed as a method to showcase white superiority over non-whites in the United States. These tests were used to classify individuals in school, the military, and job placement.

Over time, standardized tests became commonplace in college and university admissions processes. Today, these tests continue to hold underlying bias even as they are screened for more obvious forms of bias.

Sandy Epstein, a certified college counselor, considers more specifically how students of color are impacted when it comes to standardized testing.

"While there exists some cultural and racial bias in the way standardized tests are written, most academics believe the strongest link between performance on the SAT or ACT is what economic group the student belongs to, rather than racial or ethnic group."

"That is to say," Epstein continues, "students from lower-income families have fewer dollars to spend on test prep courses and materials than more affluent students. And those who are better prepared for the SAT and ACT statistically better perform on the tests."

Test-Optional Colleges

The 2020 global shutdown, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, had an impact on most aspects of our lives. In higher education, this included standardized testing and college admissions processes.

The College Board canceled hundreds of test dates for thousands of students nationwide. Options for students to take an SAT or ACT test were limited. Colleges had to adjust to new admissions requirements.

In fall 2021, as Gampala sat down to write his Common App essay, the college admissions process had already changed significantly from years prior.

"The one positive thing that came out of the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 was that colleges and universities were forced to go test-optional that year because the SAT and ACT were canceled," Epstein said.

"While there were already some smaller liberal arts colleges that were test-optional … the pandemic forced all of the colleges and universities to allow students to apply without test scores," she added.

While COVID-19 restrictions opened the door for changes to college admissions, not all schools stayed with test-optional policies.

"Some institutions have kept the test-optional policy in place for now, while others … have already returned to the pre-pandemic requirement of students needing an SAT or ACT score to apply," Epstein notes.

Online Standardized Testing

For Gampala, "the actual experience of college admissions was definitely not clear of stress." Despite COVID-19 altering how some schools consider standardized tests in their admissions processes, the long-standing requirement still plays a role in student success.

College applicants must embrace essay writing and often lengthy applications. Some schools also require letters of recommendation, entrance exams, and interviews with administrators.

"Standardized testing was an interesting experience for me. I took a prep course the summer before my junior year in hopes of getting a high score on my SAT. But due to the pandemic, it moved online."

For Gampala, the online format of standardized testing was not a great match. "I believe that the switch to an online format slightly hindered my performance as there were many distractions that may have taken away from my learning experience."

"Dedicating time to practicing was difficult because staying exclusively at my house had me exclusively staring at a screen all day, and it wasn’t ideal for me," Gampala notes.

Many leaned into other facets of their application instead of test scores. And now, some students seek out colleges without standardized testing requirements altogether.

Choosing a Standardized Test

"After hearing of a few people doing exceptionally well on the ACT, I decided to give it a try as a final effort to improve my score," Gampala shares.

"I studied long hours after completing my homework and took many practice tests in the two weeks leading up to the exam. I thought it was relatively difficult but was surprised to see the scores I was looking for."

Understanding which test meets your needs can prove difficult. Students of color, specifically students in lower-income families, may have limited opportunities to take practice tests to better understand which test is best for their needs. Practice tests can also help increase comfort with a test's style of questions.

"One thing I do regret is not trying out both tests earlier, as I would’ve figured out which test worked better for me."

Gampala's sentiment reflects a common issue in the realm of standardized testing. Not all students have the same opportunities to access test prep tools, including the financial resources to find their footing.

"Overall, though the process was strenuous … with the right support and mindset, anyone can come on the other side of college admissions with their head held high."

Whether students have access to these necessary supports can determine their college admissions success.

Frequently Asked Questions About Standardized Testing

When did standardized testing start?

The first college entrance exams were administered in 1901. Education leaders have been discussing standardized testing for college admissions since the 1830s. By the 1930s, hundreds of standardized tests existed. And they became requirements for various levels of education.

In 1917, the U.S. military began using standardized tests to evaluate recruits and its newest members. Standardized tests became commonplace throughout the 1900s and into the 2000s. Today, while still common, standardized testing is not the only measure of performance and ability.

What do standardized tests measure?

Standardized tests measure a person's knowledge of a topic or their ability to learn new information in a subject area. These types of tests are used in schools and across various professions.

Hundreds of standardized tests exist, each measuring some form of understanding. Standardized tests do not necessarily measure what has been taught, but rather what someone can recall in a testing environment.

Are standardized tests effective?

Standardized tests' ability to measure a person's knowledge of a topic or ability to understand concepts has been debated since the tests' inception. Some people question their ability to accurately measure understanding or determine a person's future success.

Regardless of debate, the goal of standardized testing is to showcase knowledge and readiness to step into a new academic or career level.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Sandy Epstein, College Counselor

Sandy Epstein, College Counselor

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Sandy Epstein attended the UCLA School of Law. She then practiced corporate and tax law before working in the entertainment field. After about 10 years, Epstein became a full-time mom before transitioning into work as an Independent educational consultant. She specializes in helping families find the right schools for their children. Epstein returned to school and obtained her UC certificate of college counseling and has been a full-time college counselor ever since.

Having conducted hundreds of admissions interviews for the University of Pennsylvania — one year alone she did 113 interviews! — Epstein knows what the top schools are looking for in applicants. She works with each student on every facet of the application process, including brainstorming essay topics, editing essays, choosing majors, and overseeing the submission of the applications.