New Study Suggests Elite Colleges Should Reinstate SAT/ACT

The pandemic provided top colleges an opportunity to evaluate admissions without standardized tests. Should they go back to their old ways?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on January 30, 2024
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  • A Harvard-based study says high standardized test scores equate to greater academic success at Ivy-Plus colleges.
  • By contrast, high school GPAs have less predictive power.
  • Most highly selective colleges remain temporarily test-optional.
  • Emphasizing test scores can impede efforts to maintain economic and racial diversity.

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended higher education in 2020, one of the monumental changes was the widespread suspension of standardized testing.

Today, more than 1,900 colleges and universities remain test-optional. Of those, 84 are test-blind, meaning they not only don't require scores but also won't consider them if submitted.

Even the most highly selective colleges, for the most part, have been reluctant to reinstate standardized test requirements.

New evidence, however, suggests they might want to rethink their policies.

Test Scores More Predictive Than Grades

A new study from Opportunity Insights, a research group based at Harvard University, says standardized test scores have more "predictive power" for academic success in college than high school grade point averages do, particularly at highly selective institutions.

Using admissions records and first-year grades from several "Ivy-Plus" colleges between 2017 and 2022, the group determined that keeping all other variables equal, students who scored highest on the SAT and ACT earned college GPAs 0.43 points higher than those with more modest scores.

This is the same group that made a splash last summer when it revealed the extent to which students from wealthy families have a better chance of admission to Ivy-Plus colleges. Among applicants with the same SAT or ACT scores, students from the wealthiest 0.1% of families were more than twice as likely to get accepted.

Those same students were almost 15 times more likely than other students to achieve a score of 1,500 or better on the SAT.

By contrast, the study noted, high school GPAs do "little to predict academic success in college." Perhaps that's due in part to the rampant grade inflation that's been plaguing schools over the past decade.

The authors also found no evidence that wealthier students outperformed low-income students with similar test scores. Their college GPAs were "virtually identical." When controlled for race and gender, along with first-generation and legacy status, the results were the same: Academic performance aligns more with test scores than with grades.

At the same time, the study's authors didn't dismiss the advantages wealthier students have when it comes to standardized testing.

"It is important to acknowledge that students from low-income families and other less advantaged backgrounds have lower standardized test scores and are less likely to take the test than students from higher-income families," the study noted.

"This fact is consistent with those presented above because of disparities experienced throughout childhood, including differences in school quality, neighborhood exposure, and many other environmental conditions."

Most Elite Colleges Remain Test-Optional

This study comes as most highly competitive colleges remain on the fence regarding standardized testing.

Among the Ivy-Plus schools — the Ivy League plus the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago — only MIT has reinstated the test requirement.

Columbia made headlines last year when it announced it would remain test-optional permanently, becoming the first Ivy school to plant that stake in the ground. The University of Chicago went test-optional in 2018, just before the pandemic forced such decisions.

MIT says its policy change promotes opportunity and inclusion and isn't simply a tool for weeding out applicants who fall short of their lofty quantitative standards.

"Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT," the Institute wrote in a statement. "We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy."

Its Cambridge neighbor, Harvard, will remain test-optional at least until the class of 2031 applies.

Meanwhile, highly competitive schools in the University of California system, such as Berkeley and UCLA, are test-blind thanks to the system's policy change in 2021. The Cal State system followed suit shortly thereafter.

And in stark contrast to archrival MIT, Caltech is "test-free" through at least 2025.

"Caltech does not consider SAT or ACT testing," its website states. "Period. Exclamation mark. Don't send it. We won't see it."

Weighing Predictive Power Against Diversity Gains

Could this study's findings sway those elite colleges still considering whether to reinstate standardized tests?

On one hand, proof that test scores accurately predict success in college, judging by first-year grades at any rate, and do so far better than high school GPAs lends validity to the test itself and credibility to the argument in favor of resuming test requirements.

On the other hand, emphasizing test scores and striving to enroll an economically and racially diverse student body can be mutually exclusive.

A 2015 College Board analysis determined students from families earning less than $20,000 scored lowest on the SAT. Learners from families earning more than $200,000 scored highest. Wealthier students often benefit from expensive test-prep services designed to boost scores, an advantage even the College Board acknowledges.

What's more, standardized tests have long been accused of racial bias, a claim affirmed in 2010 by the Harvard Educational Review.

"The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results," the study noted. "All admissions decisions based exclusively or predominantly on SAT performance … appear to be biased against the African American minority group."

When the pandemic hit and selective colleges suspended test requirements, more low-income and underrepresented minority students applied to selective colleges and enrolled, following pre-pandemic patterns established among test-optional institutions.

In a 2021 American Educational Research Journal article, Christopher Bennett noted that the adoption of test-optional policies at selective private institutions from 2005-2016 resulted in a first-time enrollment increase of 3-4% for Pell Grant recipients and of 10-12% for Black, Latino/a, and Native American students.

Another study, titled "Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works," examined 28 public and private test-optional colleges. The authors found that almost all institutions saw an increase in underrepresented minority applicants after going test-optional. Of all schools involved in the study, two-thirds saw a rise in enrollment among this group.

This phenomenon applies to highly selective colleges as well. When the University of Chicago announced its test-optional decision, James Nondorf, the university's dean of admissions and vice president of enrollment and student advancement, said the move "levels the playing field" for first-generation and low-income students.

Will Test-Optional Policies Become Permanent?

Given the controversy around testing bias and the democratizing effects of test-optional policies, will colleges forever abandon their reliance on the SAT and ACT?

Some think they should. At UCLA, admissions officials say eliminating the SAT has had little impact on their ability to assess students. They instead focus more on high school grades and class rank.

"Those ... factors are sufficient to make a decision," Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA's vice provost for enrollment management, told the Los Angeles Times. "I hope this is a new wave of the future for lots of institutions."

Others aren't so sure. Even the test-optional University of Chicago believes standardized tests add value to the admissions process. It tells applicants that because "one school can be very different from another, it is sometimes useful to see evidence of academic achievement that exists outside of the context of your school."

The university encourages students who have taken the SAT or ACT to submit their scores if they think the results reflect their ability and potential.

Of course, students scoring well on the tests are more likely to submit scores to boost their chances of admission. Perhaps that's why the Opportunity Insights study found that students opting not to submit scores achieve relatively lower college GPAs.

As Ivy-Plus and other elite colleges consider the future of the SAT and ACT, this new study offers a strong endorsement in favor of reinstatement, suggesting that "standardized test scores may have more value for admissions processes than previously understood in the literature, especially for highly selective colleges."

Yet this endorsement might fail to convince admissions offices already struggling to maintain diversity in light of the Supreme Court's ban on race-conscious admissions. Despite their predictive power, if standardized tests constitute one more barrier underrepresented students must overcome, the chances that selective colleges reinstate test requirements could remain slim.

And as politicians and watchdog groups such as Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case, continue to scrutinize elite colleges for evidence of racial preferences, standardized tests offer a quantifiable way critics can claim discrimination.

"They can say, 'Why did you admit this kid of one race who has a 1,400 when you rejected this kid of another race who has a 1,500?'" said The New York Times' David Leonhardt on the podcast "The Daily." "Whereas a system without standardized tests is just fuzzier, it's more subjective, and it potentially creates less legal jeopardy for colleges."