For the first time in half a century, the University of California will admit thousands of high school seniors who did not take the SAT or ACT. With the coronavirus pandemic impeding students' ability to safely sit for the exams, many colleges — including the California system's public universities as well as elite private schools such as Yale, Cornell, and the University of Chicago — announced they'd forgo the testing requirement.
This came as welcome news to critics of standardized testing, who have long denounced the SAT and ACT as being racist, irredeemably biased, and poor at predicting collegiate success. Add to that the surge in the number of college applications this past fall once the tests were abandoned — Harvard alone received 42 percent more applicants than in a normal year — and the future of the tests doesn't look bright.
My organization has been preparing low-income students to take the SAT since 2013. I take the tests myself on the three occasions a year that adults are allowed to do so. Those experiences — and eight years' worth of data we've gathered on test-takers — have convinced me that, despite their flaws, standardized tests are a vital tool for low-income students and students of color seeking to earn admission to elite colleges and universities. What's more, the tests can be mastered, and that process can help students from underresourced schools strengthen their critical thinking skills as well as their content-related educational chops.
Initially, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds find standardized tests to be mysterious and impenetrable. But as they practice taking the test, they improve — and not just their overall scores. As they master more of the SAT math questions, they learn math basics they may have missed in the classroom; as they improve their scores on the reading comprehension part, they become better readers. Test prep helps them hone their critical thinking skills, fill knowledge gaps, and manage test anxiety, while eliminating many of the imperceptible barriers that keep low-income students from educational success. By the end of three weeks, my students typically improve their SAT scores by 130-180 points (the single highest score improvement was 710 points!) and have built a solid foundation for future educational success.
That's not reason enough, perhaps, to keep standardized testing. But there's another factor: selective colleges often use the tests as a gauge of a student's ability to complete a four-year degree. Just months before the University of California system made the tests optional, a UC task force found that the elimination of the test requirement would deny automatic entry to 40 percent of African-American students and more than 25 percent of low-income and first-generation students admitted to UC. Standardized tests, in other words, are their ticket to a four-year degree and a brighter future.
The same test score-based sorting takes place at private colleges and universities. "If the student can't break a combined 1000 on the SAT," an elite college admissions officer once told me, "no matter how much support we give, that student is unlikely to graduate." The inverse of her statement is also true: A student who can match or surpass that score is much more likely to complete their degree. In its concreteness, the test can signal to an admissions officer that a student has the raw material she/they/he needs to thrive in a four-year college setting.
Indeed, the less we rely on standardized testing, the more unequal higher education is likely to become. And the most worrisome aspect of that reality is that the change will largely escape the notice of those who don't work with underserved populations. Here's why: Elite institutions like the Ivies have admission quotas for members of historically underrepresented, socioeconomically marginalized groups (primarily Black and Latinx). By scoring above 1000 on the SAT, low-SES students show that they are "college-ready" and can succeed at a highly selective institution. If we take away one of the few avenues these students have to demonstrate their mettle and readiness to undertake a rigorous academic program, my students' odds of attending an Ivy or other elite institution are going to go down, not up. If test scores are eliminated from the equation, those schools will simply take kids who tick off a particular race or ethnic box — and many will be international students who can afford full tuition. Very few people look at the number of Pell-eligible students a college accepts/graduates, but that's where you'll see the change.
Elite institutions are not wrong to think that students from underserved schools struggle more than students from well-resourced schools. They know — and our partner organizations know — that students from underserved schools often are four to six grade levels behind their better-resourced peers and can struggle with significant content gaps. It can be particularly hard for underserved students to hit the ground running in freshman year (something all would-be STEM majors must do). Many need some remediation or time to adjust to an unstructured academic workload that's far more demanding than what they experienced in high school. An SAT score of 1000 is enough for Harvard to take a chance on such a student. Without that score, and given the grade inflation that prevails at many underserved high schools, Harvard has no reliable way of knowing which students are (and are not) likely to persist.
Standardized testing's many outspoken critics point to the tests as a symptom of a racially biased system, which they are: underresourced schools do a poor job prepping primarily Black and Latinx students for college. Standardized tests correctly diagnose that failure, but that doesn't mean we should throw away the tests; instead, we should focus on fixing the unequal educational system.
In making the test the enemy rather than focusing on fixing the problem, critics also overlook the ways in which standardized tests can help reduce systemic inequities as a key to privilege: higher college graduation rates are correlated with greater college selectivity, which is correlated with higher SAT scores, which means that raising Black and Latinx kids' SAT scores (those most affected by undermatching) and getting them into an Ivy or other elite institution is both a path to graduation and — through lower student debt, higher post-graduation salaries, and the power of college networks/name recognition — a more economically secure future.
Despite their many failings, standardized tests are among the most powerful levelers in society and, if approached with a clear understanding of their benefits as well as shortcomings, can help us close the all-too-persistent opportunity gap in higher education. The answer is not to throw them away, but to keep them and invest more in preparing students —all students — to excel in the skills they measure.
Alyssa Bowlby is co-founder and executive director of the Yleana Leadership Foundation.