Colleges, Don’t Ditch the SAT

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The University of California’s decision to stop using SAT and ACT scores in undergraduate admissions is a milestone for opponents of standardized testing. Given the UC system’s size and prestige, the move may pressure other elite schools to go test-blind as well. This will relieve anxiety for high school students and their families, but it won’t increase diversity on college campuses.

In recent years, hundreds of institutions have dropped requirements that applicants submit their SAT and ACT scores. In 2018, the University of Chicago, which admits just 8.7% of applicants, became the most selective school to do so. The coronavirus outbreak has prompted other elite colleges, including Harvard, to waive test scores for students applying for admission in 2021. The UC system, which enrolls 226,125 undergraduates, will remain “test-optional” through 2025, after which it will either replace the SAT and ACT with a test of its own or drop test performance as a selection criterion.

It’s indisputable that student performance on both the ACT and SAT is highly correlated with family incomes. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the mean combined reading and math score of students from households with incomes above $200,000 is more than 200 points (out of 1600) higher than of students whose families make $40,000 or less.

As well as attending better-resourced schools, affluent students are more likely to pay for test-preparation classes, take the tests multiple times in pursuit of higher scores, and receive special “accommodations” for extra time to finish exams. Colleges should take those advantages into account when reviewing students’ scores, but discarding test results altogether is a mistake.

For one, there’s no evidence that dropping test scores helps poor students. One study of 32 liberal-arts colleges that adopted test-optional admissions found no increase in the enrollment of low-income or minority students. Another found that black and Latino enrollment rose at 14 out of 23 test-optional schools — but only 11 out of 23 enrolled more students eligible for federal Pell Grants, which go to poor students regardless of race, and one-third saw those numbers decline. How come? One reason is that applications have gone up at test-optional schools — thus making those schools more selective, which can discourage qualified, low-income students from applying.

Also, dropping the SAT requirement makes it harder for colleges to compare applicants against a common standard. That heightens the importance of grades, extracurricular activities and how many Advanced Placement classes students take in high school — all of which, again, tilt the process more heavily in favor of richer candidates.

There are better ways to expand opportunities for high-performing, low-income students. Stricter rules against score-maximizing tactics that benefit the wealthy would help — such as limiting the use of “superscores” that allow students to submit their best scores on individual sections of the ACT, regardless of whether they earned them in a single test sitting. Colleges should try harder to recruit from high schools in poor and rural areas, which remain scandalously overlooked. And they should be more transparent about the cost of attendance for poor students, who are often unaware of the financial aid they’re eligible to receive.

A number of selective schools have begun making progress. Among the 131 member-institutions of the American Talent Initiative, a consortium focused on boosting access for low-income high achievers, two-thirds have increased the number of students receiving Pell Grants since 2018. Eighty percent continue to require undergraduate applicants to submit standardized-test scores. (The initiative is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.)

Standardized-test scores are flawed, but they remain an indispensable tool for evaluating student potential. Abandoning them as a criterion for college admissions won’t help poor students succeed.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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