Is it time for colleges to drop the SAT and ACT?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Colleges in the University of California system were barred from considering SAT and ACT test scores in undergraduate admissions by a judge who ruled that its “test optional” policy unfairly disadvantaged applicants with disabilities, who may not have had the opportunity to take the tests safely during the pandemic.

Though the ruling only applies to schools in the UC system, more than 400 colleges in the U.S. have made SAT and ACT scores optional for applicants this year after testing centers were shuttered because of the coronavirus. The UC’s shift to “test optional” was part of a plan established in May to completely stop using the tests over the next five years.

The shift from requiring the tests was in motion before the pandemic hit. Hundreds of schools had gone “test optional” prior to this year. A small number chose to be “test blind” and not consider the scores at all.

The first SAT was adapted from a series of IQ tests given to U.S. Army recruits in the early 20th century. It was first used in college admissions at elite universities in 1926. Over time it came to be utilized by more colleges. In 2019, more than 2.2 million students took the SAT. About 1.8 million students took the ACT last year.

Why there’s debate

Critics of the two standardized tests say they are poor predictors of college success and help perpetuate racial and economic inequalities in education — issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. A substantial body of research shows that students with high test scores aren’t more likely to get good grades in college or to graduate. The scores do, however, correlate strongly with family income. High school grades offer a much better picture of how students will do in college, researchers argue.

Since income and race are so closely related in the U.S., the SAT and ACT are seen by many as a barrier to higher education for many minority students. The fiercest critics of the tests say these racial disparities are no accident. The man who created the SAT, Carl Brigham, was a virulent racist who argued that nonwhites would cause the “deterioration of American intelligence.” The many changes to the format of the SAT over the years haven’t been able to root out the test’s foundational racism, they argue.

Defenders of the tests say they provide valuable information about students, but are only ever considered alongside a long list of other factors. Universities say they consider factors like income and race when evaluating test scores to offset the advantages some students may have because of their backgrounds. The tests can also provide important data about how students are progressing from year to year. Others say the tests create tangible goals that motivate students to work hard in a way that benefits them in the classroom as well.

Blaming the SAT and ACT for inequities in higher education ignores the much larger imbalances that exist throughout the system, supporters argue. Though imperfect, the tests provide an objective measure of ability that can help combat things like grade inflation, which some argue is rampant at high-achieving high schools.

What’s next

A major indicator of the future of the SAT and ACT in college admissions will be whether the hundreds of schools that went “test optional” because of the coronavirus will continue the policy once the pandemic is over. Those decisions likely won’t be made until the spring of 2021.

Perspectives

Critics

Getting rid of the tests would reduce inequality

“College remains the most reliable path of upward social mobility for many Americans. … We have a moral obligation to continue to extend this opportunity to the most people possible. Ridding college admissions of this biased screening tool will help further this goal.” — Stacy Torres, Washington Post

Grades are a much better way to judge which students will succeed in college

“The best predictor of college success overall is a simple one: high school grades. … And while standardized test scores have long been found to be highly correlated with students’ financial status, that’s much less true with high school G.P.A.” — Paul Tough, New York Times

The SAT helps perpetuate systemic racism

“The SAT is emblematic of higher education’s failure to keep up with the times — perpetuated by a mix of historical amnesia, unexamined traditionalism, failure to diversify senior faculty, inability to distinguish memorization from critical thinking and the preoccupation at elite institutions with maintaining their status. Just the stuff that systemic racism thrives on.” — Bruce G. Hammond, Inside Higher Ed

The tests create unnecessary stress

“These tests create unnecessary stress for young people already dealing with mental health challenges. Why pile on yet another onerous and time-consuming task for something that has been shown to be a better predictor of parent wealth and education than academic merit or long-term college success?” — Janelle Wong, Los Angeles Times

Too much of high school education is influenced by the content of the tests

“The testing agencies are simply private companies, not elected to represent us in driving curriculum, not appointed by any government agency to establish standards, and not accountable to anyone but themselves.” — William McGurn, Chronicle of Higher Education

Defenders

Getting rid of the tests would deny poor students a chance to stand out

“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.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

The tests provide many benefits beyond just college admissions

“These tests offer important reference points against GPAs that vary from school to school, provide ambitious standards against which to measure, drive skills-based instruction and motivate students to learn.” — Matthew Pietrafetta, Inside Higher Ed

Schools consider a student’s background when evaluating test scores

“Admissions officers already look at SAT and ACT scores in the context of students’ schools and backgrounds. The scores of a student who has had fewer educational opportunities are generally measured against the scores of similar students around the state.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Eliminating the tests won’t have much impact on inequality

“Ultimately … what matters more than a decision on whether to stop using standardized tests is a broader push to help minority students get better high school educations.” — Editorial, San Diego Union-Tribune

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images