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The SAT and ACT are less important than you might think

(The Conversation) – College entrance exams are becoming a thing of the past.

Over 80% of US colleges and universities do not require applicants to take standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT. That percentage of institutions with voluntary testing policies has more than doubled since spring 2020.

And by fall 2023, some 85 institutions won’t even consider standardized test scores when reviewing applications. This includes the entire University of California system.

Currently, only 4% of colleges using the common application system require a standardized test such as the SAT or ACT for admissions.

Even before the pandemic, more than 1,000 colleges and universities had test-optional or “test-blind” policies. But as the pandemic unfolded, more than 600 additional institutions followed suit.

At the time, many college officials noted that the health issues and other logistics associated with conducting the tests made them want to reduce student stress and risk. Racial equity concerns have also been factored into many decisions.

Other institutions are what some call “flexible testing,” allowing candidates to submit test scores from the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams in lieu of the SAT or ACT.

Evidence under fire

For many years, proponents and scholars have argued against the use of standardized tests, in general, and for college admissions.

One criticism is simple: standardized tests are not that useful for measuring a student’s potential. Research has repeatedly shown that a student’s high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than scores on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT.

But there are deeper issues as well, involving race and equity.

The development and use of standardized tests in higher education grew out of the eugenics movement. That movement claimed — and then used fabricated and misleading evidence to support the idea — that people of different races had different innate abilities.

“Standardized testing has become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally bar their bodies from prestigious schools,” according to Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Anti-Racist Research at Boston University.

Kendi isn’t alone in pointing out the historical links between standardized testing and discrimination. Joseph A. Soares, editor of “The Scandal of Standardized Tests: Why We Need to Drop the SAT and ACT,” documented “[t]The original eugenic racist bad intention behind the SAT, aimed at excluding Jews from the Ivy League. He says the goal has now “been accomplished by biased test-question selection algorithms that systematically discriminate against blacks.” In his work, Soares draws attention to the practice of grading pilot questions and removing from the final test version questions in which black students performed better than white students.

My colleague Joshua Goodman found that black and Latino students who take the SAT or ACT are less likely than white or Asian students to take it a second time. They perform less well, which contributes to a disproportionately low representation of college students from racial and low-income minority backgrounds.

These factors, plus a lawsuit alleging discrimination based on test performance, were behind the University of California Board of Regents’ May 2020 decision to stop using SAT and ACT scores in admissions decisions.

Economics of higher education

Colleges and universities tend to look for applicants with good grades and other accomplishments. They often look for a diverse pool from which to build their classes. Colleges that did not require standardized testing in applications for fall 2021 incoming students “generally received more applicants, applicants with better academic qualifications, and more diverse applicant pools.” That’s according to Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, an advocacy group working to “end the abuses and flaws of testing practices” in higher education and the K-12 industry.

Also, birth rates are declining and the number of 18-year-olds trying to enter college is declining. Many institutions are trying to make it easier for people to apply for college.

As a result of these factors, I expect to see high school students begin choosing where to apply based at least in part on whether colleges require, consider, or ignore them altogether. According to US News & World Report, the majority of colleges in the US that still require test scores are in the Southern states, with the highest count in the state of Florida.

The business of testing

The test-taking business, including prep classes, mentoring, and test-taking costs, is a multibillion-dollar industry.

As more and more institutions reduce their focus on testing, all those companies are feeling the pressure to reinvent themselves and make their services worthwhile. The College Board, which produces the SAT and other tests, recently looked to make its flagship test more “student-friendly,” as the organization put it. In January 2022, it released an online SAT that should be easier for test sites to administer and easier for students to take.

In recent conversations I’ve had in higher education policy research, admissions directors at selective universities have told me that standardized test scores have become an optional component of a portfolio of assets, awards and other material, which applicants they have available when they complete their college applications.

Institutions that have gone blind have already decided that the SAT is no longer part of the equation. Others can join them.

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