Is There a Place for Standardized Testing in the College Applications Process?

Lily M., editor-in-chief

MIT reinstated it for the coming year. Harvard committed to making it optional for a minimum of four years. The University of California system won’t even consider it. The SAT—and its oft-forgotten cousin the ACT—has become increasingly controversial for the role it plays in the college admissions cycle. Is it inherently oppressive or a necessary metric for measuring college readiness? Do scores truly reflect the merit of applicants? Is there any equivalent that colleges can turn to? The answers to these questions remain hotly debated.

The greatest criticisms of the SAT are based on a vast array of statistical evidence that indicates that students who are wealthy, white or Asian, and/or male tend to score higher on the test. Of these three factors, wealth tends to be the most significant predictor of success. Wealthy students tend to have very different academic trajectories than their impoverished counterparts; they are more likely to have educated parents, attend well-funded private schools, take the PSAT, afford expensive test prep, and afford to take the SAT multiple times.

Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal also found that students from affluent areas are more likely to receive testing accommodations that provide them with additional time to take the test. These accommodations are typically meant to level the playing field for students who have learning disabilities that inherently place them at a disadvantage when it comes to standardized testing, but some wealthy families have been known to essentially game the system by acquiring accommodations for their children even if they do not actually qualify for them.

This tactic was often employed by Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the 2019 ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal. He arranged for his clients to have their children meet with a psychologist he knew personally who would diagnose them with disabilities they did not actually have so that they could receive more time to take the SAT or ACT.

There is an argument to be made that if students can and do score better due to factors unrelated to their own academic or intellectual ability (i.e., socioeconomic status), then the SAT does not truly measure merit. But it is also easy to disregard the many students who do score well simply because they have worked hard and committed to being academically successful. There are generally so many complex and intertwined factors at play when it comes to how successful a student is that it can be hard to isolate any single one, as the college application process often seeks to do.

In the blog post that accompanied MIT’s announcement that it was reinstating the SAT/ACT requirement for the 2023 admissions cycle, the school identified several findings it had made that led it to make its decision. It had found that test scores better predicted academic success at MIT and that sometimes the presence of scores could help the school identify students who, due to socioeconomic disadvantages, lacked access to advanced coursework (another metric taken into consideration during the application process) but were still prepared for coursework at an elite institution like MIT. To some degree, this reasoning may be unique to MIT; the school heavily emphasizes math, to an extent that few other institutions do.

Many elite universities, including all eight members of the Ivy League, have extended their test-optional policies at least through the 2022-2023 admissions cycle, if not for longer. The test-optional policy attempts to straddle the two sides of the debate by offering students a choice: it is up to them to take standardized tests and to submit their scores and, supposedly, they will not be penalized if they choose not to submit them. It’s hard to know what exactly happens in the admissions office for any school, but test-optional policies seem to have encouraged many more applicants to apply to selective universities, with varying results. Since the number of students admitted doesn’t typically rise proportionally with the number of students applying, many schools are beginning to appear more and more selective.

We appear to be at a crossroads in the college admissions process. The inequalities of standardized testing are becoming more widely discussed, but schools are struggling to come up with alternate methods of judging merit. For instance, Advanced Placement (AP) exams are often held up as the perfect alternative to the SAT, but they come with an access issue. Better-funded private schools are more likely to offer AP courses and preparation for the exams so students in poor, public schools districts are less likely to take them. Going by extracurricular activities alone offers another challenge because many activities require time and money that a student may not have. Even the writing ability students display in their Common Application personal essays may be tied to the quality of education they’ve received in elementary school. Whether or not there is a place for standardized testing in the application process seems to depend completely on the student. 

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