Divided We Learn

Questioning their fairness, a record number of colleges stop requiring the SAT and ACT

Results are mixed, but suggest that making these tests optional is improving diversity on campus

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A student works on a sample SAT test during her Kaplan SAT course. Concerns over socioeconomic differences in the results, among other problems, are bringing new scrutiny to standardized admission tests, and a record number of colleges and universities have stopped requiring them.

Julia Tomasulo took the ACT three times, hoping to get to get the best possible score when applying for colleges.

Even though she had good grades and was a two-sport athlete, “of the whole college process, the testing was the hardest,” Tomasulo said. She took practice tests daily. Her parents spent about $3,500 on tutoring.

Tomasulo, 19, of San Diego, fell short of her magic number, though she did get into her chosen school. But her mother, Alisson Tomasula, having seen the stress on her daughter — and watching another child, still in high school, start the process — wishes less emphasis were placed on these standardized admission tests.

“I would hope more colleges would go to test-optional,” she said. Students “should be judged on their merit. I think the ACT or SAT just show how they regurgitate information.”

With frustration like the Tomasulos’ compounded by reports of test-takers gaming the system or flat-out cheating, more and more people seem to agree — including some colleges themselves, and a few elected politicians.

This means the SAT and ACT are facing what could be the greatest challenge in their histories, which stretch back to the early 20th century.

“There are a number of things merging that pose a significant threat to standardized admissions tests,” said Michael Nietzel, president emeritus of Missouri State University, who writes frequently on higher education.

One in four institutions no longer requires these tests for admission, for example, Nietzel said. Combined with tutoring that wealthy families can afford, extra time their kids are more likely to get than lower-income classmates and downright cheating, he said, “they’ve lost their luster as a common yardstick.”

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What would happen if the SAT and ACT played a lesser role in the admission process is hard to predict, however. So far it appears to be leveling the playing field for some students who don’t always get accepted. The University of Chicago, which created a stir by making these tests optional last year, reports a record enrollment this fall of first-generation, low-income and rural students and veterans.

“Research is mixed, but with a consensus that points toward a bit of increase the diversity of the applicant pool and pretty strong evidence that the overall number of applicants increases,” Nietzel said.

Every 10 days, on average, another university makes these tests optional for admission. Forty-one schools have jettisoned this requirement in the last year, the largest number ever.

A resolution now wending its way through the California legislature calling for the public University of California system and largest-in-the-nation California State University system to study the usefulness and fairness of standardized tests in the admissions process.

Although a long shot, it would be “the grand prize” if California’s public universities went test-optional, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit organization focused on the misuse and overuse of standardized testing.

A June analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce suggests that the 200 most selective colleges and universities already look at more than candidates’ standardized test scores alone. It found that, if SAT and ACT results were the sole basis for admission, 53 percent of students who were accepted wouldn’t have gotten in.

Critics of the tests have long argued that they reflect income more than ability, a chorus that is growing louder. And this year’s notorious Varsity Blues admission scandal — in which parents, through an intermediary, bribed test administrators to change test scores or let students cheat — reinforced the idea that the tests can be gamed, legally or illegally, by families with enough money.

The College Board, the $1 billion-a-year nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, is fighting back, including by introducing a dashboard it says will help admission offices compensate for socioeconomic and racial disparities. But it’s not clear that this will slow the test-optional bandwagon.

More than 1,000 accredited bachelor’s-degree-granting higher education institutions now allow prospective students to decide whether or not to submit standardized test scores with their applications, FairTest says.

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SAT and ACT

Students on campus at University of California, Los Angeles. A bill now making its way through that state’s legislature would require the public University of California system and largest-in-the-nation California State University system to study the usefulness and fairness of standardized tests in the admissions process.

Although some are open-enrollment, most are not, said Schaeffer.

The goal of going test-optional, for many of its advocates, is to increase diversity; low-income students typically have lower scores than their more affluent peers, putting them at a disadvantage in admission. This is because families with more money usually live in wealthier school districts with more resources and can afford tutors to help with test preparation and other educational assistance.

The average ACT composite score was 23.6 for higher income students and 19.5 for lower income ones in 2016, the last year for which the figures are available, according to the ACT’s own research.

The College Board last year stopped asking test-takers about their parents’ income, but answers from previous years showed scores going up as family income increases; scores overall were also lower on average for black and Latino students than for whites and Asians.

Researchers remain divided about whether or not doing away with the tests would help to fix this.

The adoption of a “well-executed test-optional admission policy” can increase the number of applicants in general and the number of first-generation and low-income students in particular, according to the largest and most current study, released last year.

The study looked at student-record data from 28 four-year degree-granting public and private non-profit institutions that are test-optional.

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Two of the three co-authors were connected to Bates College, which has long been test-optional.

But a separate compilation of studies published last year, two of three editors of which are connected to the College Board, largely questioned the assumption that test-optional policies add diversity.

“We found instead, that it increased selectivity,” meaning the reported SAT or ACT scores of students who were enrolled in schools with test-optional policies were higher than for than those that weren’t, said Kelly Ochs Rosinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University and a co-author of one of the studies, which examined 180 liberal arts colleges.

Of those, the institutions that went test-optional did not see an increase in their proportions of students who were low-income or from racial groups that are typically underrepresented on campus.

This could also be because students with lower standardized test scores didn’t submit them, however, pushing up the averages, she said.

“Our findings are really important, but we need better and newer data,” Rosinger said. “There is no clear, easy solution to expand access to higher education. There are so many barriers beyond test scores.”

The University of Rochester took the middle ground and became “test-flexible” in 2011. That means students could submit Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate scores in lieu of the ACT or SAT.

In hundreds of cases, said Jonathan Burdick, the university’s vice provost for enrollment initiatives and dean of admissions and financial aid, after students were accepted based on other factors, their ACT or SAT score would show up and be put in their record.

“There wasn’t a basis to say that those tests scores would have made us make better or even different decisions,” Burdick said.

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Students who were admitted on the basis of, say, their IB scores and later had low SAT scores submitted “have graduated in equivalent numbers to anybody else, in four years and in many cases with honors,” Burdick said. ”Had we had the SAT it might have made us less likely to make the good decision.”

The university will go fully test-optional in the fall of 2020.

What really bothers Burdick is the “the distortion of two years of your life during high school,” studying for the ACT or SAT. “You could be spending that 60 hours or more doing test prep doing other, more meaningful things that actually are more productive for your life in the long run.”

The College Board and ACT say standardized testing plays an important role in the admission process and that the best way to predict an applicant’s success in college is by looking at a combination of his or her GPA and test scores.

While students take the ACT and SAT in about equal numbers – the SAT edged out the ACT last year with 2 million students, versus 1.91 for the ACT – the higher-profile College Board has taken a more active role in pushing back against the anti-testing movement.

Although the College Board declined to comment for this story, Steve Bumbaugh, senior vice president for college and career access, has written for The Hechinger Report and elsewhere that the answer is not to take away the SAT, but that “the poor kids need what the rich kids have.”

To that end, the College Board has introduced a number of initiatives to address the needs of low-income students, including free test help through a partnership with the online Khan Academy. (The SAT itself costs $64.50 per exam; the ACT, $67.)

This year, to some controversy, it also unveiled what it first called an environmental context dashboard, later revising it and renaming it Landscape. After piloting the dashboard for three years, the College Board decided to drop the idea of offering colleges a score to represent a student’s socioeconomic background. The score – which had been dubbed an adversity score –  had been calculated using school and neighborhood information.

Criticism of reducing such information to a single score, and concern about how that score would be used, caused the College Board to revise and rename the tool.*

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Information offered to admissions officers by Landscape will include the number of children eligible at the student’s school for free or reduced-price lunches; average number of seniors taking AP courses; and average AP score at that school. Landscape will also evaluate neighborhood factors such as median family income; number of single-parent households; vacancy rates; and typical educational attainment.

These characteristics often affect the performance of even the most talented students, or make them less able to smoothly navigate the complex college admissions process.

Although the original dashboard model had its opponents – and it’s too early to know how Landscape will be viewed – admissions officers say they welcome any additional information to better understand a student’s application.

“Admissions officers don’t have great information about a high-school context,” said Rosinger, who previously worked as an admissions officer at the University of Georgia.

There has been some criticism of the dashboard, the most prominent that it doesn’t address individual differences among students, Nietzel said.

Schaeffer, of FairTest, said the dashboard is an effort by the College Board to reposition its product.

“It’s a pushback at test-optional,” he said. “It proves what we’ve long said – the test is not a level playing field. It’s a better measure of accumulated opportunity than a measure of school success.”

Initial experiments showed that admissions officers were 25 percent more likely to enroll lower-income students if they had better data about the high school, however, said Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at the University of Michigan School of Education who has long researched this area and was a paid consultant to the College Board on the dashboard.

“You can be against standardized tests and in favor the dashboard,” he said. The key point is to “put every applicant in the context of the opportunities they have.”

Besides, he said, simply going test-optional, without increasing financial aid to poorer students and supplying other support, may not make much difference.

The University of Chicago, for example, along with going test-optional, also announced new scholarships and access programs and an initiative to pay the full tuition for families that earn less than $125,000 a year.

The dashboard has been piloted over the past few years and the College Board said it hopes that as many as 150 institutions will use it this fall.

This story about SAT and ACT was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

*Correction: Due to a production error, a previous version of this story did not include updated information about the College Board’s Landscape tool.

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