Rethinking standardized test scores in college admissions

Although a number of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies in hopes of enrolling more diverse classes, there remains an ongoing debate about the benefits and drawbacks of evaluating applicants without considering their standardized test performance.

Selective higher education institutions across the country temporarily suspended requirements for SAT/ACT scores in college admissions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as schools transitioned to virtual learning and standardized tests were canceled. Many of those colleges have since stuck with test-optional or test-blind application policies as a means of increasing access and achieving more equitable college admissions, citing income-related disparities in test performance. However, experts in favor of maintaining test requirements tell The New York Times that test scores are more predictive of college and career success than high school grade point averages, due in part to grade inflation. They also can help colleges identify which students may need additional support once they enroll.

Related: California State University eliminates SAT, ACT from admissions >

Test-optional policies aimed at widening access

Standardized tests favor students from wealthier backgrounds, who have access to test prep courses, tutors, and other support, advocates for test-optional policies say. Last October, The New York Times highlighted data from the Harvard University-based nonprofit Opportunity Insights, which showed gaps in standardized test participation and scores between students from high- and low-income households—disparities in college preparation that start years before students begin the college application process. 

Advocates also assert that with the end of race-conscious admissions, test-optional policies are one way to create more racially and socioeconomically diverse campuses. Selective institutions that adopted test-optional policies even before the pandemic saw increased diversity in their first-year classes. When these policies became more widespread during COVID-19, test-optional schools saw a surge in application submissions and a rise in enrollment of students from underrepresented communities. Students from historically underrepresented groups also said they were more likely to apply to colleges with test-optional admissions policies.

Related: Students are seizing the strategic opportunity presented by test-optional policies, research suggests >

A case for requiring scores?

However, some experts say that, without standardized test scores, institutions are having difficulty determining which students have the potential to thrive at elite colleges. 

“Just getting straight A’s is not enough information for us to know whether the students are going to succeed or not,” Stuart Schmill, the dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), tells the Times. MIT is one of the few colleges that reinstated test requirements after suspending them for two years. 

Three studies—one released last summer by Opportunity Insights, another from 2020, and a third from this month—found students’ test scores were better predictors of undergraduate grade point average, degree completion, and post-college success than high school grades. Proponents of reinstating test score requirements also point to other parts of the admissions process, including college essays, that have a strong correlation to students’ household income. Wealthier students, for instance, have access to more extracurricular activities and may receive additional support from well-educated parents and college counselors who heavily review their applications.

Officials at MIT say test scores help their admissions officers identify students from underrepresented communities who are prepared for college-level work. “Once we brought the test requirement back, we admitted the most diverse class that we ever had in our history,” Schmill tells the Times. Fifteen percent of MIT’s current first-year cohort is Black, 16% are Latine, 38% are white, and 40% are Asian American. Around 20% of first-year students are Pell Grant recipients, a higher percentage than many other top universities.

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