What if college admissions teams considered only SAT scores?

If the nation’s most selective colleges admitted students based solely on their SAT scores, those campuses would become less racially diverse and slightly more affluent, according to a new “thought experiment” from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). The CEW report also challenges some assumptions about affirmative action, finding that Black and Latinx students “are not being admitted in significant numbers with lower scores.”

Test-only admissions would displace half of admitted students

To explore “whether removing legacy and social capital from the admissions equation would have a more equitable outcome,” CEW researchers gathered data on all U.S. students who graduated high school in 2013 and reported standardized test scores. They analyzed who enrolled at the nation’s 200 top colleges that year—and who would have filled those 300,000 seats had they been awarded based solely on SAT scores.

Under the test-only model—where no student with an SAT score below 1250 would have earned a slot at a top school—53 percent of enrolled students would no longer have qualified to attend. More than half of those displaced students came from the top socioeconomic quartile, and 57 percent were white. The findings indicate that “lower-scoring affluent students are disproportionately taking seats that might have otherwise gone to students with higher test scores,” the report says.

Few admitted students with scores below 1250, meanwhile, were from groups typically assumed to benefit from affirmative action: just 27 percent were Black or Hispanic, and 8 percent were Asian American.

Resulting campuses would be more white, slightly more affluent

Overall, test-only admissions would increase the share of white students on campus from 66 percent to 75 percent, while decreasing the share of Black and Latinx students from 19 percent to 11 percent and slightly lowering the share of Asian students from 11 percent to 10 percent. In addition, the share of students from families in the top socioeconomic quartile would grow slightly from 60 percent to 63 percent.

Why even consider a test-only scenario?

Responding to the findings, Barbara Gill, board chair at the College Board, told Inside Higher Ed that “no one is advocating for SAT-only admissions” and questioned the study’s premise. CEW’s director of research told The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, that the findings are meant to spark discussion. The CEW report notes that, given the amount students and parents worry about standardized test scores, “one might presume that…those admitted with lower scores are an exception to the rule” in college admissions. “But a look at the numbers reveals a different reality,” the report says.

The debate rages on

The findings come amid active debate at the local, state, and national levels over standardized tests and their implications for equality of opportunity in higher education. While a growing number of institutions are going test-optional, most admissions offices still require the scores. Given this reality, a new study out of the University of Virginia makes the case for offering the SAT or ACT for free at all of the state’s public high schools, asserting that universal testing would encourage more students to consider college and help identify potential applicants for Virginia’s major universities.

In other testing news, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently proposed a plan for eliminating the entrance exam that dictates admission to New York City’s most selective public high schools in hopes of addressing significant racial disparities. The proposal, however, met stiff resistance, and the state legislature adjourned without taking action.

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