Editorial: Keep standardized testing optional

November 2, 2020

When American colleges opened their doors in the seventeenth century, it was to a select few. Aside from tuition costs, if you didn’t live in a university town, you had to pay to visit each college and take their entrance exams. Travel was a luxury reserved for the wealthy; most couldn’t even afford to apply to college. When the presidents of twelve leading universities founded the College Board in 1899, they promised a new exam that valued meritocracy.  

While the College Board is not single-handedly responsible for the change, education has since become vastly more inclusive. Yet, even today – while it’s not for want of horse and carriage – college tests are ridden with the same inequities.

In the wake of COVID-19, which has barred students from test centers across the country and forced colleges to scrap their testing requirements for the 2020-2021 application year, there is a unique opportunity to mend this broken system. Colleges must recognize that until a more equitable metric is created, SAT and ACT scores should be an optional component of the college admissions process. 

Colleges must recognize that until a more equitable metric is created, SAT and ACT scores should be an optional component of the college admissions process. 

Standardized testing creates an opportunity gap. Families with resources are more likely to attend better-funded schools, have access to tutors and standardized test preparation classes, take the test more often, and pay psychiatrists for extra time. With advantages over those who cannot afford such luxuries, it is unsurprising that wealth directly correlates to testing success.

And even when test scores go up, essential reasoning skills don’t. Exam prep may sharpen algebra, grammar, and knowledge directly acquired from textbooks, but fluid intelligence – the ability to think logically and understand abstract concepts – doesn’t relate to testing scores. And, while testing may predict some college success, GPAs are a better indicator. 

If standardized tests have become signs of preparation rather than intelligence, the SAT and ACT should not be used in the admissions process. Still, there is something to be said for a universal metric. High school environments vary – an A in one school could be a C in another – and disadvantaged students need an opportunity to prove themselves beyond the curriculum of an underfunded school. Under a test-optional system, as more students forgo testing and the College Board and ACT suffer losses, a profit motive will incentivize these companies to invest in developing a test that cannot be as easily hacked by the wealthy. 

 As fewer students take admissions tests, scores will also become a weaker point of comparison. Transcripts, individual circumstances, and high school achievement will become emphasized in admissions. This process, too, has its flaws – wealthier students often hire private college counselors to help write essays, have more extracurricular opportunities, and more AP classes on offer at their schools. Still, a more holistic assessment is an inch toward progress, and if a test like the one being designed by the University of California – which aims to mend the failures of contemporary tests – is successful, standardized testing may finally manifest the values of meritocracy that spurred its creation. 

 As psychologist and philosopher John Dewey suggested, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” If learning is not simple preparation, but fundamental to a successful life, standardized tests – signs of prep-work and resources – have no place in determining who deserves to accelerate their education via higher learning. Testing must assess whether students can think critically, learn, become fluid thinkers, and analyze – skills needed to succeed both in college and life. Until then, standardized tests will remain outdated as the horse and carriage their creators tried to overcome.

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