They are more than just tests for the college admissions process. For decades, colleges have used the ACT and SAT to keep out certain ethnic groups, raise the bar for others, and make a profit for these testing agencies at the expense of our kids.
Yet, within the last year, dozens of colleges and universities have dropped requirements for standardized tests. In fact, just in the last week, five major universities announced they would be eliminating their standardized testing requirement.
The ACT and the College Board, which oversees the SAT, are bastions of the bad old days of college admissions. Their powerful foundations are cracking and eroding amidst allegations of longstanding bias, discrimination, and old-fashion trickery. The colleges don't want to crumble with them, and that is why more schools will be forced to drop the testing requirement in the weeks and months to come.
So why do colleges not only rely on these standardized tests, but allow them to dictate admissions decisions?
These tests have become the surrogate gatekeeper for colleges because they significantly speed up the application review process. As a former admissions officer and dean of admissions, I know firsthand how test scores influence the time spent on an application. While every application is supposed to be "read," admissions officers have a tendency to spend much less time on an application with lower test scores.
For example, if a student's test scores are in the bottom 25th percentile for a particular college's averages and they come from a racial majority, the admissions officer knows that admission is unlikely. They may need to "fake read" the application quickly just in case their supervisor or a federal prosecutor gets their hands on the notes taken, but the decision has already been made. Name, race, test scores—that's enough for an admissions officer to make a decision about a student in seconds. Then they move onto the next application. Name, race, test scores. Name, race, test scores.
As much as families want to believe that their child has a shot of admission if everything else in the application is stellar except the test scores, this simply does not happen at elite colleges and large state universities which rely heavily on test scores. In fact, it does not matter how well-written a student's essays are or how impactful they are in their community. When test scores are below range for the student's race, admission is simply not going to happen.
The Asian American students who accused Harvard of racial discrimination brought this up in their case against the university. There are years of data showing that Asian American students have had to score higher than other ethnic groups to have the same chance of admission. A group of underrepresented minority students just filed a suit against the University of California claiming racial discrimination due to the dramatic emphasis the UC system places on standardized tests. It is only a matter of time before more colleges are in the hot seat.
I have worked in admissions at an Ivy League university where test scores played a significant role and at a small liberal arts college with a test optional admissions policy. I have seen students with perfect test scores soar to the top of the admissions pool at that Ivy League university. I have also seen students who didn't submit test scores graduate summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from that small liberal arts college.
After 21 years in the field of college admissions, it is clear that high test scores suggest natural ability to a large extent. I have seen students raise their scores from dedicated hard work, but it is not a guarantee and there is a limit to how high the scores can increase. On the other hand, having an extraordinary school record typically takes a combination of grit, unrelenting motivation, and a willingness to put the time into the work. A student who has both natural ability and grit will achieve, but those with just grit can and will achieve just as much. I am living proof of the latter.
RELATED READING: The Cowards and Heroes of the SAT and ACT
This is a clarion call for college admissions. Colleges must re-invest in students rather than continue to be accomplices in the dirty work of the testing agencies. Their allegiance needs to be to students. That will take re-training their admissions staff who claim to use holistic admissions to truly evaluate applications in a complete way. It will mean hiring more staff to read and evaluate these applications carefully and thoughtfully in order to handle the volume of applications they have orchestrated. And it will take real mentorship by faculty to ensure their students are well-supported to achieve.
Colleges have not been willing to make these necessary changes until now. Those colleges sitting back and waiting for this test optional movement to pass have a sobering reality facing them. When an individual relies on test scores for long-term personal achievement or when a college relies on them to build the most diverse student body, it is pure arrogance. And arrogance catches up to individuals and colleges alike.