Standardized testing: Relic of the past or necessary benchmark?

March 8, 2022

Alina Susani

Pressures from the pandemic and questions about equity and education have precipitated rapid changes to the world of standardized testing for college admissions. The College Board, creator of the SAT, has eliminated subject tests and will transition to a shorter, digital format; an increasing number of colleges are going test-optional or test-blind; and recent admissions cheating scandals have prompted more scrutiny on standardized testing. As popular and economic forces efface the importance of standardized testing, should these tests become a relic of the past or instead will they be renewed as important universal academic benchmarks?

Colleges should adopt a test-optional policy in favor of grade point average for evaluation

When entering my SAT testing room, I already knew nearly everything that would be on the test. I didn’t just know the material, I could also predict the phrasing of the questions, the tricks that would be employed to throw me off and the order that would maximize my chance at getting a good score. All of this was because my parents could afford a private tutor who taught me everything I needed and gave me access to around eight full-length practice tests to master. My studying had nothing to do with learning reading, writing or math skills, and everything to do with learning how to game the SAT.

My experience suggested that standardized tests can only measure how good you are at taking that particular standardized test. Students who come from a family with an annual income greater than $200,000, have a one-in-five chance of scoring above 1,400, according to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit journalism organization covering education. In comparison, students from poor families have a 1-in-50 chance. Practicing the test even once has a substantial positive effect on the overall score, according to the College Board’s internal data. A testing-based college admissions system ultimately serves to help students with wealthy families get into elite colleges and preserve their wealth. 

Primarily due to existing socioeconomic inequalities in American society, tests also overwhelmingly favor white, male applicants according to sociologist Joseph A. Soares. Although this reflects circumstances outside the test, the inequality puts into question the validity of tests which rely on the false assumption of equality. Thus, university claims of valuing diversity are irreconcilable with test mandatory policies, which reinforce racial inequality.

Advocates for mandatory testing policies claim that colleges need objective measurements to determine college readiness, so standardized tests are an imperfect necessity. Although it’s true that objective metrics are useful, the College Board’s data shows that high school grade point averages are more predictive of future college success than SAT scores. Social psychologist Claude Steele, also provost at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the issue and found the test only measured 18% of the skills necessary to do well in college, painting a dangerously reductive picture of readiness. 

The College Board argues that considering a student’s SAT score in conjunction with their GPA provides the most effective evaluation. To their credit, their data shows that considering SAT scores and GPA together improves prediction of college readiness by 8% in comparison to GPA alone. The company claims that considering standardized testing is valuable to address inconsistencies in difficulty of similar courses between schools and courseloads. However, admissions officers can and do correct for inconsistencies in academic rigor by comparing the course load and rigor in high school transcripts. Such an advantage is made further inconsequential by other methods of standardization, like Advanced Placement courses. 

Results from the last few years of test-optional policies have demonstrated that this analysis is accurate. A 2014 study published by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors showed that non-submitters have comparable academic performance to students who submit their scores. This indicates that test-optional policies don’t lead to students going to schools where they won’t succeed, nor do these policies dilute the quality of the student body. Instead, selective colleges saw the most diverse undergraduate bodies in American history, according to a 2021 study published by the American Education Research Association. Test-optional admissions isn’t a solution to end all educational inequality, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Test-blind policies, which eliminate standardized tests altogether, may also prove to be a good idea, but keeping the submission of test scores optional has some merit. A test-optional policy lets students with strong scores and test-taking skills submit them as a piece of supporting evidence for their admission, while allowing students with lower scores to compensate with strong transcripts, powerful essays and robust extracurriculars.

Most selective colleges already transitioned to test-optional policies and they should not look back. The data shows that test-optional policies have no substantial negatives and provide modest, yet consequential gains in tackling racial and economic inequality. Take it from someone who gamed the system: the only thing these tests can accurately measure is how experienced you are at taking them.

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Standardized tests should remain as objective pillars in college application selection process

I sometimes hear comments from seniors and certain proactive juniors comparing college applications to rolling dice or playing the lottery. They’re not wrong. As an admissions committee draws arbitrary distinctions among a pool of too many qualified applicants, the outcome must partially rest on factors that are subjective. 

The truth is that these comparisons of the college application process are not entirely fair. Standardized tests have been one of the objective measures safeguarding the process from unraveling into these totally unpredictable models. Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, American colleges along with organizations such as the College Board are reevaluating the role of standardized tests. While testing organizations strive to reform their exams to increase access and evaluate students fairly, American colleges should reaffirm the importance of standardized tests as objective pillars in the application process. Any college in which the number of applicants significantly exceeds the number of students in the incoming class should require standardized test scores as a component of the application. 

Intertwined with re-evaluating the role of standardized tests is establishing assumptions about what it means to be a qualified applicant. Presumably, the ultimate goal of an admissions committee is to select those students who will best utilize the resources of the college and obtain success in their careers. We define success as the exceptional ability of those students to fulfill their responsibilities in these careers. Because predicting success is practically impossible, many selective colleges have implemented the principle of holistic review, considering academic and non-academic achievements in the context of an applicant’s circumstances. Now among the enormity of factors considered within such a flexible selection process, the education that a student has attained at the time of application should certainly be one of them. After all, attained education partly determines a student’s ability to handle the academic rigor in college and take advantage of other opportunities. A standardized set of questions designed to evaluate foundational skills such as reading comprehension, grammar and basic algebra is ideal for measuring attained education on an absolute scale. Consequently, high proficiency in these areas demonstrated by high standardized test scores should boost the qualifications of an applicant. 

No, I am not advocating for standardized tests to trump all other factors in the selection process. Standardized tests are clearly inadequate for assessing the totality of skills contributing to an applicant’s qualifications, but they objectively assess attained education. 

Standardized tests have recently faced backlash for being less effective predictors of college success than factors such as grade point average. Recent studies have demonstrated grade point averages as stronger predictors of college readiness using metrics such as freshman grades. But such is not a reason to de-emphasize their value. Indeed, the assumption of standardized tests as the gold standard is reasonable. Imagine that a highly selective college accepted 2,000 students with perfect grade point averages but below-average standardized test scores. Given the current state of the SAT and ACT, with questions that are mostly fair, I would not blame standardized tests for being faulty. I would question those grade point averages and wonder why the admissions committee chose not to select those applicants who achieved perfect scores. I doubt this hypothetical scenario would ever occur, but without standardized tests, we would not even know when it did occur. That’s discomforting to say the least. Now it seems that the current disparity between grade point averages and standardized test performance may be best addressed by reforming standardized tests to more effectively evaluate students. In my experience, some of the SAT reading comprehension questions are written in a confusing manner, and the ACT science section seems to be especially susceptible to certain test taking strategies. It remains to be seen whether the newly digitized and shortened SAT will be an improvement. 

At its current state, standardized tests are an essential but imperfect component of the college application process. American colleges should recognize the value of standardized tests and thereby incentivize testing organizations to reform the exam content to most effectively evaluate students. American schools should develop in students the foundational skills of reading comprehension, grammar and basic algebra. I’m optimistic that the concordance of standardized tests and grade point averages will perfect the assessment of attained education.

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