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

Berk Oto, Editor-in-Chief

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.