Abandoning the SAT Won’t Help Disadvantaged Students

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As one of the few purely objective metrics in the college-admissions process, standardized-test scores are key to evening the odds for low-income applicants.

The University of California system will halt the use of SAT and ACT scores in its undergraduate-admissions process until 2025, according to a legal settlement announced last week. Advocates of such a move have called standardized tests a “proxy for privilege” and a “racist metric.” But eliminating them from the admissions process in the name of equity is likely to harm the very students it aims to help.

The SAT is among the most useful components of a student’s college application, because students who earn a high SAT score are extremely likely to finish college in a reasonable amount of time. The biggest risk for a college student is failing to graduate — investing time and money in a degree you never earn — so admissions officers need to know ahead of time which students have the best chance of completing their education.

Skeptics object that a high SAT score is simply a proxy for a privileged background, and wealthier students are more likely to finish college. But even low-income students who score well on the SAT are likely to graduate. In fact, a poor student with a strong test score is more likely to finish college than a rich student with a mediocre score.

The SAT measures something real: the academic proficiency and good study habits that every student needs to succeed in college. That alone is enough to justify its continued use in college admissions.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. The University of California’s own faculty senate reached the same conclusion in a report published last year. Among University of California students, the report argues, “a student admitted with a low SAT score is between two and five times more likely to drop out after one year, and up to three times less likely to complete their degree compared to a student with a high score.”

Dropping standardized-test scores as an admissions criterion necessarily means that admissions officers must rely more on other aspects of students’ college applications, such as essays and extracurricular activities. Those concerned with equity in college admissions should be worried, as these subjective components are easier for rich students to manipulate in their favor.

One analysis of 240,000 college-admissions essays found that the content of a student’s essay is highly correlated with her family’s income. The correlation between essay content and family income is stronger than that between family income and SAT scores. Wealthier students may hire coaches to help them with their essays, or attend high schools where college-essay-writing is emphasized. But whatever the reason, more reliance on essays relative to SAT scores probably won’t help lower-income applicants.

Poorer students usually can’t afford bassoon lessons, volunteer trips to Africa, college-essay coaches, or any of the other luxuries that help give an application a marginal boost. But any smart student, regardless of socioeconomic background, can memorize vocabulary and learn the principles of mathematical reasoning. At its core, the SAT measures a willingness to buckle down and study. The relatively low cost of the test ($52, with fee waivers available) means that it is one of the best ways for academically inclined students from disadvantaged backgrounds to stand out in the college-admissions pool.

Advocates of equity should want colleges to rely more, not less, on standardized-test scores. Research by Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty shows that high-income students are overrepresented at top colleges; they make up a bigger fraction of those schools’ student bodies than would be expected based on their SAT and ACT scores. Low- and middle-income students, meanwhile, are generally underrepresented.

In other words, if top colleges made their admissions decisions purely on the basis of standardized-test scores, there would be more lower-income students at top schools, not fewer.

High-income students get into top colleges at disproportionate rates because of other components of their applications, such as essays, extracurriculars, and legacy status. When the University of California system — which contains some of the most selective public universities in the nation — eliminates standardized-test scores from its admissions criteria, it will be heightening the importance of those other components — and thus the unfair advantage those high-income students already enjoy.

Those concerned about diversity of thought on college campuses should especially support maintaining standardized tests as a central pillar of college admissions. Subjective college-application components, such as essays, increase the opportunities for political bias to creep into the admissions process by giving more discretion to college-admissions officers. Consciously or not, admissions officers may judge more harshly the essays of students who do not share their political views. But a high SAT score can’t be so easily dismissed.

Granted, the SAT and ACT are not perfect. Some research has shown that high-school GPA is a better predicter of success in college than standardized tests. GPA captures some skills that the SAT doesn’t, such as showing up to class every day and completing assignments on time, and those are skills that students need to be successful in college. But high-school GPA is subject to grade inflation, so colleges will always need to include a more-objective measure of academic aptitude alongside it.

The University of California system has hinted that it may develop its own alternative standardized test, which would eventually become part of the admissions process. Innovation and competition in the standardized-testing market are welcome developments. But it’s irresponsible to drop standardized tests with a proven track record, such as the SAT and ACT, before a worthy alternative even exists.

As with many progressive ideas, the campaign to drop the SAT and the ACT will backfire on those it’s supposed to help. A policy meant to improve equity in the college-admissions process will make it harder for disadvantaged students to stand out among a crowded pool of applicants to selective colleges. Improving standardized tests is welcome. Junking them entirely is not.


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