By Mary L. Churchill
College admission tests are becoming a thing of the past.
More than 80% of U.S. colleges and universities do not require applicants to take standardized tests – like the SAT or the ACT. That proportion of institutions with test-optional policies has more than doubled since the spring of 2020.
And for the fall of 2023, some 85 institutions won’t even consider standardized test scores when reviewing applications. That includes the entire University of California system.
Currently, only 4% of colleges that use the Common Application system require a standardized test such as the SAT or the ACT for admission.
Even before the pandemic, more than 1,000 colleges and universities had either test-optional or so-called “test-blind” policies. But as the pandemic unfolded, more than 600 additional institutions followed suit.
At the time, many college officials noted that health concerns and other logistics associated with test-taking made them want to reduce student stress and risk. Concerns about racial equity also factored into many decisions.
Other institutions are what some call “test-flexible,” allowing applicants to submit test scores from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams in place of the SAT or ACT.
Tests under fire
For many years, advocates and scholars have fought against the use of standardized tests, in general, and for college admission.
One critique is simple: Standardized tests aren’t that useful at measuring a student’s potential. Research has repeatedly shown that a student’s high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores such as the SAT or ACT.
But there are deeper issues too, involving race and equity.
The development and use of standardized tests in higher education came out of the eugenics movement. That movement claimed – and then used misleading and manufactured evidence to support the idea – that people of different races had different innate abilities.
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools,” according to Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Anti-Racist Research at Boston University.
Kendi is not alone in highlighting the historic links between standardized tests and discrimination.
Joseph A. Soares, editor of “The Scandal of Standardized Tests: Why We Need to Drop the SAT and ACT,” has documented “[t]he original ugly eugenic racist intention behind the SAT, aimed at excluding Jews from the Ivy League.” He says that goal has now “been realized by biased test-question selection algorithms that systemically discriminate against Blacks.” In his work, Soares draws attention to the practice of evaluating pilot questions and removing from the final test version questions on which Black students did better than white students.
My colleague, Joshua Goodman, has found that Black and Latino students who take the SAT or the ACT are less likely than white or Asian students to take it a second time. They perform less well, which contributes to disproportionately low representation of college students from low-income and racial minority backgrounds.
Those factors – as well as a lawsuit arguing discrimination based on test performance – were behind the May 2020 decision by the University of California’s Board of Regents to discontinue using SAT and ACT scores in admissions decisions.
Economics of higher education
Colleges and universities tend to seek applicants with good grades and other achievements. They are often seeking a diverse pool from which to build their classes. Colleges that did not require standardized tests in applications for students arriving in fall 2021 “generally received more applicants, better academically qualified applicants, and more diverse pools of applicants.” That’s according to Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, an advocacy group working to “end the misuses and flaws of testing practices” in higher education and in the K-12 sector.
In addition, birth rates are declining, and the number of 18-year-olds seeking to enter college is decreasing. Many institutions are seeking to make it easier for people to apply to college.
As a result of these factors, I expect to see high school students begin to choose where to apply based at least in part on whether colleges require standardized tests, consider them or ignore them entirely. According to U.S. News & World Report, most of the colleges in the U.S. that still require test scores are located in Southern states, with the highest count in the state of Florida.
The testing business
The test-taking business, including preparatory classes, tutoring and the costs of taking the tests themselves, is a multibillion-dollar industry.
As more institutions reduce their attention to tests, all those businesses feel pressure to reinvent themselves and make their services useful. The College Board, which produces the SAT and other tests, has recently tried to make its flagship test more “student-friendly,” as the organization put it.
In January 2022 it released an online SAT that is supposed to be easier for test sites to administer and easier for students to take.
In recent conversations I have had in research into higher education policies, admission directors at selective universities tell me that standardized test scores have become an optional component of a portfolio of activities, awards and other material, that applicants have at their disposal when completing their college applications.
Institutions that have gone test-blind have already decided that the SAT is no longer part of the equation. Others may join them.