On Standardized Testing, the Elites Have It Wrong

Since the University of Chicago pioneered the test-optional movement in 2018 by dropping the SAT and the ACT from its undergraduate admissions requirements—ostensibly to “level the playing field”—1,843 accredited four-year colleges in the U.S. have made standardized tests optional, and 84 have gone completely “test-blind.” Diminishing or eliminating the role of admissions tests seems to be in vogue for American higher education institutions, which have enthusiastically bought into the narrative that the tests exacerbate systemic inequities and racism.

There is a growing body of empirical research that examines the validity of anti-test claims. A February 2023 brief by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute offers a succinct summary of existing scholarly work on this topic and challenges five pieces of conventional wisdom behind the systemic assault on tests.

Conventional Wisdom #1: “College admission exams are racist.”

Conventional Wisdom #2: “College admissions exams limit students’ pathways into quality higher education.”

Conventional Wisdom #3: “Other parts of the college application promote equity better than entrance exams.”

Conventional Wisdom #4: “Admissions officers should just focus on grades.”

Conventional Wisdom #5: “The future of college admissions is ‘test optional.’”

First, the accusation that tests are racist is a myth that overlooks the root causes behind persistent learning gaps, many of which are beyond the scope of the education system. The Fordham brief also cites examples of testing agencies vetting test questions through diverse review panels and statistical techniques to ensure that such tests are free of bias. The racism charge can also be empirically countered by the fact that average SAT scores by race are distributed as follows: 1223 (Asian), 1114 (white), 978 (Hispanic), 933 (black) and 913 (American Indian/Alaska Native).

The argument, proffered by test-blind proponents and advocacy groups, that standardized tests impose unfair barriers to access higher education is a sweeping overgeneralization. After all, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges did not require testing for admissions. During the 2020–21 academic year, 7 million, or 33%, of American undergraduate students were enrolled in public two-year colleges that offer “open-access” and do not require testing. Many four-year institutions, even some prestigious school systems like the University of Texas, offer admissions through high school GPA or class rank.

[Related: “The Collegiate War on Excellence and Descent into Mediocrity”]

Other elements of college applications are not inherently more equitable. A student’s socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds have been found to be correlated with the form and content of personal essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and access to Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses.

While many tout high school GPA as a reliable predictor of success, research shows that varying standards of grading across schools and widespread grade inflation compromise the efficacy of using grades as an objective measure of college readiness and performance.

Not all within the American higher education establishment wholeheartedly support the test-free movement. The University of California Standardized Testing Task Force presented a report to the UC Board of Regents, recommending that the school system keep standardized tests in place. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinstated the SAT and the ACT in 2022, arguing that going test-optional raises socioeconomic barriers and erodes the quality of higher education. A 2022 open letter signed by 60 law school deans described dropping the LSAT as a gamble that would ultimately hinder these schools’ diversity efforts.

Overall, the Fordham brief does a decent job of debunking the main talking points behind the war on testing with ample evidence and strong reasoning. It also correctly notes that disparities in test scores and other components of college admissions “reflect society’s broader inequities.”

But then the report goes too far to endorse the equity thesis. Adam Tyner, author of the brief, argues that “patterns in SAT and ACT scores offer a window into a society that has not done enough to make up for its sordid racial history or continuing inequities.” This abrupt conclusion falls short for many reasons. First and foremost, patterns in test scores are more indicative of other factors—including culture, policy, family environment, etc.—than of a history of racism and inequity. Notably, the distribution of mean SAT scores by race does not place white students significantly higher than non-white students. Those of Asian descent are the highest-performing group, with scores over 300 points higher than those of the lowest-performing group. If anything, this finding alone should be sufficient to invalidate the structural inequity narrative.

An interesting case in point is found in New York City’s world-class specialized high schools, which have admitted students through a standardized test called the SHSAT since 1976. In 2018, over 60% of students at these schools came from a family qualifying under federal anti-poverty guidelines for free and subsidized lunch, while over 70% were minorities. By contrast, the high schools that used multiple admissions standards were far less diverse, pooling only one third of students from low-income families and 60% racial minorities.

[Related: “‘Test-Blind’ Is Another Tool for Discrimination”]

More importantly, black students were not always underrepresented in these schools. During the 1994–95 academic year, their enrollment percentages were 11.8% and 37.3% at the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School—two of the top specialized high schools—respectively. For a host of reasons unrelated to the SHSAT, their ratios dropped to 3.6% and 7.6% during the 2016–2017 year. Although the independent variable in this case is a high school admissions test instead of the SAT or ACT, the data shed light on why testing is by far the most reliable and objective yardstick with which to measure student competencies.

At the end of the day, the ongoing war on testing is a symptom of the broader war on merit. Challenging standardized tests under the banner of equity is part and parcel with elitist efforts to undermine meritocracy. Many in the anti-merit camp believe that merit is tyrannical, such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel, a political philosopher who degrades the pursuit of excellence as a zero-sum game that “creates humiliation and resentment among the losers.”

This dichotomous view of merit, hyper-focused on genetically determined abilities, is dangerously false because it overlooks other dimensions of merit, such as hard work, grit, perseverance, personal initiative, and agency. Merit is a combination of natural talent and effort. Various attacks on merit, including the anti-test movement, don’t rely on science—rather, they stem from an ideological drive to rearrange a society’s institutions in pursuit of equal outcomes. This ultimately leads to disempowerment at the individual level and declining competitiveness for all participants. A 2021 study by the Brookings Institute, for example, finds:

[O]nly about 36% of two-year college students graduate within three years, and less than 60% of four-year college students graduate within six years … Roughly 60% of high school graduates are not fully prepared to take college-level coursework … 88% are far below in math; 76% are far below in English.

Education bureaucrats, special interest groups, die-hard ideologues, and some well-intentioned reformers are only proposing the demise of merit to cover up their collective, decades-long policy failures to provide adequate education to all American school-aged children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. And this elitist position is deeply unpopular: quantitative measures of academic aptitude, according to 73% of Americans,  should be a primary consideration in college admissions. More than 85% of Americans think that standardized test scores should at least be a minor factor in college admissions.

This is not the first time that the elites—out of self-interest, unsolicited empathy, or a combination of both—got it wrong.

Image: Adobe Stock

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

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