We’ve all been there — shepherded into a classroom by an anxious teacher and handed two lifesaver mints (or maybe the chalky red and white striped ones); told to pull out the sharpened No. 2 pencils we’d purchased from Walgreens the night before, having only used mechanical ones throughout the year; handed an answer sheet with seemingly endless little bubbles, imagining what would happen if we skip just one, offsetting the rest; told the importance of “fully erasing” any mistakes and putting our pencils down immediately when time expires. And, no, you cannot return to previous sections if you finish another one early — but you already knew that. Our eyes bounced around our classrooms to see the familiar number lines and maps covered with white paper and the chalkboards erased, as if they actually held any of the answers. Testing week quickly turned into a stressful determinant of our future: college entrance exams.
As schools try to determine whether admissions exams hurt or help them achieve equity, they’re finding that the tests are no more than a reflection of an imperfect society. In their ideal form, admissions tests are viewed as a means of achieving true meritocracy; the reality is much more bleak.
Standardized K-12 testing has long been an area of bi-partisan consensus intended to measure student progress, to hold schools and teachers accountable and to identify groups of students who need additional support and resources. However, when it comes to college entrance exams, scores are also used to assess students individually. Since 1926, students have taken the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” (SAT)—or the “American College Testing” (ACT) after its emergence in 1959—as a part of their college application process. These tests were originally thought to be meritorious in nature, as those who scored better on the tests were presented with better opportunities. This outlook on standardized testing, however, is readily debunked when one considers educational disparities and the privileges afforded to the wealthy such as private tutors, preparatory curriculum, study conditions, and the ability to take the exams multiple times. The ACT is scored on a 0-36 scale, with the national average hovering around a 20. However, students at Phillips Academy Andover — one of the best private high schools in the nation — average nearly 13 points higher at a 33. The Varsity Blues Scandal even shed light on more extreme abuses of the system to which the most wealthy can resort such as bribery, impersonation, and abuse of accommodation systems for those with learning disorders.
When the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for these exams to be administered regularly, colleges and universities had to adapt. Three-quarters of colleges and universities temporarily dropped the requirement for the Class of 2021, with some, like the University of California system and Harvard University, dropping it for several years. Despite the loosened restrictions, however, many students—particularly the most wealthy—elected to take the tests anyway, viewing the “optional” policy as a requirement for them. In 2022, 53% of students from the wealthiest households submitted scores, compared to 39% of the poorest, per Common Application data. Given the covert nature of the admissions process, it is not known how these scores are considered by universities and if any advantages are provided to those who submit under test-optional policies.
Even before the pandemic, standardized testing seemed to be on-the-out, as evidenced by a 2019 article that in The Washington Post titled, “It looks like the beginning of the end with America’s obsession with student standardized tests.” This shift was largely perceived as beneficial to promoting larger socioeconomic equity in college admissions. Recently, however, evidence shows otherwise.
MIT reinstated its SAT requirement for Fall 2023 admissions in a move that seemed to counter new admission norms. Their Dean of Admissions, Stu Schmill, explained that not considering test scores has actually raised socioeconomic disparities in their admissions process.
“The SAT doesn’t create inequalities in these academic skills. It reveals them,” explained Kathryn Paige Harden, a clinical-psychology professor at UT Austin, in an Atlantic article published this spring. “Throwing the measurement away doesn’t remedy underlying injustices in children’s academic opportunities any more than throwing a thermometer away changes the weather.”
Student scores on admissions exams reflect disparities in education, family background, economic status, and more. Thus, their entire application is indicative of their socioeconomic status, not just their test scores. Rather, eliminating test scores can take away an ability to measure the effects of family income on admissions outcomes.
Colleges and universities are now faced with the decision of whether to reinstate tests. Provost C. Cybele Raver of Vanderbilt University described test-optional policies as a “huge, broad conversation” that lacks clarity and evidence as to how to promote the most “equity and opportunity” in college admissions.
These exams depend on a meritocracy to work in their perfect form, but their absence might be even worse for low-income students. The wealthy are clearly afforded advantages in the college admissions process, but whether standardized testing fuels or ameliorates that advantage remains up for debate.