The SAT and the Future of Equity in College Admissions

An illustration representing how standardized tests have long been an essential step to getting a college degree. While the SAT and ACT have historically been a key part of college admissions, the future of these tests remains unclear. Illustration by Miranda Phinney.

For students who applied to colleges this past fall, almost 80 percent of bachelor’s degree granting universities did not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, according to data by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. These schools adopted either test-optional (considering standardized test scores as a part of admissions when submitted, but not requiring them), or test-blind (not considering standardized test scores, even when available) admissions. Most of these schools stopped requiring standardized test scores during the 2020-2021 admissions cycle as a response to pandemic-induced test center closures. The future of standardized tests as a part of college admissions is still uncertain. Critics of standardized testing requirements voice concerns over testing disparities along racial and class lines, as well as the SAT’s eugenicist origins.

Some schools are choosing to keep or extend their test-optional/blind policies, including both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Notably, all of the University of California campuses will be continuing to use test-blind admissions for the foreseeable future. At the same time, a few schools are reverting back to standardized test score requirements, including MIT and Georgia Institute of Technology. The SAT itself is also changing, shifting to a shorter, digital test coming in 2024.

Increasing access and diversity in higher education is a goal that many support. During this time where colleges seem primed to experiment with their approach to both standardized testing and admissions as a whole, creative discussion surrounding the most effective way to update admissions practices is more important than ever.

Through years of research, it’s been established that test-optional admissions do succeed—though on their own they still leave something to be desired. Removing standardized testing requirements generally results in a larger and more diverse pool of applicants, who aren’t any less qualified on measures like grades and course rigor. A 2019 study found that test-optional policies at private institutions increased the enrollment of Black, Latine, and Native American students (and to a lesser extent, low income students). At the same time, those watching the admissions statistics at elite institutions will notice that these gains in diversity during test-optional policies seem small. In Harvard’s first year of test-optional admissions, their largest increase in an historically underrepresented demographic was seen among Black students, who made up 18 percent of the admitted class, as opposed to 14.8 percent the year prior. In the second year of test-optional admissions, the percentage dropped down to 15.5 percent. While Harvard is obviously not representative of the average American college, this pattern does beg the question: why don’t test-optional policies increase diversity as much as proponents want them to?

Part of this can be explained by allowing students to choose whether they submit test scores. Applicants who take the tests are left to decide for themselves whether their scores are high enough to benefit their application. Franklin senior Viridian Klei says that for each school she applied to, she “had to guess whether [her] test scores were good enough to be worth submitting.” When this decision is left to students, those who take the tests and do well are likely to submit them. These same students are disproportionately white and wealthy. Data from the Common Application from the most recent admissions cycle showed that while 53 percent of students in the wealthiest households submitted standardized test scores, a substantially lower 39 percent of students in the poorest households did. Even though colleges with test-optional policies espouse the idea that applicants won’t be penalized for an absence of standardized test scores, the fact of the matter remains that the same students who benefit from standardized testing will continue to be advantaged as long as these test scores are considered as a part of admissions decisions. Test-blind admission policies solve this problem, but they remain less popular than their test-optional counterparts.

Additionally, every other factor used in college admissions today advantages those with more opportunities (ie. the white and wealthy). Families who can afford to hire a private college admissions counselor get expert help editing applicants’ essays and activities lists. Students who don’t have to work jobs or do care work in the home to support their families are free to pursue time-intensive unpaid extracurriculars, and that’s not even touching on nepotism. Access to advanced programs (AP, IB, dual enrollment, etc) isn’t distributed equally either. Students in rural or low income areas might not have advanced classes offered at their local schools, and, depending on the school, disabled students who are a part of special education programs might also face barriers when enrolling in advanced classes. When college admissions prioritize those who are succeeding on traditional metrics, students who face more systemic barriers are inevitably excluded. Here, the myth of the American meritocracy shines at its brightest. White supremacy, classism, and ableism are baked into every structure of our society, and college admissions are no different. 

Even when schools move away from standardized tests, the factors that they rely on have their own flaws. One applicant coming off as a person of better character (whatever that means to admissions committees) than another is a nebulous thing incredibly vulnerable to personal bias.

There are steps colleges can take to increase equity in their admissions process. Test-blind admissions fully remove the problems that the SAT and ACT bring to the decision process. Rumination over whether correlations between SAT scores and race, class, and parental education level are due to inequities in education as a whole or flaws in the design of the test itself often neglects to consider that the nuanced reality is likely a combination of the two. Another way for 4-year colleges to promote diversity (both of race and socio-economic status) on campus is focusing more resources on community college transfer students. Community college offers students a low-cost way to pursue higher education, and for students who struggled in high school for one reason or another, it offers a chance to start over with a clean slate and a new transcript. Prioritizing recruitment and retention of community college transfers is something some schools are already doing via transfer admission guarantees with local community colleges. Abolishing legacy status in admissions is an obvious move, seeing as legacy preference explicitly privileges applicants with a family history at an (often elite) institution, only codifying the advantages that these applicants typically already have. I would be remiss to discuss access to higher education without addressing the factor looming in the minds of students and parents alike: cost. A college degree is more expensive than ever, and entry-level wages simply have not kept pace. Loans are not a solution either, as they end up locking young people into debt for the rest of their lives. Student loan forgiveness, an increased minimum wage, and lowering the cost of tuition at public universities, are all essential to increasing diversity in higher education, in addition to being moral and social necessities in and of themselves.

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