RIP SAT and ACT

Are Standardized Tests Officially on Life Support?

Vinny Madera

Vinny Madera

Founder: Test Prep Wizards

Uh-oh, should I start looking for a new job? Does University of California (UC) removing SAT and ACT tests from student admissions ring the death knell for these standardized tests? Will other institutions follow suit and drop SAT and ACT tests from admission as well?

While many are crying tears of joy, maybe none more so than FairTest.org, I can’t help but think about the unintended consequences of the change and whether less standardized tests is a benefit for students—particularly the disadvantaged. Maybe working with a variety of students—from the super wealthy to those in low-income schools—has given me a different view on the matter, but in the age of big data, I can’t help but feel that making important decisions with less data is misguided.

Here’s the fun part: In the report that UC Standardized Test Task Force (STTF) conducted, the one that led the UC board to drop SAT and ACT testing, the STTF did not recommend dropping tests for exactly the same reason—making important decisions with less data is misguided! 

If you don’t feel like reading the rest of this post, let me summarize it for you

UC basically went against the recommendations of the task force it created to assess whether standardized tests were valuable for admission purposes.

I’m on the record saying I hate what SAT and ACT testing does to many students. Besides pulling time away from teenagers who are already overscheduled, testing can add stress and anxiety at a formative time in a student’s life. Additionally, SAT and ACT preparation does favor the affluent. Even though we now have high-quality free resources for test preparation, I’ll put my money (and many parents already do) on our company to improve test scores quicker and more effectively than the free resources.

I’m not in the business of forecasting, but here’s my prediction:

 

Removing SAT and ACT scores will actually benefit the affluent more than it will help the disadvantaged.

When you pull out SAT and ACT testing from an application, in no particular order, here’s what is left

  1. Course Rigor
  2. High School Grade Point Average
  3. Letters of Recommendation
  4. Application Essays
  5. Resumes
  6. Interviews
  7. Extracurricular Activities/Work Experiences/Leadership Opportunities

Do a quick thought experiment—which of those do not favor the wealthy? I’m not sure when, but at some point, SAT and ACT tests must have become the way we measure inequality in society. Definitely missed that memo.

I don’t want to turn this into a socioeconomic diatribe, but the inequalities in our education system start way before SAT and ACT testing is in the picture and are exacerbated the further up the K-12 ladder you go. However, by removing test scores, there is only one true quantitative measure on the list above—GPA.

Here’s an unpopular opinion that is mine and mine alone

People don’t like standardized test scores because they make us deal with an uncomfortable fact: We’re not as prepared as we think we are.

Talking to you person who says, “My child just doesn’t test well!” even though your child doesn’t have any sort of diagnosed test-anxiety. Now, I don’t think this is the fault of a parent or student; after all, our high GPA tells us we are prepared. It’s easy to think, “Who knows me better, the teacher whom I see every day giving me grades or the evil testing entity that assigned me that cold, cold number from that Saturday morning I groggily took a test. You know the morning, the one when I had that headache and my foot kept itching.”

Before I tell you, what do you think the average high school GPA is on a scale of 4.0? Although the study is a little old, in 2009 the National Center for Educational Services published The Nation’s Report Card. In it, the average GPA was a 3.0. A 3.0! This means that the “average” score is a B, or above average work. So the average is above average; that’s confusing. In fact, there’s good reason to think that the average GPA has actually crept up higher than a 3.0 in the past 11 years.

If you want to argue that the core academic GPA is really what matters, that’s cool. In the 19 years in the study, core academic GPA increased by 13%. So, as you can see, GPA has been on the rise. If we think that today’s student is just working at a higher level than students of yesteryear, great. 

 

Sadly, today’s student is most likely not getting higher grades as a result of higher work standards. As more pressure is being placed on teachers to make sure students are doing “well,” we’re seeing less and less teachers hand out poor grades because it may be seen as reflecting poorly on the teacher, the administration, and the district.

In a study published in 2018, Fordham University showed that, as might be expected, GPA was higher at more affluent schools AND GPA inflation was happening more rapidly at more those schools.

 

If you want some homework, find a friend who teaches at an affluent or private high school and a friend who teaches at a higher poverty high school and ask him or her about parental interaction. I can almost guarantee that any friends working at the more affluent school will tell you many more horror stories about parents who bombard them and pressure them to give their children higher grades, change a grade, give a student a retest, etc.

Additionally, the wealthy have more resources to provide supplemental services for their children. I’ve had clients who paid me to work with their child every day on that student’s homework—that comes out to more than the average monthly mortgage payment for United States homeowners. And—here’s the kicker—after I met with the student, that student had another tutor to help with a different subject! But, let’s keep blaming the SAT and ACT for these inequalities.

Let’s not even talk about the high-cost consultants who work with students from middle school on to make sure that the student’s next 5 years are planned out perfectly in terms of courses to take, or the ability to get move ahead by taking an accredited course over the summer, or working with an essay/interview/resume specialist, etc.

In fact, UC even acknowledges this in an earlier report:

“It is well known that admissions tests of all types — along with high school grades and other indicators of academic achievement — are strongly correlated with family income. This does not reflect bias in the tests, but rather the inescapable fact that schools in California — like those throughout the country — vary widely in available resources and students from poor families are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources. The members of BOARS are well aware that they cannot eliminate this level of “disparate impact” admissions tests have on students from socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances.”

Worse yet for the move to drop testing, here are some gems from the current report (emphasis is mine):

·       Under the current eligibility system, tests do identify otherwise ineligible applicants who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. Admission tests find talented students who do not stand out in terms of high school grades alone.

·       UC does not appear to use standardized test scores in a way that amplifies racial disparities or that prevents low-scoring students from disadvantaged groups from being admitted to UC.

However, as reported by the New York Times, numerous speakers decried the SAT and ACT as “racist” tests. However, from the STTF report:

·       HSGPA (high school GPA) also shows strong racial disparities.

So, should schools also drop GPA as a metric? In fact, the report outlines that disparities in GPA is a bigger contributor to racial differences than test scores are. Perhaps the most damning statement of all from the STTF report:

The consequence is that HSGPA (high school GPA) is not a uniform measure of academic performance. This problem is a major concern because if a university used HSGPA alone to measure academic performance many students could be admitted or excluded based on variations in the meaning of grades across high schools.

It’s pretty clear that using GPA as the only quantitative metric is not the answer the same way that just using test scores would be. Currently, the best way for UC, according to its own report, is to use test scores and GPA. 

Now, here’s the fun part of the vote to phase out SAT and ACT scores, UC also stated that it would try to implement its own standardized test for 2024 applicants. So, implicitly, the problem isn’t standardized tests, it’s the SAT and ACT

Let’s extrapolate this idea a little bit. UC creates its own standardized test that its 215,000 applicants take. Suppose 25% of public institutions do the same. Now, for a student applying to 5 of these institutions, there will be 5 standardized tests that that student needs to take. Even more stressful, no? Plus, who is going to be able to afford to help their kids prepare for those five different standardized tests? Ah, the wealthy!

The hubris involved to think that an institution can create a more gender neutral, socioeconomic balanced, racially nonbiased test in a couple years when companies whose mission it is to do the same cannot. Plus, there is a fixed time limit on when this magical new unicorn of a test will be used by UC; if it is not in place by 2024, then UC will drop testing. Experts have pegged the cost for developing the new test at $100 million. Wow. Where is that money coming from UC? Not a rich donor, I bet. Probably tuition increases. Either that or cutting some other programs.  

I’ve read articles from admissions experts saying “Hooray! I never used SATs or ACTs anyways!” But those admissions experts are invariably from small institutions or niche programs within a larger institution. Tell me the way for UC to process its 215,000 plus annual applicants holistically.

Even if GPA cuts weeds out half, 107,500 essays, resumes, transcripts, interviews, etc. is a lot to look at. My guess is that you need more admission experts, training, and protocols to handle that. Sounds like a lot more money to implement. Rich uncle now? Nah, probably tuition increases again.

Wait! What if we use course rigor to help? Ah, but how does a college differentiate between a student taking Honors Precalculus or Honors Mathematical Modeling? Which is more rigorous? How about Honors American Literature vs. Honors Poetry? Chemistry or Forensics? Is an honors course an honors course an honors course or are some weighted higher than others?

What if a school has moved to remove midterms or final exams from its classes. Does UC weigh an honors Biology without exams the same as it does a course that has an end of course test? 

It would be silly for me to assume that I know more about college admissions than the people who actually do it, but I can point out the places that in UC’s argument that are hypocritical or, in my opinion, misguided. We work hard here at Test Prep Wizards to help students of all backgrounds and promote equity. However, it looks like the disadvantaged may have an even more difficult time in the upcoming years. 

Good luck with your test prep! Did we miss something? Vehemently disagree with a point we made? General questions?

Sound off in the comments below or email us at wisdom@testprepwizards.com

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