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Why Is the SAT Falling Out of Favor?

Posted May 23, 2020 1:11 p.m. EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The University of California’s decision this past week to stop requiring the SAT and ACT tests for admissions renewed a debate that could be a prompt on a college application: Are the tests that were first deployed to diversify the Ivy League beyond rich prep schoolers a worthwhile yardstick, or are they, as one U.S. regent put it, “a proxy for privilege”?

The California system has become the biggest and best-known American institution of higher education to step away from the use of the two major standardized tests, citing charges that they disadvantage students who are poor, black, and Hispanic.

In the last decade or so, more than 1,230 colleges and universities have made the SAT and ACT optional for admission, according to FairTest, a group that has pushed to end testing requirements.

But with a few well-known exceptions, such as the University of Chicago, most have been small institutions. The question now is whether the 300,000-student California system’s decision will spell the beginning of the end for college admissions testing.

“The SAT has been remarkably resilient,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “But this will quite possibly lead other public universities to say, ‘Well if the UC can do without it, why do we still need it?’”

Why are many still using the tests?

Admissions officers typically look at several data points, not just test scores.

But those who argue for keeping the tests say colleges need some sort of broad yardstick to compare students across disparate school districts and states. And at large colleges, getting rid of the tests would mean revising the whole mechanism for admissions — retraining admissions officers, redoing applications and rethinking an entire methodology.

The tests provide important information beyond assessing achievement. Some studies have shown that SAT and ACT scores, combined with a student’s grade-point average and other factors, can help predict a student’s success in college, especially in the crucial first year.

At the University of California, a faculty task force found that standardized tests were a better predictor of college success than high school grades were. They also found that including the SAT and ACT in the formula for admissions helped some black, Hispanic and low-income students by offering an additional metric for those who might have been rejected based on grades.

So why the move away from the tests?

Critics of the tests cite decades of data indicating that they are inherently biased in favor of affluent, white and Asian American students. During the debate among the California regents this week, numerous speakers used the word “racist” to describe the exams.

Critics also say the tests are too easily gamed by students who can pay thousands of dollars for private coaching and test prep. Carol Christ, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, has long called for a move away from standardized testing for admissions. She cited the recent college admissions bribery scandal as a case in point, calling the episode “grotesque.”

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit pending against the University of California say use of the tests build on existing disparities. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, 55% of Asian American test takers and 45% of white test takers scored a 1200 or higher on the SAT in 2019. For Hispanic and black students, those numbers were 12% and 9%.

Proponents of a change say it is fairer to judge students by other measures, such as teacher recommendations. Some studies have suggested that high school grades better measure a student’s likelihood of graduation and cumulative performance in college.

And some school officials say the tests are superfluous. California’s community college chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is also a University of California regent, reminded the board this week that the university already enrolls tens of thousands of transfer students who are not required to take any standardized admission tests.

What will happen next?

John A. Pérez, chairman of the system’s board of regents, said that college officials in other states had told him privately that they would likely follow suit if California moved to eliminate the test from its admissions requirements.

“I have talked to leaders at other public universities over the last couple of months,” Pérez said, “and would not be surprised if others looked at this question as well.”

He declined to share specifics. But colleges and universities around the country are already getting a taste of what life without standardized admissions tests might look like. With testing dates disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, many institutions, including Harvard and Cornell, made the SAT and ACT optional for this year’s applicants.

Both the College Board and ACT Inc. are suffering as a result. The SAT represents a substantial piece of the College Board’s more than $1 billion a year in revenue.

One critic of the industry estimated that the College Board had lost $45 million in revenue to pandemic cancellations, though the group has declined to discuss its revenues. The testing organizations have announced that they will introduce an online testing option in the fall.

The end of the SAT and ACT in California’s most prestigious public universities will not necessarily mean the end of admissions testing there. University officials said they were studying the feasibility of developing their own replacement test — with less baggage.

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