Despite aggressive campaigns from anti-testing activists to eliminate the SAT and ACT as factors in college admissions, a significant number of institutions still consider the standardized assessments to be an important metric in judging prospective students' academic potential, according to a report released this week.
Slightly fewer than half of colleges and universities that responded to survey questions from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) believe the two tests are "considerably important" in admissions.
More than 440 institutions, both public and private, answered admissions-related questions when the association gathered data in the fall of 2017 and 2018. But only about half of those, a little more than 200 universities, weighed in on which admissions factors they deemed the most salient.
The strength of first-year students' grades in all their high school courses — and grades they earned in college prep classes — were the most influential factors for administrators, the association found. Around three-fourths of institutions reported they think grades in high school and college-level classes are of considerable importance.
These results may come as a surprise to some students and their families who believe standardized tests override all other considerations in college admissions, Melissa Clinedinst, the association's director of research, told Education Dive in an interview.
This misconception has only been exacerbated by this year's Varsity Blues scandal, which saw high-profile and celebrity parents paying to fudge their children's results on standardized tests.
"For the vast majority of institutions, the process looks very different than what Varsity Blues portrayed," Clinedinst said. "It must seem mysterious, but it's more straightforward and really in line with what parents and students would want it to be. … The general public wants college admissions to be based on grades, not test scores."
Slow shift from scores
Admission officers' regard for standardized testing has dwindled over time, though not drastically, according to past NACAC research. About 59% of colleges and universities rated SAT/ACT scores as "considerably important" in its 2011 report, which relied on administrative responses from 2010. That fell to 54% of administrators who gave the same answer in 2017's report, using 2016 data.
Elite institutions such as the University of Chicago have gone test-optional in the last few years, giving new momentum to testing critics' efforts to cut the SAT and ACT from the screening process. These pundits argue that entrance exams limit low-income and other marginalized students from applying to a wide range of colleges. Affluent students, they contend, have better access to test prep, can more easily afford testing-related fees and may be better able to transport themselves to test sites — all of which can be barriers for impoverished students.
At least 47 colleges went test-optional from October 2018 to September 2019, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) and a chief critic of testing in admissions.
Test scores are wrongly linked to merit-based financial aid, Schaeffer said in an interview with Education Dive. Students stress themselves attempting to earn high marks on the exams because "a point or two on the ACT" could in some cases mean the difference between thousands of dollars in subsidies, he said.
"We strongly encourage schools to do their own research of how useful the test scores really are in their decision-making process," he said.
Civil rights groups this week threatened to sue one of the largest and most influential public research university systems in the U.S., the University of California, if it did not drop the SAT and ACT as admissions criteria. The system's Academic Senate was already mulling whether the two tests were an appropriate measure of potential academic performance and were due to deliver their recommendations in the 2019-20 school year. However, a looming lawsuit might accelerate a decision by the system.
Were U of California to reject entrance testing, it would likely reverberate across the country and drastically cut into the number of institutions that rely on those exams, said Jack Buckley, a fellow who studies public policy and education at the American Institutes for Research, in an interview with Education Dive.
Large institutions in particular depend on tests as a way to identify talented students in their substantial applicant pools, Buckley said. Despite this, he expects the U of California will abandon the SAT and ACT under public pressure.
Buckley pointed out that high school grades are sometimes similarly unreliable as a measure of academic success. A study last year from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute unearthed widespread grade inflation nationwide. The median GPA rose across all schools in the country from 2005 to 2016, but among wealthy school districts it increased by 0.27 points, compared to a 0.17 jump at less affluent schools.
Institutions have few reasons to keep the tests as an admissions requirement, Buckley said. Eliminating it often garners positive press and could lead to an increase in diverse applicants, as U of Chicago saw in the year following the shift to test-optional. The university also attracted many more low-income, first-generation and rural students.
"It's a low-cost policy," Buckley said. "There are no real downsides."