It’s been a tough year for the SAT. Colleges are dropping the exam left and right on the grounds that a test-optional regime would increase student diversity. The most recent College Board data, released Thursday, shows that race and income gaps in test performance are stubbornly persistent, and that scores are falling overall. Inside Higher Education reports:
SAT scores dropped significantly for the class of college-bound seniors this year. All three sections saw declines — and the numbers were down for male and female students alike.
At the same time, SAT scores showed continued patterns in which white and Asian students, on average, receive higher scores than do black and Latino students. And, as has been the case for years, students from wealthier families score better than do those from disadvantaged families. […]
The release of SAT scores comes at a significant time for the College Board… According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a critic of the SAT, 27 colleges and universities have dropped ACT/SAT requirements in the last year — more than have dropped in any other 12-month period…
Much of the criticism from colleges has been about fears that the SAT scores seem to reflect family income, and that, on average, black and Latino students receive significantly lower scores than white and Asian students do.
Anti-testing advocates are already pouncing on the disappointing results to argue for “test-optional” admissions policies, like the one George Washington University adopted in July. When GW—the largest and most influential school to go test-optional so far—dropped the SAT requirement, it cited a desire to “broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households.” On the surface, the new data showing unequal testing outcomes supports GW’s reasoning. Expect more colleges to drop the test in the coming year, explaining their decision using GW-style rhetoric about egalitarianism and diversity. But responding to disappointing data by simply dropping the test is a lazy and probably harmful approach, for two reasons—one well-documented, and the other often overlooked.
First, dropping the SAT while handwaving about “diversity” is often simply a politically convenient way for colleges to serve their own narrow interests, without doing anything to actually admit more low-income or minority students. Stephen Burd has reported on two ways test-optional policies can boost a college’s selectivity profile: (1) by increasing the number of applications (and, incidentally, the number of hefty application fees) it receives each year, and (2) by increasing a the average SAT score for admitted students, because applicants with higher scores are more likely to send them in. It’s ironic, but not surprising, that colleges are still self-conscious about their students’ average scores on a test they claim is useless and discriminatory. It’s also not particularly surprising that, as Burd notes, a 2014 University of Georgia study “did not find any evidence that test-optional colleges had made ‘any progress in narrowing these diversity-related gaps after they adopted test-optional policies.'”
Moreover, even if colleges were sincere about dropping the test purely to increase the number of poor and minority students they admitted, it’s not exactly clear how going test optional would help them do so. High-income students who can afford expensive test prep courses naturally have an advantage on standardized tests. But these students can also afford tutors for their academic coursework, college coaches to help them map out their extra-curricular activities, and professional editors to help them polish their admissions essays. Anti-testing crusaders often repeat the well-known fact that poor students, and black and hispanic students, get lower test scores. Well, low-income students and students of color get lower high school grade-point averages as well, and no colleges have proposed becoming high school-optional.
Anybody who has gone through the college application process knows that the entire system, from kindergarten to AP classes, favors rich kids who know the system. Eliminating a single admissions criterion will not change this. If anything, making the admissions process based more on subjective factors like essays, extra-curricular activities, and applicant “personality” will tilt the process even more in favor of students who know the ins and outs of what admissions officers want to hear—students that are disproportionately rich and white.
There are, in fact, many avenues that colleges could explore to help level the admissions playing field, other than simply dropping more and more potentially informative admissions criteria. For example, they could make tuition more affordable, provide more grants for poor students, practice affirmative action, recruit aggressively in low-income areas, and lobby the government to promote proven initiatives, like school choice and charter schools, that help students trapped in failing education systems. But while those steps would actually require some sacrifice from colleges, the incentives are currently aligned so that dropping the SAT will earn schools fawning media coverage, expand their applicant pools, and boost their rankings.
Hopefully, the new College Board data will alert higher education professionals of the need to take real steps to ease educational inequality in the United States, rather than leading more colleges to simply drop the test, pat themselves on the back, and sweep real inequalities under the rug.