Why standardised testing is necessary to select students

SAT and ACT exams have played a significant role in the admissions decisions at many selective colleges and universities in the United States. These standardised assessments were employed with an array of other indicators to assess an applicant’s readiness for the rigours of the institution’s curricula.

Their significance has begun to wane in recent years, with increasing numbers of institutions making them either optional or dropping them outright. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reports that, as of 26 May 2020, over 1,200 US selective four-year colleges and universities have implemented permanent test-optional or test-flexible policies for the autumn 2021 admissions cycle.

It is often observed that their use affects an institution’s diversity. Critics have identified family affluence as a strong influence on these exam scores. Examinees from affluent families consistently score higher on these standardised exams in relation to their less privileged counterparts. Those from underprivileged families more often score lower.

Also, affluent examinees tend to attend better-resourced schools. Besides, their parents can afford to enrol them in additional enrichment and test prep opportunities outside of their schools.

Without ready access to external enrichment and test prep courses, students from non-affluent families must rely solely on under-resourced schools to prepare them for sitting the exams and entry into undergraduate programmes.

Critics also contend that the solution to this disparity is straightforward. Institutions should stop considering these standardised exams as part of their admissions decision-making regimen.

It appears that an increasing number of institutions desirous of greater diversity within their student bodies have been swayed and have made the exams optional or dropped them entirely.

Accepting that intellectual talent is evenly distributed among schools, many critics posit that high school grades should be sufficient for ascertaining readiness. But I suggest that this position is fatally flawed. This recommendation contradicts their assessment that non-affluent students are products of under-resourced schools.

Under-resourced schools

I agree that low SAT or ACT scores cannot be automatically taken as a sign of a lack of intellectual ability. As grade inflation has revealed, high school grades cannot be regarded as proxies for intellect either.

Unfortunately, graduates of under-resourced high schools are too often taught by less experienced instructors and have less access to high-level STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and advanced placement courses. Lower levels of state and local spending on instructional materials also diminish the cumulative effect their high school experience has on their intellect.

I suggest that the under-resourced school experience minimises the breadth of knowledge their students can acquire compared to their affluent counterparts. The lack of comparable stimulation is more accurately a reflection of a failure to build on a student’s existing intellectual strengths.

High school grades, in the absence of a standardised measure, prevent an accurate readiness assessment. It assumes that all course grades across the spectrum of under- to well-resourced schools compare favourably.

While all examinees may present comparable ranges of intellectual strengths, those from under-resourced schools simply do not enjoy the educational benefits provided by better-resourced schools. The wide variations in the instructional resources in schools means using underlying grades is akin to employing an elastic measure stick.

The value of standardised testing

The value of a standardised instrument within the mix of readiness indicators is suggested by the University of California’s (UC) recent move to drop the SAT and ACT exams. The massive and select institution also revealed its intent to develop its own admissions exam. This possibility appears to align with UC’s Standardised Testing Task Force’s finding that found standardised tests to be the best predictor of a college student’s success.

UC sister system California State University and other institutions are said to be supporting the University of California, Berkeley in crafting an alternative admissions exam. Their cumulative support suggests that the pendulum may be swinging back. Despite the broad dissatisfaction with the SAT and ACT exams, some universities are revisiting the need for a standardised tool to complement their admission process.

A clean slate will provide an opportunity to address the concerns that prompted many institutions to abandon the nationwide tests. If alternatives are developed, one hopes their intent will be shaded to measure potential rather than just current achievement.

William Patrick Leonard is a senior fellow at the Rio Grande Foundation.