MORABITO: Ditching SAT for 'equity' will have opposite effect

Though wealthy students typically perform better on the SAT and ACT testing, the tests are standardized in a way that GPAs and essays are not.

Studies have shown that going test-optional does not make a college more diverse.

University of California provost Michael Brown announced to the Board of Regents last week that the UC system will no longer require the SAT or ACT as part of the admissions process. “UC will continue to practice test-free admissions now and into the future,” he said, marking a massive college system’s departure from what was once a rite of passage for college-bound high school students.

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, at least 1,810 four-year colleges and universities have abandoned their SAT and ACT requirements for the current application cycle. Some of those colleges have removed the requirement only for students who meet certain GPA or class rank requirements. Still, a student who wants to go to college but refuses to sit for either test will still have their choice of places to apply.

Many of the most prominent universities who have gone test-optional have done so “temporarily” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on students’ ability to access testing facilities. Big-name colleges, including Princeton University, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University, and Vanderbilt University all note that their move to test-optional admissions was sparked by the pandemic. It is unclear how long these policies will stick around, but the University of California’s announcement is the strongest signal yet that the SAT’s and ACT’s intermission could become a permanent hiatus.

[RELATED: UVA, fourth best public college in US, lowers academic standards for two more years]

Though wealthy students have an advantage on these admissions tests, the tests are one of the most objective measures of a student’s academic ability. Essays and letters of recommendation can only be judged subjectively, and two equally capable students could have very different GPAs based on the rigor of where they went to school.

Students who live in wealthy areas are more likely to have inflated grades, and therefore an inflated GPA.  A 2018 study published by the Thomas Fordham Institute found that “grade inflation worsened in schools attended by affluent students more than in those attended by lower-income pupils” between 2005 and 2016. Though grade inflation affected both types of schools, it was stronger at schools with wealthier student bodies. Researchers wrote, “Teachers may be more apt to inflate the grades of higher-performing, higher-income students in an effort to appease their pushy parents.” On the SAT or ACT, every student is judged according to the same scoring system, and no pushy parent can change that – barring, of course, a scandal like Varsity Blues.

In the 2018 book Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions, Michael Hurwitz of The College Board and Jason Lee of the University of Georgia write, “The rate of [high school GPA] increase among private high schools...was about three times as large as that observed in public high schools.” When SAT and ACT scores are absent from an application package, every other factor carries more weight, including GPA.

Another such factor is the college admissions essay. Essays are undeniably important; admissions officers should hear directly from the students seeking admission. But here, too, wealth factors in. In fact, a Stanford University study found that the content of a student’s admissions essay is even more positively correlated to their reported household income than their SAT score.

Colleges also consider extracurriculars, where once again, wealthy students have an advantage. Students from upper-middle-class families are more likely to participate in extracurriculars than their working-class classmates, and the gap between the groups has grown since the 1970s, according to a 2014 study.

Though it is true that wealthy students generally score higher on the SAT than their less well-off peers, tests like these are the only opportunity most students have to be scored against their peers on an apples-to-apples assessment.

It is undeniably true that with wealth comes greater access to tutoring and test prep. However, test prep programs are not an automatic ticket to higher scores. Studies have shown that test preparation programs offer only a marginal benefit to most students (students of East Asian descent, however, benefit the most). 

[RELATED: College Board scraps key parts of SAT to ‘reduce demands’ on students. Expert questions that logic.]

Much has been made of whether equity trumps merit, or if being part of an underrepresented group should give applicants a boost in the admissions process. No matter a person’s belief on the issue, the fact remains that going test-optional has not made colleges more diverse. A paper published in 2019 in Economics Letters notes that “SAT optional policies have no effect on racial and socioeconomic diversity,” nor do they “influence the gender ratio” or “effect the quality of the student population.” Any college leader who wants to make their school more diverse or academically stronger should know that ditching an SAT requirement moves them no closer to either goal.

The SAT and ACT are not perfectly objective measures of ability, but they are the closest thing admissions officers have to such a measuring stick.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito