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The University of California system is currently mulling whether to drop its requirement that applicants for admission submit SAT or ACT scores. If the system decides to nix the requirement, it will follow other prominent schools such as the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, which have gone test-optional in recent years. But leaders among University of California faculty are urging the administration to keep the requirement, signaling that the wisdom of test-optional admissions policies is still up for debate.
The Case Against Standardized Test Requirements
At the national level, researchers have found evidence that standardized test scores such as the SAT and ACT are worse predictors of a student’s success in college than other measures, such as high school GPA. At less-selective four-year public colleges, a student with a high GPA and a middling SAT score has a 62% chance of graduating within six years, while a student with the opposite credentials (high SAT score but mediocre grades) has only a 51% chance of graduation.
Though grading standards can vary enormously from school to school, high school GPA generally captures the sorts of behaviors that students need to be successful in college, such as showing up to class and turning in assignments. By contrast, standardized tests might measure how well students can cram before a high-stakes exam, but say little about long-term study habits and work ethic.
SAT scores are also not a precise indicator of student aptitude. The average student who retakes the SAT receives a score boost of more than 100 points, enough to meaningfully alter his college admissions prospects. (Most colleges only consider an applicant’s best scores.) If the same student can receive two very different scores on the same test, then the test might not make a reliable guide to how that student will perform in college.
The SAT and ACT also made an appearance in last year’s college admissions scandal. In October, a proctor pled guilty to fixing students’ scores in exchange for bribes. While such explicit cheating is rare, the scandal furthered the perception that standardized tests are rigged in favor of rich students who can use their resources to secure better scores on the exams. Evidence suggests the effectiveness of those infamous SAT coaching and exam-prep courses is overblown. But the appearance of unfairness alone might be a reason for colleges to consider dropping their test requirements.
The Case For Keeping Standardized Tests
Proponents turn this argument on its head. The SAT and ACT are a relatively low-cost way for disadvantaged students to demonstrate their preparedness for college, at least when compared to joining the crew team or taking bassoon lessons.
The University of California’s faculty review committee echoes this argument, arguing that the tests help system schools identify talented students from low-income or minority backgrounds. The committee’s report also contradicts existing research, claiming that SAT scores are a better predictor of student success than high school GPA.
“For any given high school GPA, a student admitted with a low SAT score is between two and five times more likely to drop out after one year, and up to three times less likely to complete their degree compared to a student with a high score,” the report argues.
Dropping a standardized test requirement necessarily means that admissions committees must rely more heavily on high school grades. But if grades become the metric by which applicants are judged, high schools will have an incentive to hand out A’s like Halloween candy. Grade inflation of this sort could destroy high school GPA’s usefulness as an indicator of student aptitude.
Even if admissions committees believe high school grades are the best measure, SAT scores can still be useful as a check against grade inflation. If a student’s GPA differs wildly from his SAT score, perhaps that should raise eyebrows. But admissions officers might not get the chance to compare the two metrics if they jettison their standardized test requirements.
There are certainly valid concerns about the worth of SAT and ACT scores in the college admissions process. For now, they’re still useful enough to justify maintaining standardized test score requirements. But they’re far from perfect, and colleges should actively work to seek and develop alternatives.