by Kenny Xu ’19
As an alumnus and informed observer of Davidson College, I am concerned with the administration’s decision to make SAT and ACT scores optional from its admissions process for the next three years, in light of “the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“A test-optional policy at this time speaks to Davidson’s commitment to access,” Vice President and Dean of Admission Chistopher Gruber wrote in an email he sent out to the Davidson community, adding that “while tests provide some useful information, other aspects of an applicant’s academic journey better reflect how they will perform and thrive here.” Other universities like Tufts and the University of Oregon have also implemented similar strategies.
I believe this kind of policy is a drastic mistake.
Standardized exams are not perfect, but they are essential towards providing accountable measurements of intellectual ability and less prone to abuse than the other common metrics used for admissions: grades, extracurriculars, essays, and notorious “personality” scores.
The SAT and ACT are, historically, good links to a student’s mental and intellectual fitness to perform in college. Although the research is mixed on whether high school grades or test scores are better at predicting freshman-year GPA overall, both play a role. While high school GPA does a good job of measuring traits like “Conscientiousness,” the SAT captures other personality traits like Openness, according to a meta-analysis of personality traits and common measurements of aptitude. Just recently in 2020, in a widely anticipated study by critics and supporters of standardized testing alike, the University of California Standardized Test Task Force reaffirmed the necessity of standardized test scores in UC admissions, stating, “standardized test scores aid in predicting important aspects of student success, including undergraduate grade point average (UGPA), retention, and completion… we do not recommend making the SAT and ACT optional for applicants for admission to UC at this time.”
It’s also worth considering that the SAT and ACT are hardly the bastions of privilege and inequality as which they are frequently characterized. For example, students in the “>$200,000 a year” income bracket score a median of 100 points more on the mathematics section than students in the $20,000-$40,000 income bracket. With a standard deviation of about 100 points, according to the dataset and an assumed normal distribution, we can figure that for every three rich kids that take the mathematics section of the SAT, one kid in census-defined poverty is likely to do better than them.
That doesn’t seem terribly inequitable. In contrast, Davidson’s Class of 2013 had only 16 percent of students coming from the bottom 60 percent of the population, according to the New York Times. If Davidson were to admit strictly on the basis of SAT scores, they would actually have significantly more poor and middle-class students than they currently do, not less.
Is it true that you can test-prep your way to higher SAT and ACT scores? Sure. But the effect of commercial test preparation, so to speak, is rather small — about 13-18 points on the SAT mathematics section and 6-12 points on the verbal. That’s a lot of work for fairly little outward benefit.
Tutoring and other preparatory activities are hardly limited to testing. You can also pay tutors to help with your grades and counselors to perfect your college essays so that even the most seasoned college admissions officers are convinced you’re the bees’ knees. I argue there is much more reason to believe that metrics like grades and extracurriculars are more prone to fixing and corruption than the SAT or ACT.
In places like New York City, for example, grade fraud runs rampant, and the number of students in NYC who pass math classes but fail basic math performance tests is unconscionably high. Over 140 high schools in NYC have grades with over 90 percent math exam failure rates — but grade inflation and unwritten “no-fail” policies have allowed them to pass their students anyways. In fact, 80-94 percent of students in NYC public middle schools passed their math classes, but 2-15 percent passed their math exams. There is little doubt that as students in NYC are being passed from grade to grade, their acquisition of true math skills that would help them succeed in working life is criminally perfunctory. And that lack of preparation will show up in college life.
On the other side of town, many wealthy parents exploit the predominance of extracurriculars in college admissions to give their kids an unmerited advantage in the admissions process. In one extreme example, famous Hollywood actors were able to get their children into elite schools by way of bribing their swim team coaches. Even without explicit bribery, wealth is far more likely to buy dance lessons or lacrosse uniforms than it is to buy actual cognitive ability as measured by a test. To gain the latter, you have to work hard and prepare — or at least show enough discipline to grind out study hours on practice exams.
Essays are actually in my opinion better than a lot of people give them credit; they reward students who can tell a good story about themselves and force them to think hard about why they really want to go to a particular school. But it’s silly to think that the rich don’t also hire counselors to fine-tune essays for maximum sycophancy — because of course they do.
And then, of course, there are the notorious “personality ratings.” The most subjective and corruptible measurement of them all, colleges weaponize the ratings to lower admissions rates for Asian students and make room for legacy applicants and children of faculty.
While removing the weight of standardized tests in admissions sounds nice, realistically it only results in taking down the last pillar of objective, merit-based competition in which poor, hardworking students can compete with and even win when standing next to rich, well-connected, and mediocre students. We certainly don’t want the latter to be admitted in front of the former.
A global pandemic is no time to de-emphasize one of the more accountable measurements of individual merit when America’s need for technical and scientific excellence is most pronounced. To my beloved alma mater, I urge Dean Gruber to consider how minimizing the importance of the SAT and ACT is ironically only going to increase the inequalities in our society and make it all the more difficult to identify talented and competent students to eventually lead during the next global crisis.
Kenny Xu ’19 is a recent alumnus from Princeton, NJ and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.