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Should Colleges Consider Standardized Tests in Admissions?


Many colleges have stopped requiring standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for admissions. Are you planning on going to college? If so, are you planning to take the SAT and ACT? Or do the schools you want to attend no longer require them?

What is your opinion on standardized tests when it comes to college admissions? Do you believe they are a useful measure of a student’s academic capabilities? Do you think they make college admissions more or less equitable and fair? Why?

In “The Misguided War on the SAT,” David Leonhardt writes that, while colleges have fled standardized tests on the theory that they hurt diversity, that’s not what the research shows:

After the Covid pandemic made it difficult for high school students to take the SAT and ACT, dozens of selective colleges dropped their requirement that applicants do so. Colleges described the move as temporary, but nearly all have since stuck to a test-optional policy. It reflects a backlash against standardized tests that began long before the pandemic, and many people have hailed the change as a victory for equity in higher education.

Now, though, a growing number of experts and university administrators wonder whether the switch has been a mistake. Research has increasingly shown that standardized test scores contain real information, helping to predict college grades, chances of graduation and post-college success. Test scores are more reliable than high school grades, partly because of grade inflation in recent years.

Without test scores, admissions officers sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between applicants who are likely to do well at elite colleges and those who are likely to struggle. Researchers who have studied the issue say that test scores can be particularly helpful in identifying lower-income students and underrepresented minorities who will thrive. These students do not score as high on average as students from affluent communities or white and Asian students. But a solid score for a student from a less privileged background is often a sign of enormous potential.

He writes further about the debate around standardized testing:

Given the data, why haven’t colleges reinstated their test requirements?

For one thing, standardized tests are easy to dislike. They create stress for millions of teenagers. The tests seem to reduce the talent and potential of a human being to a single number. The SAT’s original name, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, implied a rigor that even its current defenders would not claim. Covid, in short, created an opportunity for American society to cast off a tradition that few people enjoyed.

But another part of the explanation involves politics. Standardized tests have become especially unpopular among political progressives, and university campuses are dominated by progressives.

Many consider the tests to be unfair because there are score gaps by race and class. Average scores for modest-income, Black and Hispanic students are lower than those for white, Asian and upper-income students. The tests’ critics worry that reinstating test requirements will reduce diversity. The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision has heightened these concerns.

If selective colleges made admissions decisions based solely on test scores, racial and economic diversity would indeed plummet. Yet almost nobody in higher education favors using tests as the main factor for admissions. The question instead is whether the scores should be one of the criteria used to identify qualified students from every demographic group.

The SAT’s history offers some complex perspective. As the test’s critics sometimes point out, one designer of the original standardized tests in the early 20th century, Carl Brigham, also wrote a book promoting racist theories of intelligence (which he later disavowed). But a larger rationale for tests was connected to an expansion of opportunity. Administrators at Harvard, who pushed for the creation of the tests, saw them as a way to identify talented students from any background. The administrators believed that these students would go on to strengthen the country’s elite institutions, which were dominated by a narrow group of white Protestants, as Nicholas Lemann explained in “The Big Test,” his history of the SAT.

Today, perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the tests is that other parts of the admissions process have even larger racial and economic biases. Affluent students can participate in expensive activities, like music lessons and travel sports teams, that strengthen their applications. These same students often receive extensive editing on their essays from their well-educated parents. Many affluent students attend private schools where counselors polish each student’s application.

The tests are not entirely objective, of course. Well-off students can pay for test prep classes and can pay to take the tests multiple times. Yet the evidence suggests that these advantages cause a very small part of the gaps.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to the article? What information challenges or confirms your view of standardized tests? Which parts of the article do you find the most compelling or surprising? Which parts do you take issue with — or have additional questions about?

  • Do you think colleges should again require tests like the SAT and ACT in admissions decisions? If so, how much of a role should they play? If not, why not?

  • Mr. Leonhardt writes that, with the current test-optional policies, “many teenagers say they are confused. They are uncertain about whether to take the tests and what scores are high enough to submit.” If you’re planning on applying to college, how are these policies affecting your application preparation, if at all?

  • To what extent do you believe standardized tests can help colleges achieve fairness and equity in the admissions process? What other factors — whether in college admissions, K-12 education or society at large — could help make admissions fairer and more equitable?

  • Mr. Leonhardt writes that the debate over standardized testing really comes down to dozens of elite universities, such as Harvard, M.I.T. and U.C.L.A., and raises questions about the ultimate purpose of these schools. He argues that they have a goal of excellence and should be striving to “identify and educate the students most likely to excel,” who will then go on to to make critical contributions to society. Others say that “instead, these colleges should use their resources to educate a diverse mix of good students and, in the process, lift social mobility.” What do you think? How essential of a role do elite institutions play in our society? What purpose do you think they should serve?


Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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