Making the case for college admissions tests

As the CEO of a nonprofit that provides SAT and ACT preparation to students from low-income backgrounds, I am often asked one or both of the following questions: Are college entrance exams fair, or do they only work for the rich, the white and the privileged? Should these tests even exist?
It is absolutely true that SAT and ACT score results reveal shocking stratification by income and race. Unfortunately, however, such disparities are not unique to the SAT and ACT. Rather, the tests’ quantitative nature makes them one of the easiest places to spot the deep inequities that are present in every single aspect of our educational system and that affect all students’ college-going trajectories.
Income and race-related inequities are also reflected in many other educational outcomes, including GPA, access to AP classes and the likelihood of being given grade appropriate assignments.
The “holistic” components of college admissions also favor students with the time and resources to participate in extracurricular activities, gain leadership experience, complete internships and employ a college essay consultant to help them package these experiences in a way that is appealing to college admissions officers.
Yet most conversations about equity in the college admissions process steer clear of how to solve for grade inflation or access to extracurricular activities. No one insists that colleges refrain from considering students’ music lessons, volunteer experience, or AP courses. What educational barriers stay in place when we divert all our criticism to the test and why are we OK with that?
Adopting test-optional admissions policies sounds like a good way to eradicate bias in college admissions, but we should be wary of “quick fix” approaches and the illusion of solving a problem that has much broader roots in the entire American education system.
What if we asked a different question? Instead of getting rid of the test, what if every student were prepared to take and perform well on the test?
The quantitative nature of the SAT and ACT offers a unique opportunity to increase equity in college admissions, if we can level the playing field by providing access to test preparation for every high school student. The SAT and ACT aren’t perfect measures of academic potential, but they offer a more consistent measure than GPA, extracurricular activities or access to AP classes, which vary widely across schools and districts.
In the absence of AP coursework at a “competitive” high school, a high test score can help students signal their potential to college admissions officers who don’t recruit at their school. Abolishing the test takes away one more factor that can help students from underrepresented backgrounds stand out in their college admissions journey.
In my work, I’ve often encountered students who struggled to maintain a high GPA over their four years of high school because of difficult social or economic circumstances. Securing a good score on the SAT or ACT can be life-changing for these students when schools like those in the CSU system use a combination of GPA and college entrance exams to determine eligibility.
Finally, preparing for high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT or ACT teaches students valuable skills they can use to persist in college once they are admitted, such as studying for a Biology 101 exam or tackling the MCAT. Preparing for a big test can also help students build soft skills like goal setting and growth mindset.
While I support healthy debate about how colleges use SAT and ACT scores in their admissions process, we need to dig deeper if we want to make college admissions more fair. Getting rid of a test that uncomfortably reflects our country’s educational inequities is not the answer. But preparing all students to perform well on that test is a step in the right direction.
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Yoon S. Choi is the CEO of CollegeSpring, a nonprofit organization that works to provide SAT and ACT test preparation to low-income students. 

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