Standardised testing bounceback alarms critics

Yale and Dartmouth moves to mandate SAT and ACT submissions have long-time opposition alliance getting testy about possible reversals across academia

March 1, 2024
Runners leave the starting line in the New York Health & Racquet Club Backwards Mile race in New York to illustrate Standardised testing bounceback alarms critics
Source: Ed Bailey/Alamy

A four-decade campaign to fight standardised testing in US university admissions is showing signs of alarm, as the mass-scale winnowing method long derided as harmful to minority students is increasingly being held up as potentially better than the usual alternatives.

Allowing applicants to choose whether to submit standardised test scores is still the overwhelming consensus position of US higher education, especially since the Covid outbreak. More than 2,000 US colleges and universities – including more than 80 per cent of four-year institutions – do not require SAT or ACT scores from their applicants, about double the pre-pandemic level.

Yet some big-name reversalsDartmouth College and Yale University recently announced that they would resume requiring standardised admissions test scores, following the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several others in 2022 – have left opponents of the tests openly admitting frustration about the direction their movement might now be headed in.

The three elite institutions said they had come to realise that standardised test scores were the single best predictor of their students’ academic performance, and that considering them in admissions processes helps disadvantaged students who lack other methods of proving their competence.

In response, the nation’s leading anti-testing alliance, the National Centre for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, has begun sliding into a more caustic tone in its arguments about the issue, declaring that it is getting “tired of having to rehash truths” that it still sees on its side of the debate.

Questioned about the matter, FairTest leadership complained of a lack of media attention to major US public universities – including the University of Michigan and the University of California systems – that educate far more students than their smaller private counterparts and remain committed to their test-optional policies.

“There is a whole world of colleges out there that are making different decisions based on real data, and that information deserves equal, if not more, time to Ivy League institutions,” fumed Harry Feder, the executive director of FairTest, which was founded in 1985 by a coalition of education, civil rights, student and feminist groups.

Beyond the FairTest coalition, other experts in college admissions appear to be backing away from the past consensus that standardised exams harm low-income and minority students because of biases in their questions and the ability of wealthier students to get professional preparation and afford retakes.

Such problems may still exist, said one expert, Steven Brint, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, Riverside. But it is becoming clear, he said, that the chief alternative assessment tools have their own “serious validity issues”.

Those alternatives have included the use of high school grades, which are now “so inflated that they have become a less useful indicator of ability and motivation”; letters of recommendation, which may disproportionately advantage applicants with access to more effective advocates; tallies of extracurricular activities, which wealthier students have more freedom to pursue; and in-person interviews, which suffer from a range of biases, Professor Brint said.

In that context, he said, standardised test scores can be a better predictor of success in college than high school grades, if institutions use them with some sophistication, such as making score comparisons between applicants of similar socio-economic and racial-ethnic backgrounds.

Less clear, however, is how long it might take many US institutions to reconsider the years of warnings they have heard about the inherent social inequalities arising from standardised tests, Professor Brint said. “Given how deeply this view is held,” he said, “I am not confident that the new statistical evidence will be enough to persuade them otherwise.”

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