The Future of College Entrance Exams

Aug 04, 2020

In May 2020, the University of California (UC) system announced that it would eliminate the SAT and ACT – two of the most widely used college-entrance exams in the US – from its application requirements. Like most other colleges nationwide, the UC system decided to drop the testing requirement for fall 2020 to allow students whose exams were canceled due to COVID-19 to apply. However, in response to long-standing criticism of the two tests, the UC system plans to make the change permanent, starting 2025.

With over 300,000 students, the UC system is the largest university system in the US and home to the biggest pool of college entrance exam takers. Therefore, UC’s plan to eliminate the SAT and ACT have forced other colleges throughout the U.S. to evaluate whether the two tests are really necessary as part of the admissions process.

The main argument that critics of Standardized Testing use is that it puts poor and black/Latino students at a great disadvantage. According to data from College Board, White and Asian students, who have a higher average income, score the highest on the SAT, whereas black, Native America, and Latino students, with lower average incomes. score the lowest. Socioeconomic status contributes a great deal to this discrepancy in test scores. Students from richer backgrounds have access to private tutoring and test prep resources that help them get high scores. In contrast, students from worse socioeconomic backgrounds do not, and therefore, are at an automatic disadvantage. Students from households which earn less than $20,000 per year on average scored around 400 points lower on the 2014 SAT than students from households which made $200,000 or more.

Additionally, research also suggests that standardized tests are not reliable indicators of college success, as College Board claims they are. In many ways, knowing how to take a test is a skill in itself. Therefore, standardized test simply reflects students’ abilities to do well on an exam – and not to think critically or independently. Taking the SAT and ACT has gradually become less about using what you learn in school and applying to complicated problems, and more about finding shortcuts to answer the questions that the test throws at you.

It’s clear that more and more people and colleges are realizing that standardized college entrance exams are not the best metrics for student success and ability, and can fuel socioeconomic inequality between students. However, the question remains to be answered: Without the SAT/ACT, how will colleges choose?

Even with all the problems and criticism surrounding it, the SAT and the ACT provide a standardized metric that colleges use to evaluate students. Every school has different grading systems and standards; and academic rigor varies from school to school. To get an A in a competitive and large school, students will have to work much harder, compared to those in a smaller and less competitive school. Therefore, students’ grades may not always be an accurate reflection of their academic ability and hard work. This is where college admissions tests come in. They provide colleges with standard merit-based benchmarks and concrete data points to judge students’ academic abilities and allows students from diverse backgrounds to be fairly compared. Additionally, if schools just decided to stop considering standardized college admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT, and replaced them with their own admissions test, as seems to be the plan, this could lead to an even greater barrier for applicants by requiring them to put more effort per application and conductively; apply to fewer schools. A UC-commissioned task force recently discovered that tests provide another metric of merit, and actually help low-income and minority applicants who may be unable to get in on their grades alone. Students who may not be able to constantly get good grades at school because of economic or social challenges have an opportunity in the form of the SAT/ACT to show that they have what it takes to succeed. Additionally, for international students from countries such as India and China, the SAT and ACT provide them with a chance to showcase their intelligence and academic abilities as compared to American students, which might be clouded by their vastly different grading and school systems. So, as much as the SAT and the ACT as a barrier for some students, they also provide hope to others.

Therefore, we need to consider both sides of the coin when evaluating the future of college entrance exams. While it may seem easy to completely eliminate standardized college entrance exams because of their drawbacks, no school or educational body has found an effective replacement for them yet, and UC remains the only major college system to have actually taken the decision to completely remove the SAT and ACT.

What really needs to happen is that the SAT and ACT need to be reformed. The issues that people point out with standardized college admissions tests – cost, racial bias, poor exam design – need to be solved. Here are four changes that need to take place to make this happen and improve the accessibility and content of standardized college admissions tests:

  • Schools should provide subsidized test-prep programs: Unequal access to test preparation programs is a huge issue highlighted by critics of the SAT and ACT. Students belonging to rich families are able to pay for tutoring and coaching programs for the SAT and ACT which help them be more prepared for the tests. They are able to learn testing strategies, seek guidance from tutors, and take more practice tests, which helps them do better on the actual test. To solve this problem, schools should take the initiative to provide low-income students with test-prep opportunities by partnering with local organizations to sign students up for preparatory programs at a lower, or no cost. Additionally, they can also provide free before or after-school programs where students can learn testing strategies from experienced faculty members.

  • Students should be made aware of free online resources: Many school districts may not have access to the capital required to partner with test-prep organizations and provide subsidized preparation programs for their students. However, they can help by educating students about free online test-prep programs and resources from websites such as Khan Academy and Prep Scholar, which they may not be aware of. By hosting seminars teaching students how to access these resources, or posting flyers throughout school, they can empower students to learn for free and do better on the SAT and ACT

  • Schools should look for ways to make the SAT and ACT free for students: Currently, it costs $47.50 to take the SAT, $64.50 with the essay portion and $50.50 for the ACT, and $67 with the writing portion. For each test, there are extra costs for late registration that students have to incur. Since most students take either test multiple times to achieve the score they desire, these costs can really add up over time and become unaffordable for low-income students. 18 states across the US have already realized this and administer the SAT and ACT free to all juniors without any registration fees. However, most states don’t, which significantly reduces the chances that low-income students have to do well on either test. Therefore, schools should push for their state governments to enact legislation making the SAT and ACT free for all juniors. If that is not possible, school districts should themselves administer the SAT and ACT to their students for free, as some do in Arizona, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and Maryland.

  • The creators of college admissions tests need to change the structure of their exams: The companies which created that the SAT and the ACT say that they are intended to be “indicators of college success” because of the nature of their questions. If a student scores high on the SAT or the ACT, they will do well in college. College success depends a lot on a student’s ability to apply their skills to the real world and use logical reasoning to solve problems. However, both tests, in their current format, simply test students on their knowledge of high school concepts, such as Geometry or Reading Comprehension. In doing so, they are not measuring the cognitive ability of students, but their knowledge of selective subjects that may not be related to what they will study in college. Therefore, to be true to their purpose, the SAT and the ACT need to include questions which test students’ abilities to derive conclusions and use critical thinking to solve problems. For example, students can be given a data set and be asked to select the most relevant interpretation of the data from four different questions. Similarly, instead of asking students to correct grammatical mistakes in an article, the test should ask students how they would rephrase the article to pertain to a particular audience. That way, students will not have to spend hours memorizing tiresome concepts such as trigonometry that they probably won’t use in college, but will be able to think logically and understand how to solve problems, which they will use throughout their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and students to reevaluate the fairness and relevance of the SAT and ACT today. While there are some clear issues with the tests, both in terms of equitable access and content, they provide a useful benchmark for colleges to compare students and act as a window of opportunity for students who may struggle in school. If both schools and the test creators implement accessibility and content reforms in the SAT and the ACT, they will be able to ensure that the tests fulfil their purposes and help students from diverse backgrounds develop the skills they need to succeed in college.